The majority of people think about sprints and leadouts in the context of road cycling whenever they consider either of those concepts.

At the professional level, it is more common for groups to remain together until the very end of the race. This is in contrast to amateur mountain bike races, which are typically so spread out that it is unusual to see a race end in a sprint. In all of my years of racing sport, I’ve only had one sprint finish, which was for sixth place.

Mountain cyclists may benefit greatly from practising methods such as the sprint and the leadout, despite the fact that most of you will probably never compete in a race that ends in a genuine sprint. This kind of training is really beneficial for riders of any discipline who engage in technical riding, so don’t assume it’s exclusively good for racers.

What leadout training does

Intervals of sprinting and leading out teach your body how to increase its cadence while using a higher gear and how to recover from that increase reasonably rapidly, both of which are essential components of mountain riding.

Imagine a rock garden that is situated smack dab in the centre of a gentle incline. When confronted with a challenge such as this one, a common strategy for riders is to shift down into a lower (or more simply put, an easier) gear, particularly if they are already feeling somewhat exhausted. When I’m in a good mood and have a lot of pep in my step, I’ll either stay the same gear as usual or switch to a gear with more resistance, and I’ll pedal at a faster cadence. It is incredible how you can walk on the tops of the rocks as if you were floating.

Increasing your cadence is a strategy that works well when you are getting close to a portion of the trail that has roots or a short, sharp slope. These stages obviously need to be cut down to a manageable length in order to prevent you from passing out before you reach the summit.

How to train for sprints and leadouts

On a trainer is where you should focus your efforts while practising sprints and leadouts. This is the most effective strategy for a number of important reasons, including the following: Practicing on a trainer allows you to go all out, and it’s easier to do this when you can just put your head down and pedal. 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, practising on a trainer allows you to go all out.

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.

Conclusion

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.