Downhill speed tips, part two: On-bike drills

Credit: Adam Pretty/Allsport
Last week, we discussed how the use of plyometrics can be used to help you gain speed and power in attacking downhills. This week, I will discuss on-the-bike drills that one can use to improve pedal and bike speed for downhill racing. But even if you race cross country, these drills will help improve your overall sprint speed.

Speed workouts

As a downhill racer in training you are preparing your body to move fast over a given distance. Sustained speed, with several high sprint efforts is what downhill racing is all about. To maintain speed in racing, we need to teach the muscles to move fast during speed training.

Speed is a combination of reaction time (time from when you first think about sprinting until you start the first hard pedal stoke) and movement time (time to complete the movement). I like to think of speed as the body's ability to move at a high tempo (pedal strokes per minute) with maximum efficiency for a prolonged time.

Every sport has its requirements for speed, in the sport of downhill racing it is the ability to push the biggest gear possible for as many revolutions as possible for about ten to twenty seconds, many times during a five to six minute race.

Most importantly, you can teach your entire musculoskeletal system to move faster. The neuromuscular pathways used for coordinating fast movement will be improved, facilitating smooth, relaxed, and coordinated cycling.

The need for neuromuscular speed training is an integral part of downhill training. We all have brain-to-muscle (neuromuscular) pathways.

These pathways can be likened to a road over a high mountain pass. If the road is plowed frequently during the most of the year, the road will remain open, and the way remains clear. If the road department does not plow the road, the snow will get excessively deep, and it will become harder and harder to get over the pass. Thus, it is important to use speed training throughout the year to develop and maintain clear neuromuscular pathways that are employed in fast cycling.

Speed training is essential for improving the neuromuscular coordination and maximum speed, improving your anaerobic energy systems, and gaining a better sense of pace at race intensity. As an active downhill racer here are three different types of speed training recommended by Rob Sleamaker and Ray Browning in their book Serious Training (Human Kinetics Publishers, Champaign, IL). They are tempo speed bursts, body speed sprints, and peaking sprints.

Only a small portion of the total training volume will be devoted to speed. The amount of speed work in a given cycle will depend on the stage of the year and the number of hours you are training that year. Typically, you will use tempo speed bursts all year during over distance sessions, body speeds during the early season and competition season, and peaking sprints only during the competition season and in the last two to three weeks leading up your most important race. Body speed and peak speed training should not be done more than two days per week.

Tempo speed bursts

These are very brief, 15 to 20-second speed releases during your long workouts. Every 20 or 30 minutes during a long ride, gradually increase your pace until it is equal to or slightly less than your average downhill sprint speed. The buildup to this pace should take about 10 seconds.

Once attained, hold that speed for 5 to 10 seconds maximum; then resume normal workout pace. If you are doing your long rides in hilly terrain, consider doing the tempo speed bursts on all terrain: uphills, downhills, and flats.

Tempo speed bursts will help you maintain good neuromuscular coordination at fast tempos throughout the season. As you approach the competition season and more high-speed training, your "muscle memory" won't need a big jump-start to get going.

Body speed sprints

In this drill, you do the body speeds over a set time. Body speed sprints are done by gradually increasing speed, for about 20 seconds, followed by 30 to 60 seconds of recovery. Repeat this sequence until you've done between 8 and 15 sprints.

Remember that the active recovery time is included as part of the total time for the session. Use varied terrain such as a looped course or on the road where the sprints should completed on a downhill or flat in the gearing you would use in racing.

Peaking sprints

These are all-out efforts at your fastest speed, in race gearing, while maintaining good form. Peaking sprints are used only during the competition season and in the final weeks before you biggest race.

Peaking sprints are designed to be quite difficult, yet they refine your muscular coordination at maximum speed, improve anaerobic energy systems, and improve muscular strength. They are the finishing touches on your training and will help you ride a peak for 8 to 10 weeks as you use them during the competitive season.

Step 1: Choose average race course terrain.

Step 2: Warm up very well for 15 to 30 minutes.

Step 3: Alternate 15-second, all-out sprints with 30-second easy recovery exercise. Do sets of five peaking sprints. Then do five minutes of easy recovery riding. Repeat the peaking sprint set twice more at maximum.

Step 4: Cool down for 15 to 30 minutes.

Sprinting as force

Look at sprinting as applying maximum force to the pedals. Greater strength and neuromuscular coordination allows for greater force production. We know that an increase in power, if applied to the pedals at the appropriate angles, will increase your speed down the hill.

By incorporating both plyometrics and sprint training into your program you will see large big decreases in your downhill course run times.

Online training diary. Use our Active trainer to record your mileage and vital stats.

Shop for cycling gear and much more at the Active Sports Mecca

Find and register for a mountain bike tour or race in your area!

Got a question for Dr. Burke? Send it here.

Discuss This Article