When most people think about sprints or leadouts, most people associate the terms with road cycling.
While typical amateur mountain bike races are so spread out that it’s rare to see a race end in a sprint — in all my years of racing sport I’ve had one sprint finish (for 6th place) — at the pro level you tend to see groups stay together until the end.
Even though most of you will rarely experience a true sprint finish, sprint and leadout training are extremely beneficial techniques for mountain bikers. And it’s not useful only for racers either — any technical riding can benefit greatly from this type of training.
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What leadout training does
Sprint and leadout intervals teach your body how to ramp up cadence under a high gear and then recover relatively quickly, something that is a key part of mountain biking.
Picture a rock garden right in the middle of a slight uphill. Many riders approach an obstacle like this by dropping to a lower (ie. an easier) gear, especially when they’re already a little bit fatigued. On the days when I’m feeling some get-up-and-go, I’ll keep the same gear, or even grab a harder gear, and increase my cadence. It is amazing how you can almost float across the tops of the rocks.
Ramping up cadence also works well when you’re approaching a rooty section or a short steep grunt of a hill. Of course, these sections have to be short enough so that you won’t blow before you make it to the top.
How to train for sprints and leadouts
The best way to approach sprint and leadout training is on a trainer. There are a couple of key reasons why it’s best to go about it this way: First, it takes place in a controlled environment so you don’t have to worry about cars, running off the road or trail, or hitting trees; second, practicing on a trainer allow you to go all out, and it’s easier to do this when you can just put your head down and pedal.
Sprints. Sprints are all out efforts for 10-15 seconds. Here are a few tips:
- Choose a gear that is easy enough for you to turn from a low cadence but hard enough to allow you to ramp up to 140-150 rpm by the end of the interval.
- I prefer to stay seated the entire time but sometimes I do these things outside and stand like you would on a real road sprint. Be sure that you have total confidence in your gearing. I’ve had more friends break collar bones from sprint training than from mountain biking.
- A good workout might be 5 sets of 5 with 10 seconds on / 10 seconds off. Give yourself about 5 minutes rest between each set.
Leadouts. I believe leadout workouts are some of the most beneficial training methods for mountain bikers. I also hate these workouts the most. Some tips:
- Choose a gear that is slightly easier than your ’sprint gear’ so you can ramp up to 130-140rpm by the end of your 20-30 seconds.
- I prefer to do these seated on the trainer.
- A good workout is 5 sets of 6 with 20seconds on / 20 seconds off. Give yourself about 2 minutes rest between sets.
Some random notes about sprint and leadout training
- Spinning at 130-150 rpm takes some serious skill. At first, you’ll be bouncing in the saddle like crazy but, over time, you’ll learn how to smooth it out so that you can hold a high cadence without knocking yourself off the bike.
- DO NOT underestimate how painful and difficult these things can be. Your legs burn like nothing else and 20 seconds is nowhere near enough rest. By the 3rd set you’ll be ready to quit.
- After a few weeks of doing some leadouts maybe once a week you will be amazed on trail rides how you tackle technical sections. The one caveat is that you need to have some matches to burn before you start using this technique — if you are already past your redline then you won’t be able to ramp it up through the technical section.
- Another good use of these techniques is for stealth breakaways on group rides, something I learned the hard way when trying to follow one of my friends. He would soft pedal and grab one or two gears and, because he unloaded the pedals slightly, the gear change was really quiet. He stayed in the saddle and slowly ramped up his cadence and, before I knew it, he was just gone. If he’d grabbed some gears in normal fashion and stood up to sprint, I’d have realized it and gotten on board the train but his move took me completely by surprise and left me in the dust.
Mountain biking and road riding often seem very different forms of cycling that require different core skill sets. Sprint and leadout training are something that all cyclists can benefit from, even if the benefits are for vastly different reasons.