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02 March 2006

How fit must a track cyclist be?

Cardiovascular fitness is important, but not to the same extent as it is in long-distance road cycling.

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Typical build Track cyclists tend to be pared down, as low weight is advantageous, but sprinters are generally more muscular than long-distance riders.

Technique Track cyclists can’t switch gears during the course of a race, so choosing an initial gearing is very important. Gearing is a trade-off between acceleration and speed. A smaller gear allows for quicker acceleration, or 'jump', which is necessary to break away from an opponent. On the other hand, a larger gear generally gives a higher maximum speed. Usually a balance is achieved to allow the cyclist a good jump, but a high top-end speed.

Aerodynamics is extremely important in track cycling. Cyclists angle their bodies forward almost to the horizontal so as to reduce air resistance. The format of the pack in track cycle races is also strongly influenced by aerodynamics. The front rider pushes against the air, and any rider following closely behind (also called ‘drafting’ or ‘slipstreaming’) has to push away less air than the lead rider and thus can travel at the same speed while expending less effort. This phenomenon has led to a variety of racing styles to allow riders to exploit it to their advantage. This is obviously not relevant, though, in track races which place the individual riders in different lanes, or in certain time trials where only one cyclist is on the track at a time.

Training programme A typical training week for a track sprint athlete includes two to three gym sessions, two to four track sessions, up to 200 kilometres of road work, and intermittent racing. A track endurance athlete (i.e. a specialist in longer distance track events) may do three to four track sessions, up to 700 kilometres of road work and include regular races. Most track racers cut back the level of training in the immediate period (a week or so) prior to important events. They aim to maintain the intensity of training, so that their bodies are used to the effort needed for the race, but reduce the training volume.

Cardiovascular fitness Cardiovascular fitness is important, but not to the same extent as it is in long-distance road cycling. The emphasis in track cycling, particularly for the shorter events, is on sustaining a very fast pace over a relatively short period.

Speed drills Speed drills are an essential aspect of track training.

Resistance training and muscles Strength training is very important in track cycling, which requires powerful muscles, particularly of the legs, for sprinting. Compared with road cyclists, track sprint cyclists aim for fewer repetitions with a heavier weight in their gym workouts.

Reaction time A quick start-off is obviously extremely important in track racing; the shorter the distance, the more crucial, because there is less time to recover from a bad start. Apart from this, reaction time in track racing is only really important when a cyclist is riding in a pack, and needs to watch competitors’ every move.

Endurance training The importance of endurance training increases with the distance of the event. In most track events, this aspect is far less important than in road cycling.

Nutrition Like all elite athletes, the olympic track cyclists will be following a strict dietary regimen. For the shorter distance events, it is generally considered less important to stock up on extra carbohydrate reserves. A large meal the evening or morning before a race is not a good idea, as it is likely to sit heavily on the stomach.

Mental Pre-race mental preparation is far simpler than for road cycling. With track cycling, a cyclist doesn’t have to be concerned with aspects like incline and terrain, but merely needs to focus on powering round the circuit. Still, learning to have confidence in your ability is vital. The psychological stress leading up to a high-speed event can also be considerable, and sprint cyclists need to practise being calm, focused and fearless.

Drugs Track cycling has a cleaner record as regards doping scandals compared with road cycling, but some top sprint cyclists were also recently suspected of using illegal performance enhancers. Drugs that have particularly come under scrutiny in relation to track cycling include testosterone, human growth hormone, equine growth hormone amphetamines, EPO and anabolic steroids.

 
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