Sprint training is specialised. When Jess Varnish does a week like this one, working on strength, she rides outside only once, and sees little other daylight, except while walking her dog Hugo. The rest of the time she’s inside Manchester Velodrome, either on the track or in the gym.


Gym session in the morning; track in the afternoon.

“I’m in a strength phase of my weight training now, so that means things like deadlifts and other stuff for my legs, plus some upper-body lifting. They are fairly heavy lifts too.

“The afternoon was spent on the track doing sprint accelerations. That’s riding steady then accelerating like you would at the beginning of a match-sprint effort. You back off when you reach full speed, then roll around the track to recover.”


Track in the morning; rest in 
the afternoon.

“The track work was cadence work, really fast pedalling, sprinting in a much smaller gear than I’d normally use. It’s not quite as simple as that, because it also involves something else we’ve discovered that helps but which we don’t want to share. Basically this is work to increase leg speed.”

CW says

Sprinting is about increasing force on the pedals and increasing the speed with which that force can be applied, then increasing pedal rev speed. Apply lots of force over a short space of time and you have a fast-accelerating sprinter with high top-end speed. Varnish’s strength training is designed to increase the force she applies to the pedals. Accelerations and leg speed sessions increase the speed with which that force 
is applied.


Gym in the morning; Pilates in the afternoon.

“The gym session was the same as Monday’s, working on strength. Our weight training goes through different phases depending how far out we are from a target. At the moment I’m training for the 2014 World Track Championships.

“I did Pilates in the afternoon. I’ve just started this and I’m doing it because I had a back injury earlier in the year that cost me a lot of time out from training. I think sprinters are prone to back injuries because we put our backs under a lot of strain when doing standing starts.”


Gym in the morning; track in the afternoon.

“The gym training was dynamic strength training. It’s like plyometrics – running and standing jumps and stuff like that. In the afternoon, I did standing starts. That doesn’t sound much but it’s full-on.”

CW says

For a number of reasons, sprinting puts a sprinter’s back under incredible loads. Their powerful muscles exert huge forces during the first few pedal strokes of a start, and that force has to be transferred through bones and soft tissue before it reaches the pedals.

Sprinters have the power to practically pull themselves apart. They train using heavy weights and the fact that they unleash maximum force very abruptly means the strain can be enormous. Plyometric training helps a sprinter build on the naturally explosive nature of their fast-twitch-fibre-dominated muscles.

Her aim is Rio: Varnish is on track for the 2016 Olympics


Gym session in the morning; rest in the afternoon.

“The gym was strength training using weights again, and this was my first week of full-on training since fully recovering from my injury, so I needed all the rest I could get.”


Road ride

“My one and only road ride of the week. It’s nice to get out and enjoy the countryside. Even sprinters need a bit of endurance and an extended stint of pedalling.”

CW says

Varnish does three big weight sessions a week, lifting free weights in classic moves like squats, dead lifts and cleans. All Team GB sprinters do this and they all have great technique. Some of them even perform well enough to compete with weight-lifters without getting out-classed. Her regular road ride is as good for Varnish’s morale as it is for her body.

Like many other sprinters, she went into sprinting from a general cycling background and was drawn to the sport because she enjoyed cycling in the countryside. Sprinters vary this aspect throughout each training cycle and sometimes do more and longer road training sessions. Many go on training camps in Majorca and put in quite big road mileage.


Rest day

“This is the one day I can take it easy and relax all day, and along with Saturday it’s an opportunity to get outside, which is even more important during the dark winter months.”

CW says

This is a very specialised week in training done by a sprinter, but there are things all cyclists can take from it. The most important thing is specificity. As much as Varnish enjoys cycling outdoors, she can only do it once a week during this key block of training.

The rest of the time she must lift weights, do other gym stuff and warm up and down between a few flat-out efforts on the track. But that training is the essence of sprinting, and British Cycling sprinters are brought up with the mantra that every sprint or start-gate effort must be ridden full-on – as if it were a World Championship or Olympic final.

Importance of conditioning

Aside from specificity, there are other things to be learned from this training week. One is that weaknesses must be addressed and rectified. Varnish’s back has to bear incredible loads, and she has already been injured because of it, so she’s conditioning and supporting her back by doing Pilates.

That should build the smaller muscles that support her back and keep it aligned properly, and so prevent her bigger power muscles causing damage. She also uses plyometrics as a way of improving the explosive side of her sprint. It sometime pays to look outside your sport for something that might provide a gain, however marginal.

This article was first published in the January 9 issue of Cycling Weekly. Read Cycling Weekly magazine on the day of release where ever you are in the world International digital edition, UK digital edition. And if you like us, rate us!

  • Mark Wilson

    I appreciate your considered reply, I have to admit I think your first post I read showed your frustration. I disagree in that I believe strength training should be carried out year round for power athletes and all athletes over 35 years of age as muscle loss is critical to older athletes. It’s good to shoot the breeze and I enjoy discussions with this who disagree with me, perhaps BC aren’t prepared to have those discussions but who knows. They all keep their cards close to their chest. Enjoy your training and coaching and keep up the good work, this is Mark signing off.

  • Dave2020

    Hi Mark,

    To be honest, I don’t think we need to know anything more than what’s already in the public domain. BC’s track record on training injuries is an abject failure of coaching methods. There is a cavalier disregard of the risks involved and they seem incapable of learning the painful (for their riders) lessons. The sensible option was staring them in the face in 2009. . . .

    I was forty years ahead of them in using ‘low reps and heavy weights’ in my late teens/early twenties, at a time when such things were frowned on. But I soon learned there were better ways (than, e.g. using an iron boot), and built myself a weight training machine so I could sit in the saddle and pedal – what could be better than that?! I hasten to add, the strength training was only ever done off-season, which is how it should be.

    I disagree; sprinting is all about balance, symmetry and leg speed. i.e. perfect co-ordination. Most sprinting is done from a rolling start, but the standing start also requires balance and symmetry. Squats, dead lifts and cleans are a waste of time for cycling. The irony is, my methods are just as effective for road-racing as track, because they are so specific to the perfect pedalling action.

    I never suffered a training injury and a free-standing one leg squat is still a piece of cake at 68.

  • Mark Wilson

    In a way Dave I have sympathy for the injured athletes but there is always more to the stories than we hear. There are many ways to improve strength and power and I agree that preventing injury is very important. I have worked with some fairly good cyclists, mainly at masters level and I prescribe a low volume, high intensity regime of medium reps in most major strength exercises. There are others who prescribe low reps and heavy weights with equal or greater success. I would expect BC to keep strict supervision of their athletes but people often get hurt when they push or slip form when working on their own. I was an elite rugby player as a younger man and often trained to my limits which meant injuries at times. You may be correct that there is a better way and I hope that yours and other’s ideas are listened to. My main point is that sprint cycling is a very narrow skill which leads to imbalances and asymmetrical strength over many joints and this is the price that people often pay to succeed at the highest level. An author of interest is Dan John who’s books cover strength training in some detail, especially when looking at elite or quadrant 4 activities. I would temper your comments a little as I don’t think we get to hear the full story. My name is Mark Wilson and I am a strength and cycling and triathlon coach and I’m still learning with every day and every client I work with.

  • Dave2020

    I too am shocked that BC didn’t listen to my well-informed advice. Their only response so far has been to censor some comments that quoted embarrassing admissions in their own words.

    I’ve never been anonymous and my details have recently been posted again, on other articles promoting bad training methods and giving ill-informed bikefitting advice.

    Why don’t you ask BC for full disclosure of the catalogue of training injuries suffered by riders in their so-called ‘care’? If you think maximal weight-lifting is beneficial for cycling, you can explain your weird ideas on this thread or direct to me – davesmart@greenbee.net

  • Mark Wilson

    I’m shocked that BC didn’t listen to your ill informed rant. Post your real name and details. How many anonymous internet warriors think they can do better than the best coaches in the world? All elite athletes push to their limits, that’s why they get injured, you’re not as good as you think you are.

  • Dave2020

    Proves my point:-

    “I kept trying to manage it and train and then I was in the gym one day lifting and felt a tweak.” Kian Emadi, after sustaining a lumber disc pathology in early September.

    Yet another one to add to the catalogue of injuries suffered weight training, for which BC’s misguided coaches must take responsibility. I’ve said it before – “brute force and ignorance.”

  • Dave2020

    “sprinting puts a sprinter’s back under incredible loads.” Rubbish! Highly skilled biomechanics keeps most of the force used in turning the cranks WITHIN the leg action (and applied tangentially, as it must be to be effective). Only a proportion of that effort goes to the arms – sufficient to stabilise the bike, and then ONLY during standing starts. A rider who pulls so hard on the ‘bars that they risk losing steering control is not technically competent.

    In stark contrast – “Varnish does three big weight sessions a week, lifting free weights in classic moves like squats, dead lifts and cleans.” These ALL put incredible loads on the back, and that’s the reason riders have suffered serious injuries in the past, still do and will do in future. None of these injuries would occur with on-the-bike training. This is irresponsible, incompetent coaching and it isn’t even specific to the demands of cycling. Those exercises all work on leg extension, which is only half the story!

    I wrote to BC in 2009 to explain how their strength training could be both SPECIFIC to pedalling AND free from the risk of injury. Iain Dyer and Jamie Staff told me they were confident their methods were “world class”. They ignored my offer to give my custom-designed equipment to the Manchester gym and proceeded to damage more young bodies. Jess would never have suffered a prolapsed disc using my strength training machine – guaranteed. Jamie’s premature retirement was due to his back injury.