The expert: Coach Andy Blow – who has an Xterra World Age Group title to his name – is founder of Precision Hydration (precisionhydration.com). He was previously sports scientist for the Benetton and Renault Formula 1 teams
Sprinting is all about explosive power and, as the name suggests, this involves putting in a maximum amount of effort during a very short space of time to produce a burst of speed.
You’d typically produce this level of force to make decisive moves in a race, either to make a break, produce an all-out effort in a final sprint or to bridge a gap when the pack is pulling away from you.
The exertion puts huge demands on you physically (and mentally), so it’s a skill you need to practise and develop over time. Whenever you’re looking to improve a particular aspect of your cycling, specificity of training is vital.
These explosive power sprints involve short, sharp bursts, so training should be tailored to match this type of output.
In terms of fitting these sessions into your current training plan, aim for a series of 5-10 second sprints with 2-3 minutes of recovery between each one.
I should emphasise the importance of safety, too. If you’re doing these sessions on the road, make sure you have enough time and space to execute them – so not while darting in and out of traffic during your commute.
These sessions work really well indoors on a turbo or stationary bike for that very reason.
You want to be able to give your all, so only do one or at the most two of these sessions per week. It’s important to allow for relatively easy days either side of those power sessions because you need to be fresh to get the most out of this type of training.
This strategy of repetitive, high-power sprints with long recoveries probably goes against most cyclists’ training ethos and may seem alien at first. Typically, cyclists work on threshold power with a moderate output for a long period of time, with only short recovery periods.
No magic bullet for recovery
When it comes to recovery there is no magic bullet. As with any hard training session you can maximise the fitness adaptations by making the most of your recovery time. That means resting, sleeping properly and eating (and drinking) well.
So what are the benefits of explosive power training? Humans have three types of muscle fibres: Type I (slow twitch), Type IIa (fast twitch) and Type IIx (super-fast twitch). Sprint training builds Type II fibres and can turn fast twitch into super-fast twitch.
There is a genetic factor at play here, mind – you can make progress through training, but some cyclists will go further than others because of their genes.
If you have lots of fast-twitch fibres already and you’re therefore more naturally predisposed towards sprinting, the adaptations come more quickly. As the old saying goes, ‘sprinters are born not made’, and to be truly fast you need to pick your parents wisely…
There are other ways of increasing the out-and-out power your muscles can produce. Gym work, heavier weights and fast repetitions of exercises are great options.
For example, squats and deadlifts involve similar biomechanics to those of sitting on a bike. Plyometric exercises such as box jumps, lunges and hopping are also good for exerting maximum force during short periods of time to increase maximum power.
Working one or two explosive power sessions into your weekly regime will provide a great opportunity to add both variety and specificity.
You might not become André Greipel overnight – or, let’s be honest, ever – but the improved power output over a short distance could make the difference between first and second when sprinting for the line.
This article was first published in Issue 100 of Cyclist magazine