Training a track star

Track cycling is a tough, challenging cycling discipline, requiring a combination of power, stamina and tactical acumen. Unlike road cycling, where the majority of the race flows along at submaximal power output, track events continually push the riders’ aerobic and anaerobic capacity to the max.

As such, track training differs markedly to road training. Professional road racers will spend most of their training time on the road, racking up the miles to build endurance for one-day events that can swallow up seven hours and three-week tours that touch 90 hours! By contrast the longest single event on the track is the men’s 200-lap Madison (50km); the shortest is the 200m time-trial to seed riders for the sprint final, which can clock in at under 10secs.

Hit the gym

Strength training is far more important for track cyclists than road cyclists. The latter might spend time in the gym during the winter but tail off during the season. Track cyclists, on the other hand, generally hit the gym all year round.

Sprint track cyclists are likely to be in the gym three or four times a week for strength work. That’s down to wanting to achieve two key objectives: generate enough torque to move the fixed-gear bike from a standing start, and crank up to 2000 watts of power to hit top speeds of 70km/hr. Track cyclists supplement this with further gym work that focuses on conditioning exercises for injury prevention.

Understandably, gym programmes focus on the lower body and include squats, deadlifts, lunges and plyometric drills (jump exercises to exert maximal force in a short period of time). The likes of Great Britain’s Jason Kenny and Germany’s Robert Förstemann pack in these exercises with the squat arguably the most important exercise in the session.

“Your quadriceps are integral to a powerful pedal stroke,” says sports scientist and cycling coach Josu Larrazabal. “That’s why squats are so useful. But form must be good. When you’re standing with the bar on your shoulders, first the cyclist needs to fix the position to give balance to the body or they can’t do the movement. That then engages smaller muscles. That’s cycling-specific where every movement requires some muscles to fix the position, while others focus on generating power.”

Squats have also been known to generate more muscle-building testosterone than any other exercise, which might explain the size of Forstemann’s powerful thighs, which have a circumference of 74cm! The German explained to writer Daniel Davis the importance of squats and how his programme varies through the calendar year depending on whether he is seeking strength or power.

“In preparation for the season I undertake a lot of repetitions, so typically 60-90 per workout with 50-70 per cent of my maximum weight,” Forstemann explained. “As the season progresses, and the closer I get to the peak of the season, the repetition numbers decrease and the loads increase to the maximum doing 1 to 3 repetitions for 4 to 6 sets.” For reference, Forstemann’s maximum weight is an impressive 280kg.

Cadence work

Of course, the velodrome is also home from home for track cyclists, too, where strength and power continues to be built, especially focusing on the gluteus maximus and vastus lateralis muscles that combine to generate over 55% of a sprinter’s power. That’s why force intervals are core to a sprinter’s training programme. These involve low-cadence and high-torque work where the sprinter will ride at around 60 revolutions per minute (rpm).

Another key session is high-cadence work. Top track cyclists have the ability to shift cadences effortlessly, which really pays off in a game of cat-and-mouse like the men’s and women’s sprint. It’s also important because track riders only have one fixed gear to pedal, and is why track riders train their limbs to reach a cadence of 130rpm or more. A fast cadence involves firing up the neuromuscular system, so riders will undertake superspin workouts, where they might do five to seven 30-second efforts of 130spm with a 1-minute recovery between each set.

Endurance track cyclists would undertake longer efforts. Those who participate in the 4,000m individual and team pursuits, for example, would look at a session like 10x 4,000m at a variety of prescribed speeds with minimal rest in-between.

The difference in session breakdown comes from the different energy systems the track stars are looking to hit and train. Research by noted professor Asker Jeukendrup showed that 95% of a top track sprinter’s energy comes from anaerobic (without oxygen) sources, whereas a 4km track rider taps into 25% anaerobic energy and 75% aerobic.

Track riders will also venture onto the road, although often no more than once a week. This is good for physical condition and the mindset of those training at an indoor velodrome: the fresh air and wide, open views offer a welcome alternative to riding the boards.