Fine-tuning your sprint with Ben Kersten
If you’re like me, you don’t do much training for your sprint. I always seem to think that I’ll manage to fluke a good sprint if I find myself needing it in a race situation. True sprinters practice and train their sprints well before unleashing them in the final 200m of a race. I was having a chat with Ben Kersten, Commonwealth Gold medalist, about his sprint preparation throughout his time as a professional track sprinter and road cyclist. Here are some excellent tips he gave me about training your sprint…
Lifting weights for road riders is a debatable topic, but most opinions lean towards laying off the heavy weights during the race season. For the road rider the amount of weight you can lift isn’t nearly as important as learning how to narrow into a muscle group and making sure it’s firing properly.
Glutes are often a neglected muscle group for bike riders. Many people overcompensate with hamstrings and quads, but there’s an immense amount of power that can be generated through the glutes once they’re trained properly. Activation is the key. It’s really hard to keep the glute firing and it tends to fall asleep once you forget about it. Learning how to make it fire correctly and learning how to turn it on in your head is much more important than going to the gym and smashing out 200kg squats.
Single leg weight exercises are extremely useful. It’s not about how much weight you can do, it’s about placing the emphasis on stability and strength balance between both legs. It might be just 10kg single leg squats, but doing it perfectly, making sure both legs are symmetrical, in sync with each other, and your core is engaged, is where the emphasis should lay.
Leg presses are a good example of a specific movement for a cyclist. Try to concentrate on getting the angle of the leg press machine to match the angle and position of your bike (an open angle from thighs to the chest – laid back) so it’s as specific to cycling as possible. One-legged squats, even without weights, are an excellent work-out to practice.
Lunges with light weights are a good exercise to activate the glutes. Try not to lean forward too much (you should be able to see your shin) and don’t only use your quad or else the exercise is not doing what’s intended. It’s all about the glutes.
Try to do these weight exercises in front of the mirror to make sure your leg isn’t bowing and your butt isn’t twisting. Technique is far more important than the amount of weight you’re lifting. Building muscle that you don’t need is where you can run into trouble by spending too much time in the gym.
Strength Work On The Bike
After a few weeks in the gym, when you’re comfortable that your glutes, hams, quads, and core are all activating, it’s important to replace the gym work to building strength on the bike.
Cadence after strength
The idea in the final 200m sprint is not just to push the big gear, but to push it quickly.
A common training drill that Ben did back when he was on the National Track Team which helped convert strength and speed into power was to lift a massive weight and then immediately jump onto an ergo an sprint at 200 rpm for 30 seconds. This tricks the neuromuscular system into thinking it’s lifting a big weight very quickly.
This is of course a drill that’s specific to track sprinting, but road racers can adapt this technique to exercises conducted on the bike.
A variation for roadies would be doing a Strength Endurance interval (e.g. a 10-minute climb at 60rpm up a 5% gradient) and then turn around and ride down the hill spinning at a high cadence for 30 seconds. Again, this training gives a neuromuscular response which converts strength to speed. This is the theory anyway.
Early-season sprint specific training
You don’t want to begin the road season by topping up your speed work straight away. Assuming you have a good aerobic base, you first need to build up for the kilometres and minutes before the sprint. Long wind-up sprints which load up the legs first are important in early season training.
Doing two-minute efforts where you’re loading up the legs and then finishing off that effort with a 30 second maximum sprint effort trains the legs to finish off the sprint. Without this training you may be able to push a huge maximum wattage, but you’ll be completely cooked by the time the final 250m comes along in a road race or criterium.
Motorpacing is excellent to simulate race speed and effort, but it’s not legal in all places and isn’t always practical. A more convenient option is to get a training partner to lead you out for a two-minute effort (progressive wind-up) while you sit on and then jump around him/her and finish it off with a 30 second maximal sprint.
Switch it up with your partner so you’re leading out and he/she’s sprinting. You should be able to get one of these sprint efforts in every five minutes over a duration of an hour. Doing this in groups of four, so that you can get that speed up, works even better.
Doing these efforts in a group keeps motivation high and replicates race speeds and the gearing you’ll be using during a race. It also lets you practise coming at the wheel in front of you. Knowing how to drop the wheel in front and the optimal place to kick so that you come around that rider is a big part of sprinting (read more about the old sprinter’s trick, dropping the wheel).
Race time – maximal power work
Once you’ve got the strength work and lactate tolerance built up, it’s time to work on speed and maximal power. A good drill is to find a 1-2% declining road and mark a spot in the distance that’s about 300m away. Build up your speed while out of the saddle starting in the 15T. Once you’ve wound out the gear, shift down into the next gear for about 100m (keep out of the saddle, remember to focus on using the glutes). Then shift down again until the gear is wound out. Do this until you’ve hit the final 50m and then give a maximal kick. Then try to hold it there for an additional 100m so that you train yourself to be able to hold on slightly longer than necessary.
A sprint can be started at any speed, but changing gears mid-sprint is sometimes necessary. You don’t ever want to shift up the cog, but it’s good to practise shifting into a harder gear while in a sprint. Sometimes in a race situation it’s better to hold on to the gear you have if you don’t want to risk changing, but the only way to be confident is by practicing those gear changes while in training (as above).
This is hard to articulate without showing you, but it’s all about activating the proper muscle groups and making sure they’re firing in sync with each other. Activating the glutes while in the maximal sprint effort cannot be stressed enough.
The upper body is also important during the maximal phase of the sprint. When sprinting out of the saddle you begin using a lot of upper body such as your lats and thoracic. It’s important to get all those muscles turned on before you jump out of the saddle.
A common mistake is riding along then deciding to put maximal power down, but not having those upper body muscles engaged. You’ll move forward over the front of the bike with flex in your arm and lean over like it’s a 25% climb.
The upper body should be switched on just before you get out of the saddle and sprint. Once you get out of the saddle, it should only be a small movement over the front of the bike and you’re away. This has to be a split-second movement rather than a pause in order to get that upper body activated, flexing the arms, engaging the back, then starting to wind up the sprint. You’ll have already lost the race by this time.
More Sprinting Tips