Start Faster With 3-Step Threshold Ladder Cycling Intervals


By Jim Rutberg,
CTS Pro Coach, co-author of “Ride Inside“,
and “The Time-Crunched Cyclist

It is Super Bowl weekend, which is about as close as the US gets to creating a national holiday for a sporting event. I’m a football fan and plan on watching the game on Sunday, but I’m a whole lot more excited to watch the 2024 Cyclocross World Championships this weekend! We’re rooting for Lauren Zoerner, a CTS Athlete who works with CTS Premier Coach Jim Lehman! The workout below is one of the cornerstone interval sets Coach Lehman uses to consistently prepare athletes to perform at the World Championship level, and it will help you get off the start line faster.

Great Starts Win Races

A great start is a key component for success in cyclocross, cross-country mountain bike races and high school mountain bike races, and road cycling criteriums. These events start with an all-out race to the first corner or a hole shot where the course narrows from a wide lane down to path that can only handle 1-3 riders side by side. The riders at the front get to maintain their momentum, take the best/smoothest lines, and – most important – avoid getting tangled up in traffic.

A poor start doesn’t mean you can’t fight your way to the front and still win. After all, you just started! But fighting your way to the front takes more energy and burns more matches than starting hard and being on the front in the first place. Just like any other aspect of racing, you can train and improve your ability to get off the start line and up to speed quickly, which is why Coach Lehman makes it a focus of his athletes’ cyclocross prep.

Getting the hole shot or getting to the first corner in the top five is great, but that’s not enough. You have to be able to have the fitness to go from a full-tilt sprint to a more sustainable effort without a recovery period. If you’re gassed by the sprint off the start line, you’ll quickly lose positions and end up having to fight through traffic just to get back up to where you were originally, if you make it back at all.

Training to Start Fast

Coach Lehman uses a 3-step interval we refer to as a ThresholdLadder to develop the ability to start with a full sprint and then ratchet the intensity back to a more sustainable level. The first step is a 30-second all-out effort from a standing start, with one foot on the ground. This provides an element of skills practice, because no matter how fit you are, you can’t have a great start if you miss your pedal or veer to the side when the gun goes off.

The second step of the interval is a one-minute PowerInterval. While you’re no longer in a full sprint, you should be riding at the highest power and perceived exertion you can maintain for this 60-second period. If you have a power meter you’ll know you’re going hard enough if you’re too cross-eyed to read what it says. If you can still read it, aim for 106-120% of Threshold Power.

Ninety seconds into the interval you reach the third step and ratchet your intensity down to your SteadyState power range, which is 96-100% of Threshold Power. Basically, you want to spend the next five minutes at or very near your lactate threshold power, or a perceived exertion of 8 out of 10.

An example of a complete workout would be: 6 ThresholdLadder Intervals (:30 Max – 1:00 PI – 5:00 SS), separated by 5 minutes of easy spinning recovery. These is a hard workout, so it is typically done once (maybe twice) a week during the weeks leading up to a goal competition.

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Why ThresholdLadders Work

You generate a ton of lactate during the first step of the interval, and that’s exactly what we want. One of the key adaptations you’re looking for is an increased capacity for re-integrating lactate into normal aerobic metabolism (breaking it down to usable energy) while you’re still operating at a power output at or above lactate threshold. During the second and third steps of the interval you are still generating a lot of lactate, and your body is working as hard as it can to process it all. A rider who starts fast and then fades quickly experiences the spike in lactate, but can’t process it fast enough and is forced to slow down.

Although it’s important to incorporate these intervals into training during a race-specialization phase, they can also be used far ahead of events when you are doing mostly Zone 2 and generalized training. Add these intervals once a week for a period of 4-6 weeks.

Incorporate ThresholdLadders into your training and this season you’ll be able to get to the front – and stay there!



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Comments 5

  1. I imagine this would be useful for TT starts as well? I like to think I am an ok TT rider, (at a very, very amateur level) but would this be effective for a TT start as well? It seems to me it would be as you have to be able to put down power to get off the line and then to a power you can hold for 20K or 40K+. Either way, this sounds like a “fun” workout to incorporate if it can be done well indoors. Advice is appreciated. Thank you.

  2. As usual you’ve nailed it. Great article. I’m going to attempt to make another comeback from brain surgery and needed a positive mindset.

  3. Please produce another training video download with Jim on this start interval training for those of us who workout indoors frequently. You can call it Epic Starts and use footage from the starts of MTB and Cyclocross races.

    Thank you for posting this workout. It addresses the exact problem I have with fast MTB race starts.

  4. In all my cycling experiences in riding tours I have to say training is my favorite. I’ve managed to take best care of myself during those times and much of it is a direct result of CTS methodologies.

    This 3-step fast start is a splendid example of how CTS is evolving pro cyclists and recreational riders (like me) into strong, well preserved riders. Would this fast start training tool help in multiple circumstances throughout an event, such as overtaking a competitor, riding into the wind, hill climbing, or catching a group of pace riders without overdoing the lactate threshold as individuals? I understand there are other strategies used for those circumstances mentioned, so my question to you is is there a limit to how much lactate individuals can manage if properly trained and enough nutrition provided? No, I am not a robot 😉

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