The Workout: Winter Sprint Work

What kind of cyclists do I think should do sprint work in the winter? Trick question, I think all cyclists should sprint work in the winter. Yeah, pretty good joke one could say. On to the meat of the matter, I think sometimes we get hung up on nomenclature and let that dictate training more than it should. The word sprint may conjure up the image of a mad dash to the finish line of a race, totally maximal, road bikes, speed, etc, etc. Immediately a bunch of cyclists are saying, “that’s not something I do, so I shouldn’t do sprint work, that’s not for me”. On a simple level when I think of a “sprint”, all I think of is a short, hard, burst – it doesn’t have anything to do with charging for a finish line, it doesn’t need to be specific – except for perhaps in duration. So to add one more parameter, let’s call it less than 20 seconds. Definitely there’s some folks out there that don’t like 20 seconds and want to say a sprint is below 12 seconds – as the basic physiology lessons are that we start to cross over into a different energy system after 12 seconds of maximal effort at the latest – and it may be shorter depending on the CP stores on hand in the specific context. Whew, good run on sentence. For the specific workout I want to talk about today, I like doing twenty second efforts, and I think (anecdotally if nothing else) there is benefit in doing these 20 second efforts, as they make it that bit longer than most people really feel good sprinting – probably largely in part due to that switch over of energy systems in the back half.

Before I get in to the workout itself, I’ve missed talking about why I think all cyclists should do them. Remember, I think that a sprint is just a short (<20 sec) burst of maximal power, nothing more.  The finish line sprint, that’s low hanging fruit. How about some more contexts? An XC MTBer racing for the hole shot – sprint. A road cyclist getting up to speed out of a corner or following an attack or attacking – sprint. A 100 mile marathon MTBer popping the front wheel up to get over a rock with 2-3 hard pedal strokes – sprint. A triathlete charging out of T1 and trying to get onto the back of the bike pack – sprint. OK, yeah so I think the argument can go on, but the point being I think sprint work is valuable across the board. Further – in the winter when people are really often training on a pretty “general” level and just accumulating load, not necessarily doing too much specific work. Well that’s the perfect time to add in some sprint work. It does not add a ton of total fatigue. It can add a significant tool to the toolbox. Athletes don’t have a ton of other “high priority”, event specific sessions that then they have to stress about squeezing this sprint work in between. And never to be forgotten, it’s fun to go fast. As the Great Mike Sayers says – SPEED KILLS.

The final thing I do want to add is that beyond just improving at sprinting, doing this sprint work is something that can help with performance across all durations on the bike because it helps improve neuromuscular recruitment. This is a point that deserves more than I’m going to write on it. But the simple way I think about it is that when an athlete asks their body to go max for a short period of time, it drives the body to use as much of the muscle it has access to. Often we have more muscle than we’re functionally “switching on”, or another component is the “synchronicity” of this recruitment – i.e. recruiting the muscles we’ve got at the same time to bring more workers to the party. Without droning on, maximal sprint work forces us to do this and drive these improved neuromuscular connections. Bringing more muscle to the party helps all the time. Sprint work stimulates the adaptation, but the adaptation is then applicable across a larger spectrum.

OK – long build up – here’s the workout:

•Warm up for 20-60 min  with easy riding, then get into the efforts.

•10min Z3/Tempo, 105+ rpm – focus more on leg speed than power.

  • We’re doing this effort to add a bit of general aerobic load to the workout, wake up the fast twitch fibers with some high cadence, and generally “open up”.

•2x15 sec seated little ring sprints, done in a light gear, only shifting when you’re truly spinning the gear out.

  • We’re focused on leg speed and form here more than absolute power

•4x20 sec seated sprints, done in a big gear (53x15-16 depending on gradient), from a near stop (<10 kph – this is key!), max seated acceleration up to speed without shifting.

  • Now we’re into the meat of the work. This should be very high torque for the start, we’re building a lot of force production and working on that neuromuscular recruitment. A good gauge on gear selection is to aim to hit 100 rpm just in the last 4-5 sec of the effort. Adjust starting gear to achieve this. A lot of folks do these efforts and have different names for them. I call them stomps – mainly because that’s what my first coach (Sue Hefler) called them, and I what grew up knowing them as.

•4x20 sec standing starts, these are the same idea as the “stomps” but they’re done all out of the saddle. Start again in a big gear (a bit bigger than the stomps, like 53x12-13), from a near stop, and accelerate at max up to speed.

  • It’s easy to get caught up on the max wattage when sprinting. If done correctly, max wattage should not necessarily be a great gauge for this workout. By starting in a way bigger than “ideal for power production” gear, from a near stop, by the time you get on top of the gear to the point where you could produce your best power, the legs are a bit tired from the initial 10 or so pedal strokes. So you can ideally see the max power in these sprints improve over time, but it’s not going to be a good comparison to the numbers you’d see in more “ideal sprinting” conditions.

  • I’d also encourage athletes not to really think about the power numbers on these workouts. Sprinting really shouldn’t be about power production, it should be about SPEED PRODUCTION. Most of the time there’s a decent overlap in the two, but it’s not always the case. I’ve certainly seen athletes putting up big numbers on the meter at the expense of speed because of sloppy form. Don’t do that – focus on going fast first, power only helps as much as it translates to speed.

•Recovery in this workout is really important. Recovery should be long and easy, at least 3 minutes between sprints. This is key so that sprint quality can remain high. We want full recovery between, and not for this to be a workout sprinting from any sort of “aerobic load”. Go really easy between sprints – don’t go out to do this workout also aiming for a “good average power” or anything like that. They’ll just work against each other.

Thanks for reading, and let us know what you think about the workout!