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!

  • 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.