How to Improve Your Sprinting: Interview with L5Flyers Cat 2 Racer Ryan Collins

I forget who said it, but you have to sprint to win. Even if you’re a climber, it’s likely that you’ll finish a hilly race with other climbers and will have to beat them at the end with a sprint. Interestingly, I’ve also noticed that though racers often train climbing, long intervals (even non time trialists), general endurance, they rarely practice sprinting.

Fortunately for us, Ryan Collins, Cat 2 racer and successful sprinter, has agreed to an interview to give us some insights into how to become a better sprinter.

RYAN COLLINS PALMARES

1st Athens Twilight Criterium 2013
1st Sandy Springs Criterium 2013
1st Gainesville Gran Prix Circuit Race 2013
1st Grant Park Criterium 2013
1st Dingo Days of Summer Crit 2014
1st Union City Crit 2015
1st USAC Masters Regional Championships Crit 2016
1st USAC Masters Regional Championships RR 2016

8 Career 2nd Places
9 Career 3rd Places

Q: How and when did you first realize a need to focus on your sprinting abilities?
A: Originally, I think it was more out of necessity than anything else.  As a beginner racer I knew that races almost always ended in a bunch finish, and therefore in order to win I needed to be able win a bunch sprint.  Playing soccer and running cross-country and track growing up I always seemed to have that extra "kick" when everyone else was tired, which I think explains why sprinting has come somewhat naturally to me.

Q: What are some of the main qualities that separate a sprinter from climbers, puncheurs, time trialists, etc?
A: Physiologically, sprinters will have a greater proportion of "fast-twitch" muscle fibers which are good for peak, high power output, while time-trialists and climbers have a greater proportion of "slow-twitch" fibers which are more useful for longer, sustained efforts. For the amateur racer however, the mental aspect is just as, if not more, important.  You have to be a confident and skilled bike handler; willing rub shoulders in the bunch and really rail the final corners coming up to the finish line.  You have to skillfully walk the line between aggressive and reckless; pouncing on opportunities to move up in the pack in the final 2 kilometers without putting yourself or others into a dangerous situation.  Finally, you have to be very tactical; judging the effects of the road and the wind and how those will impact your positioning, knowing when to move up and when to save your energy, and picking exactly the right moment to break out into the wind and go for the line.

Q: What are the three most common mistakes you see racers make in a sprint?
1. Going too early
2. Being too far back in the final kilometers
3. Allowing themselves to be boxed in

Q: What are the three things you think most racers could do to improve their sprint?
1. Practice bike handling skills, know where your cornering limits are and don't be afraid to brush up against them
2. Before you line up on the start line, think about the last few kilometers of the race.  What do the final turns look like? Where is the 200m to go mark?  500m? 1km?  Which direction will the wind be coming from?  Where do I need to be in the peloton in the final few turns?
3. Throw in some specific workouts to improve fast-twitch muscle response

Q: What types of workouts do you use to become a stronger sprinter?
A: Even if you're not genetically blessed with a higher ratio of fast-twitch muscle fibers, that doesn't mean you can't improve your sprinting performance.  Aside from the mental aspects discussed above, there are workouts one can do to improve peak power output.  Many reps of short intervals of 30s or less work best.  A note about interval training: When you're trying to improve peak performance, it's important to give yourself enough rest between efforts so that your muscles have a chance to recover enough for you to be able repeat your efforts at maximum levels.  You can find many examples of short interval workouts online.  In addition to intervals, I also like to do weight training.  The jury is out as to whether the body's response to low-speed weight lifting power transfers to high speed pedaling power, but personally I've always felt that it helps and feel weaker when I haven't been keeping up with my routine.  Start out with 3 sets x 10 reps of squats, leg curls, and leg extensions.  I also like to do some upper body and core workouts just to keep myself somewhat balanced; but not at the expense of my riding. Finally, practice!  Practicing a leadout train with teammates is not only fun, it's a great way to hone the skills you'll need in an actual race.

Q: Sprints are fast, racers are keyed up, things can get dicey quickly. It seems to me that sprinters need great mental strength to be successful. How would you describe the frame of mind, or mental strength, needed to be a good sprinter?

I definitely agree with these statements.  I think being successful at sprinting requires a great deal of mental strength. You need to keep a high level of focus to ensure you're where you need to be as the peloton charges to the finish. Everyone is tired.  Nobody wants to expend a single watt more than they need to in the last kilometer before the final surge.  What you need to keep in mind is the fact that if you don't use the energy necessary to put yourself in the right position when the sprint begins, you don't even have a chance.  Trust your training, and trust your ability to dig that little bit deeper than you thought you could.  Your body will do everything possible to convince you that you're on your limit; that you can't possibly go any harder.  Your body lies.

Q: Could you takes us through your approach to a sprint, starting with a week out? Let’s assume it’s a 3 hour rolling road race that starts at noon and is likely to end in a bunch sprint. Let’s say there are two turns in the final KM, and the last turn is a right hand turn 300 meters from the finish line.

1 Week Before: Scope out the course on Google Street View and analyze the turns.  Are they tight or sweeping?  What does the pavement look like?  Are there any manhole covers?  Are there markers along the side of the road that I can use to judge the distance to the finish?

3 Days Before: Last hard workout before the race.  Likely spent at the track. Try to get a vigorous workout, but not crushing.

Day/Night Before: Openers, then try to relax, get a good night's rest.

Morning Of: Hydrate. Visualize different ways in which the race could unfold.  Try to develop a strategy with teammates that will play to our strengths.

1 Hour Before: Continue hydrating. Spin around a little, but no hard efforts before a long road race. Try to roll around the final few kilometers of the course if possible and develop/verify visual distance markers.  Note the wind direction and think about where I want to be throughout the final kilometer.

First hour of racing: Settle in and get comfortable with the pace of the race.  Try to get myself or my teammates into a breakaway if I can.  Save energy where I can.

Second hour of racing: If my teammates are away, I work to try to keep them away.  Unless the race has been grueling or the terrain is hilly, breaks instigated in the final hour of racing rarely succeed.  Conserve energy if I can.

15min from sprint: Begin to visualize the final kilometers.  Picture what I want to do, where I want to be.

10min from sprint: If feasible, start getting teammates organized in a leadout. Often things are too chaotic, but if you can get organized you can greatly improve your chances of success.

5min from sprint: Start moving up in the pack if necessary. Get in the drops. Stay relaxed but focused.  Take deep, rhythmic breaths.  Now is not the time to conserve energy. Stay out of trouble, try to be on the inside of the group in the corners. (If you're still working on your positioning skills, maybe look for the wheel of a strong sprinter and try to grab it.)

1min from sprint: If I'm not in the 1st 5-8 wheels, get there NOW.  Make sure I'm on the correct side of the peloton entering the final turn.

30sec from sprint: I'm exiting the final turn, and there is a moderate cross/head wind from the left.  Optimally, I'm sitting 2nd or 3rd wheel on the right side of the group.

Sprint: Someone has gone too early, directly out of the exit of the final turn.  Out of the saddle, 100% effort to follow either his wheel, or the wheel of the man on his wheel.  Watch the front wheel.  Don't get boxed in.  Look for a clear escape path to the right.  Follow, follow, 200m to go, follow, don't get boxed in, follow, follow, 125m, glace right, if clear, jump right, click, try to rip my cranks off.  Eyes up, head down, chest almost on the bars.  Don't look back.  Pedal harder.  Harder.  Pain is an illusion.  The line is still 50m away.  Deep breaths.  Focus.  The body lies.  Harder.  HARDER.  Throw the bike across the line.

Q: What advice would you give an aspiring sprinter?
A: Even if you're the strongest sprinter out there, if you don't make the right preparations and put yourself in the right position, you won't win.  Successful sprinting is more than a display of raw power from the guy who has been saving his energy the entire race.  It takes a lot more strategy than one might think.

Q: What advice would you give a racer who isn’t a pure sprinter, but feels a need to utilize sprinting in order to get better results?
A: Let's say you're the kind of racer that likes to get into breakaways, but has been disappointed by the fact that they never seem to stick, especially in the lower categories.  You may have even uttered, "I can't sprint, so my only chance to win is in a breakaway". Pick a flat race that's likely to end in a bunch sprint, develop a strategy based on a bunch finish, and stick to it.  Don't be tempted by a group that tries to get away halfway through the race.  Stick to your plan.  Do not deviate from it.  Even if they do get away and stay away (however unlikely), you'll still have to opportunity to practice your sprinting skills in the final kilometer. If you stick to your plan, and learn from the pointers above, you just might find that you can sprint after all!