Cycling Sprint Workouts for Non-Sprinters


By Jim Rutberg,
CTS Pro Coach, co-author of “The Time-Crunched Cyclist”, “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning”, and “Ride Inside

Amateur and masters cyclists will swear up and down that “I’m not a sprinter” because they don’t have a finishing kick like Jasper Philipsen, Wout van Aert, or Mark Cavendish. But sharp, hard accelerations (aka: sprinting!) are a part of every cycling discipline, whether you’re riding the local group ride, racing criteriums, XC mountain bike, or gravel. So, let’s take the time time to develop the skills and speed for success. These include top end speed and power, proficient racing tactics, bike handling skills, and timing. Two of the most common sprinting scenarios are uphill and flat ground (most races and group rides try to avoid downhill sprints for safety reasons). Incorporate the following into your training so when the next opportunity in a races comes around you can out sprint the competition.

Uphill Sprints

Like anything uphill, these sprints are very difficult, and they are also very different than sprinting on flat ground. The starting speed for an uphill sprint is typically slower than for a straight-line, flat-ground surge for the line. This works in favor of athletes with explosive power and a great jump. Smaller riders who may not have the peak power output to compete with thundering herd of thick-thighed sprinters can gain an advantage over their heavyweight competitors in uphill finishes.

One of the most important things to remember about uphill sprinting is to keep it short. After your initial acceleration, it is very difficult to maintain your top sprinting speed very long in an uphill sprint. As a result, you have to be patient and wait until you are closer to the finish line to launch your final surge for the line.

Training for Uphill Sprints

The best workout for developing the power for uphill finishes focuses on specificity. I recommend HillSprints. Find a short, steep hill that has a flat run-in to the base. For the workout, you want to come into the hill at a high rate of speed (20-22mph), wait until you feel the gradient bite into your momentum and start to add resistance, and then with your hands in the drops, jump out of the saddle and sprint for 15 seconds.

For more power, keep your hips near the front of your saddle, rather than bringing them far forward. People think of quadriceps when they think about sprinting, but the posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings, lower back) is more powerful. To visualize calling upon your posterior chain, think about driving your hip into your pedal on the downstroke.

Recover for 5 minutes by spinning easily, and then repeat. It’s important to give yourself plenty of recovery between sprints in order for each effort to be effective. Beginners should do four sprints, intermediate riders 6 sprints, and advanced riders should do 10 sprints (advanced riders may want to break this into two sets of 5 with a longer recovery period – like 15 minutes – between sets).

Flat Sprints

Sprints on flat ground start at high speeds and get faster from there. As a result, they require massive amounts of power. That’s why the bigger riders with more muscle mass are often more successful than smaller riders who may also have plenty of explosive power.

The Importance of a Sprint Leadout

Leadouts are crucial for flat finishes to keep the speed high before the sprint commences. The high speed also strings the field out into a long line, eliminating most riders from contention. This not only reduces the number of athletes who have a legitimate chance of winning, but it also keeps everyone safer. When races with a flat run-in to the finish lack a high-speed leadout, the peloton swarms across the road and the chances of a crash increase dramatically. In amateur racing, there is very rarely an organized leadout like you see in elite amateur and professional races. Even so, for the reasons mentioned above it is in everyone’s best interest to keep the pace high going into a sprint.

How Head and Tailwinds Affect a Sprint Finish

Head and tailwinds have a big impact on flat sprint finishes. If there’s a headwind in the final straightaway, you have to treat the sprint almost like an uphill finish and keep your final acceleration short. When you come out of the draft into a strong headwind, the resistance is so great that you don’t accelerate to as high a maximum speed and you also start to slow down sooner. If there’s a tailwind going into a sprint, you may want to launch your final acceleration further from the line so that you don’t get swarmed by riders behind you.

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Training for Flat Sprints

There are two workouts that I think are crucial for cyclists looking for success in flat-ground sprints.

High Speed Sprints

The first is a HighSpeedSprint. Since most of us don’t have access to motorpacing or a leadout train, the easiest way to practice sprinting from a high starting speed is to roll into these from a downhill. Find a straight road that is slightly downhill (1-3%, not 6-8%). Roll into the sprint at 23mph or faster so you’re already pedaling fast (100+rpm) in a big gear (50×12 or 53×14-15 or even bigger). With your hands in the drops, jump out of the saddle and sprint at hard as you can for 20 seconds. Spin easy for 5 minutes for recovery between sprints.

Beginners should do four sprints, intermediate riders 6 sprints, and advanced riders should do 10 sprints (and advanced riders may want to break this into two sets of 5 with a longer recovery period – like 15 minutes – between sets).

In flat ground sprints, you typically have to accelerate hard at least once before your final surge for the line. In the final kilometer – whether it’s a gravel/road race or a criterium – you have to jump hard to respond to accelerations or move into a better position, then wait for a few seconds, and then launch your final sprint.

Linked Speed Intervals

To practice this in training, try LinkedSpeedIntervals. Think of these as a three-stage sprint: roll into it at 20-22 mph with your hands in the drops, cadence around 90-95 and a gearing of 50×12-14 or 53×15. Jump out of the saddle and sprint for 10 seconds. Sit and continue to ride at maximum effort for a count of 5 (just count in your head, this is no time for looking at computers). Then shift into one harder gear, jump out of the saddle and sprint again for 10 seconds. Now sit and keep riding at maximum effort for a count of 5 before shifting into one harder gear and sprinting again for 15 seconds. Spin easy for 5 minutes between efforts.

Beginners should complete 4, intermediate riders 5, and advanced riders 8 of these intervals. If you bog down in the gears, especially for the last of the three sprints, start the efforts in a lighter gear.

Frequency of Sprint Workouts

If you are getting ready to race a criterium series or you’ve noticed that you just need a bit more of a kick, then incorporating one sprint workout per week for 4-6 weeks should yield a noticeable improvement. This is assuming the rest of your training is predominantly endurance rides (Zone 2) with perhaps 1-2 other interval workouts or group rides per week, depending on your overall training goals for the period. These are best incorporated during a period focused on developing anaerobic capacity. For most cyclists at other periods of the year, sprint workouts would be “bonus work”, in that your primary training goal for the period may be aerobic development or power at FTP. These are morel likely something you’re layering in for skill acquisition.

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