How to train like a sprinter: essential tips to improve your top-end speed

Every rider can benefit from sprint sessions to increase power and ride faster

(Image credit: Daniel Gould)

An effective sprint requires both power and high leg speed. Sprinters, particularly track sprinters, do more off-the-bike weight lifting and plyometrics than any other type of cyclist, but they also do high cadence leg work to make sure they can turn that strength and power into acceleration once on the bike.

Sprinting can take many forms, and training is very different depending on the cycling discipline. Winning a bunch sprint at the end of a 250km Classic is very different to the short, powerful sprints required on the track.

A track sprinter such as Robert Förstemann is hugely muscular, whereas a road sprinter such as Peter Sagan, whilst powerful, is less stocky and very lean, as he still requires the endurance to cover the distance before he gets the chance to unleash his sprint power.

True sprinters are genetically gifted with the type of muscle fibres that allow fast and explosive pedalling, but even the skinniest climber can benefit from sprint style training. Training like a sprinter, even if you aren’t one, will help to increase your leg speed, improve your peak power output and, in the case of Tabata-style training, will also benefit your endurance by boosting your V02max.

There are three key types of sprint training. These can be added into longer endurance rides or sessions on their own.

Sprint sessions that really work

Power Sprints from a slow start

This helps you to develop explosive power from a slow speed. Good for attacking, standing starts or on a climb.

  • Get into a big gear and roll slowly till you are almost at a standstill.
  • Either in or out of the saddle, accelerate and hold it for 20 seconds, or until you start to spin out.
  • Ease back into an easier gear and spin for five minutes.
  • Repeat up to 8 times.

Super Speed – sprinting from a fast pace

If you are sprinting against other riders, then chances are you will already be moving fast. This session will really help to increase your leg speed, which allow you to accelerate from speed to get the gap you need.

  • Use a safe downhill slope to increase your speed, and when you get close to the bottom of the hill, shift gears and increase your cadence to accelerate.
  • Keep the speed up as you hit the flat, or the bottom of the next hill if it is a rolling stretch of road.

Tabata style sprints – repeated high speed efforts

These repeated bursts of maximum speed with little recovery between them will improve your sprint and also boost your endurance for longer distance events.

One sprint is seldom enough in a race situation, so this session will help with repeated sprints out of corners or if you have to go again to make an attack stick.

  • Sprint hard for 30 seconds, then pedal easily for 30 seconds, and repeat five times.
  • Make sure you don’t stop pedaling between efforts, as you need to maintain momentum to keep the speed high.
  • Recovery spin for five minutes and repeat up to five times in a session.
  • End with a good cool down.

A week in the life of a top sprinter

In 2014, Cycling Weekly spent a week with sprinter Jess Varnish to see how she trains for explosive speed on the track.

On a 'strength week' like this one, Varnish rode outside only once, and see little other daylight, except while walking her dog, Hugo. The rest of the time she was holed up in the Manchester Velodrome, either on the track or in the gym.

Jess Varnish wins bronze in the 2014 Commonwealth Games team sprint (Photo: Jones)
(Image credit: Andy Jones)


Gym session in the morning; track in the afternoon.

"I'm in a strength phase of my weight training now, so that means things like deadlifts and other stuff for my legs, plus some upper-body lifting," says Varnish. "They are fairly heavy lifts too.

"The afternoon was spent on the track doing sprint accelerations. That's riding steady then accelerating like you would at the beginning of a match-sprint effort. You back off when you reach full speed, then roll around the track to recover."

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Track in the morning; rest in the afternoon.

"The track work was cadence work, really fast pedalling, sprinting in a much smaller gear than I'd normally use. It's not quite as simple as that, because it also involves something else we've discovered that helps but which we don't want to share. Basically this is work to increase leg speed."

CW says: Sprinting is about increasing force on the pedals and increasing the speed with which that force can be applied, then increasing pedal rev speed. Apply lots of force over a short space of time and you have a fast-accelerating sprinter with high top-end speed. Varnish's strength training is designed to increase the force she applies to the pedals. Accelerations and leg speed sessions increase the speed with which that force is applied.


Gym in the morning; Pilates in the afternoon.

"The gym session was the same as Monday's, working on strength. Our weight training goes through different phases depending how far out we are from a target.

"I did Pilates in the afternoon. I've just started this and I'm doing it because I had a back injury earlier in the year that cost me a lot of time out from training. I think sprinters are prone to back injuries because we put our backs under a lot of strain when doing standing starts."


Gym in the morning; track in the afternoon.

"The gym training was dynamic strength training. It's like plyometrics running and standing jumps and stuff like that. In the afternoon, I did standing starts. That doesn't sound much but it's full-on."

CW says: For a number of reasons, sprinting puts the back under incredible loads. Sprinters' powerful muscles exert huge forces during the first few pedal strokes of a start, and that force has to be transferred through bones and soft tissue before it reaches the pedals.

Sprinters have the power to practically pull themselves apart. They train using heavy weights, and the fact that they unleash maximum force very abruptly means the strain can be enormous. Plyometric training helps a sprinter build on the naturally explosive nature of their fast-twitch-fibre-dominated muscles.

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Gym session in the morning; rest in the afternoon.

"The gym was strength training using weights again. This was my first week of full-on training since fully recovering from my injury, so I needed all the rest I could get."

Jess Varnish battles Anna Meares at the 2015 Track World Championships (Photo: Jones)
(Image credit: Andy Jones)


Road ride.

"My one and only road ride of the week. It's nice to get out and enjoy the countryside. Even sprinters need a bit of endurance and an extended stint of pedalling."

CW says: Varnish does three big weight sessions a week, lifting free weights in classic moves like squats, dead lifts and cleans. All Team GB sprinters do this and they all have great technique. Some of them even perform well enough to compete with weight-lifters without getting out-classed. Her regular road ride is as beneficial for Varnish's morale as it is for her body.

Like many other sprinters, Varnish entered sprinting from a general cycling background and was drawn to the sport because she enjoyed cycling in the countryside. Sprinters vary this aspect throughout each training cycle and sometimes do more and longer road training sessions. Many go on training camps in Majorca and put in quite big road mileage.


Rest day.

"This is the one day I can take it easy and relax all day, and along with Saturday it's an opportunity to get outside, which is even more important during the dark winter months."

CW says: This is a very specialised week in training done by a sprinter, but there are things all cyclists can take from it. The most important thing is specificity. As much as Varnish enjoys cycling outdoors, she can only do it once a week during this key block of training.

The rest of the time she must lift weights, do other gym stuff and warm up and down between a few flat-out efforts on the track. But that training is the essence of sprinting, and British Cycling sprinters are brought up with the mantra that every sprint or start-gate effort must be ridden full-on – as if it were a World Championship or Olympic final.

Importance of conditioning

Aside from specificity, there are other things to be learned from looking at Jess Varnish's training week. One is that weaknesses must be addressed and rectified. Varnish's back has to bear incredible loads, and she has already been injured because of it, so she's conditioning and supporting her back by doing Pilates.

That should build the smaller muscles that support her back and keep it aligned properly, and so prevent her bigger power muscles causing damage. She also uses plyometrics as a way of improving the explosive side of her sprint. It sometimes pays to look outside your sport for something that might provide a gain, however marginal.

This page was updated on January 31 2018