Podcast, Science and Physiology, Training

How do track sprint cyclists train, Tokyo Olympics, and W’ research findings with Mehdi Kordi, PhD | EP#307

 October 11, 2021

By  Bernardo Gonçalves


That Triathlon Show - Mehdi Kordi

Mehdi Kordi, PhD, is a track cycling coach (sprinting in particular) working with the Royal Dutch Cycling Federation. In Tokyo, the Dutch track sprinters brought home multiple golds and medals, and Mehdi joins us to discuss how these athletes train to be the fastest on the planet. Also we discuss the physiology of W' and how it relates to neuromuscular function, and other bits and pieces from Mehdi's research.

In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • Mehdi's take on the Olympics in Tokyo and how his team performed
  • How do track sprint cyclists train?
  • The relationship between neuromuscular function and W' (anaerobic work capacity)
  • The importance of muscle size (rather than neural functions, fiber type etc.) and maximum force capacity on W'
  • What sort of strength training might be used to improve W'?
  • Reliability and sensitivity of the Notio Konect aero sensor 

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Mehdi's background

03:58 - 

  • My name is Mehdi Kordi. I currently work as a coach for the Dutch track sprint Cycling team. I previously worked with HUUB Wattbike Cycling Team. In my position, I coach two endurance athletes on the track. HUUB Wattbike Team is a track cycling team pursuit, which classifies as endurance on the velodrome.
  • Triathletes could think four-minute efforts are not endurance. 
  • Before that, I worked for the British Cycling Institute of Sport. There, I completed my PhD about the physiological determinants of sprint cycling. However, during my time there, most of my publications were more focused on endurance components.
  • In particular, the power duration chart and its relation with performance.

Tokyo 2021 breakdown for the Dutch track cycling team

06:14 -

  • From the track sprint perspective, we got three gold medals, a silver and a bronze. I think it went well. Maybe, you could have achieved one more. But there were some circumstances (crashes) that made that impossible to get.
  • I think one thing we executed well was balancing the cyclists and the coaches and science's inputs. We had a nice blend, which meant that everyone was involved in the same goal.
  • And that is something I learnt from my time with HUUB Wattbike Team. Have the riders and staff involved in working out the training approach together was a strong push for success.
  • There was also an open mindset to try new methods and explore some ideas from the riders.
  • There has been a change in the way coaching is done. Before, coaches would prescribe training without input from the athletes. And now, there is a much more hybrid approach.
  • And this balance between the rider's input and the coaches ideas is crucial. (e.g. if a sprinter wants to do four one-hundred kilometre rides a week, we will try to ask him why. And try to explain the reasons why he should not do it)
  • But this balance is individual to each athlete. There is not a perfect amount of input from the coaches and the athletes for everyone. The goal is to find something that works for each individual.
  • That relationship coach-athlete evolves. Therefore, we cannot say that this is a model with past success, so let's go through it. 

How track sprinters train

12:32 -

  • I think most triathletes will not think of some of the sessions as workouts. They are so short and with so much rest in between. The volume of training compared to an endurance cyclist is negligible.
  • In some training weeks, we might have three kilometres of work on the track. This is not even a warm-up for some triathletes.
  • There is a lot of gym work. Three or four times a week. And this work is gym focused. I know that endurance athletes use gym work as a rehab tool to maintain body function. (supplementary sessions)
  • However, track sprinters use it as a cornerstone of their training. The only goal of these sessions is to improve their maximum strength.
  • The biggest event of the sprinter on the track is a team sprint which takes around forty seconds. However, the first man should only do seventeen seconds. (a standing lap)
  • So, their training might be a combination of standing start (65 or 125 meters all-out starts). They could also do accelerations (4x200 meters). Or they could flying-100 meters, meaning this would take around thirty seconds to complete.
  • I think endurance athletes would be shocked to see how little they do and how much rest they have.
  • Moreover, they would be surprised by how tired sprinters are at the end of such sessions. 
  • There are different methods to approach a seoson. Some coaches prescribe "endurance-based sessions" of maximum two hours. Any longer than that would be as far as possible from the competition. 
  • As you get closer to the competition, all kind of volume reduces. On the other hand, intensity remains the same. All track efforts are largely all-out. 
  • When we are a month away from the competition, the low-intensity training volume is less than an hour per week.
  • The reason is that you do not want to take anything from that maximum power and strength ability. Therefore, the aerobic component of the athlete is often neglected.

Comparison of the team sprint with the 400 meter race in athletics

19:36 -

  • It is fascinating with the four hundred meters because I trained with a group in Manchester. And it happens that this group is quite polarised. We had an athlete that went to the 2008 Olympic Games, and their training was predominantly aerobic based.
  • And then, the coach changed his approach to more intense, short efforts, and most athletes had a negative response.
  • The four hundred meters take fifty to fifty-five seconds for most amateur athletes. Therefore, there is a more aerobic component, at least from a training overview.

Learnings from Tokyo 2021

21:12 -

  • For the women, I think the process went as well as it could be.
  • As we are preparing again for European and World Championships, we also did not have much time to reflect on the whole process.
  • As we had good results and not a lot of fourth, fifth and sixth places, it is hard for me to point something up, without reviewing the Olympic Games with my team. 
  • That is not to say there are no points to improve. For us, we did not have time to do that reflection.

Sprinters training volume

23:32 - 

  • Including warm-up, track sessions are about three hours long. 
  • The gym sessions are one and a half hours.
  • Let's say that they do three track workouts, two gym sessions. If you include the warm-ups, sprinters can have thirteen hours of work per week.
  • And for you to get an estimation of the endurance impact of our sessions, the TSS scores are about six. Therefore, it is not much.

Original study on the influence of neuromuscular variables in W'

26:04 -

  • My PhD was in sprint physiology. It took five years because it was part-time. Despite working with athletes, I wanted to learn more about endurance physiology.
  • Therefore, I asked one of my colleagues about it, and they started to talk about the power duration relationship and how to execute it.
  • In my PhD, I compared endurance riders to sprinters on the maximum power output. And I tried to explain the reasons why sprinters could have higher maximum power values.
  • We would have to do a power duration test. And we had to connect the neuromuscular data with power duration data. Therefore, we had to look at the data differently. (look at data from a neuromuscular and strength point of view)
  • We analysed how strength would influence the power duration curve.
  • The first study was on evaluating the muscular volume and the maximum muscular voluntary force. (pressing against an isometric dynamometer as hard as you can)
  • We also evaluate the pennation angle of the muscle, which is the way they are aligned. This pennation angle allows packing more sarcomeres into the muscle. And sarcomeres are the basic units of the muscle fibre.
  • The more sarcomeres you have, the stronger you are. Therefore, you can produce more force.
  • And you also have the muscle fascicle length, which the longer these sarcomeres are in series, the muscle can contract faster.
  • What we saw in that original study was maximum voluntary strength has a strong correlation with W'.
  • Now, the Muscle volume of all those factors mentioned was the biggest physiological underpinning of that.
  • This original study was the base for the analysis that came next.
  • It was an assessment of the neuromuscular factors that could affect W'.

Relationship between neuromuscular function and W' (anaerobic work capacity)

31:17 -

  • What we wanted to do after was to understand what happened and if we could find other connections.
  • There were many limitations with the initial study:
  • Number 1: there were other factors we had to evaluate to understand the influence on W'.
  • Number 2: we only had 10 participants. It is a good number for elite athletes, but we needed more.
  • Number 3: the methodology itself could be a limitation. The dynamometer we used had a lot of compliance. This dynamometer was for rehab. Therefore, the padding would absorb much of the force.
  • Thus, we had to develop a new methodology and get more athletes to evaluate.
  • The good news is that we got many endurance athletes from many different disciplines. (MTB, track endurance, road elite time trials. And also som Kilo riders - track cyclists that do the one-kilometre race)
  • In the one-kilometre race, athletes also need an aerobic component to perform well. 
  • Therefore, we had a broad range of athletes.
  • We built a custom made dynamometer, which looked like a torture chair with zero compliance. 
  • The athletes sit on an uncomfortable chair. We had a calibrated load cell that measured force out of your ankle.
  • We measured force production rate, rate of torque development, maximum voluntary torque, voluntary activation of the quadriceps and peak power output.
  • With those, we tried to understand which neuromuscular factors would play a role in W'.
  • The rate of force development is the amount of force you can produce over a short period (fifty milliseconds or two hundred milliseconds). 
  • The rate of force development measured with fifty milliseconds is related to muscle type, muscle activation and other factors.
  • The maximum voluntary contraction measures how strong you are. It will depend on how much muscle you can contract, and it is void of time. 
  • We saw the longer the period of maximum voluntary contraction, the better correlation with W'. It implies that muscle type composition is not an influencer in W'.
  • Muscle strength and Maximum force is related to muscle mass and maybe muscle-tendon stiffness.
  • Furthermore, we saw that voluntary activation had a very poor correlation with W'.
  • The peak power showed a good correlation with maximum voluntary torque on the determination of the peak power.
  • Therefore, the data indicates if you get stronger, the W' will increase.
  • In conclusion, if an athlete that gets stronger will produce a higher peak power output. And you can do that with short sharp sprints. Or you can do strength training to your training regime to improve W'.

Recommendations to get stronger

38:58 -

  • The type of strength training will depend on the athlete.
  • Assuming the athlete has no injuries, deadlifts, back squat, and front squat would be the most beneficial. These are compound movements, which means they are activating multiple muscles at once. And they recruit most muscles used in sports.
  • If you cannot do that or have a good gym coach to help you, I recommend leg press, knee extension or something like that.
  • I think that compromised strength training rather than no strength training will benefit the athlete for any duration.
  • In the ideal situation, the goal is to become stronger by increasing the maximum force you can produce in an effort.
  • I am not saying that the athletes should perform one rep max efforts. But generally, if you improve your three max rep or your five max rep, you will increase the one-rep max.
  • Therefore, I would say to train in that range from three to five max rep.

Strength training periodisation to increase W'

43:03 -

  • You should follow a traditional periodisation to strength training.
  • Start with more reps at a lower intensity and drop the repetitions as time goes on.
  • If you are a novice, doing more repetitions to learn how to do the movement correctly is beneficial.
  • However, I do think that the optimal range to work is when you transition to higher intensities. 
  • Endurance athletes might think more is better in strength training. (doing ten reps instead of eight)
  • But they would be better doing six or seven reps. It is better to add more weight and fail than the other way around.
  • And with the amount of training they do, it is hard to do that many reps. All they are adding is more fatigue. I always suggest the lower the repetitions, the better. But to evaluate strength, you could use the three or five max reps.

Importance of strength training for endurance athletes

47:07 -

  • Endurance athletes with a high one-rep max will not succeed if their endurance is not well developed. Therefore, emphasising endurance training is crucial.
  • However, they could be creative in trying to sneak these sessions into their training plan.
  • For example, on a low-intensity day, triathletes could do four kilometres run to the gym. Then, they could do some stretches, as they were already warmed up and do the strength session. And then, do the bike session to return home.
  • Therefore, they would get a compromise between the gym session and the rest of their training.
  • Of course, I would recommend doing the strength training when you are fresh. And try to adapt a bit to the other sessions.

Muscle fibre typology and strength

50:10 -

  • With this limited database we have, we eliminate fast-twist fibres reason for higher peak power.
  • If the torque development, at fifty milliseconds, correlated with W', fibre typology would be a significant determinant for W'.
  • It was with an indirect measure that you took fibre type out of the equation.
  • The only difference between slow and fast twist muscle fibres is the time you exert force. If you have the same muscle cross-section for type I and type II fibres, the force production will be the same if you take out time.
  • And that is why it correlates with W'. You do not need to do it quickly (spin as fast as you can).
  • Having said that, if you have fast twist fibres, you will be a higher W' compared to your critical power. But that is not the reason we did this study.
  • You cannot exert W' in a minute. Therefore, as it dragged out, fast twist fibres lost their peak edge.
  • We cannot prove that individuals with more muscle mass have a higher proportion of type II fibres. (with this study)
  • In studies I have done, many top-class sprinters have less fast twist fibres than people might think. 
  • Let's assume sprinting is fatigue-free. Power comes from torque over crank revolution times velocity. (force times the angular speed) It is the same for every sport with linear movement.
  • Cycling is one of the only sports where you can change your cadence aggressively. The stronger you are and the less fast twist fibres you have, you can gear up and press against it. Whereas, if you have more fast twist fibres or a better pedaller, you can gear down and have the same speed.
  • In cycling, you can almost mask your type I/II ratio. You can evaluate the type I/II ratio if you do a max cadence test or a torque cadence test.
  • What this study states is it is not fast twist fibres the principal determinant for W'. But we cannot say for sure W' is not dependant on muscle typology.
  • The sprinters' max cadences are not different from road endurance cyclists. What separates them is the max torque production.
  • Their performances depend on the type of gear you have.

Reliability and sensitivity of the Notio Konect aero sensor

1:01:01 -

  • We looked at three different aero sensors. And we are looking to publish those results.
  • We put them on a wind tunnel to see how they would react. 
  • When using the ranges where we calibrate them, they are all good.
  • But we thought the Notio suited better our needs because of the range of aero it provides. If you calibrated at 35km/h, it had a better range outside of that. However, there was not a specific reason to pick up the Notio.
  • We looked at its reliability and sensitivity. Reliability is the ability of the sensor to work repeatedly and have the same results. Every measuring device has its error range.
  • We put the cyclist on the same bike, and we repeated the efforts again and again. 
  • The sensitivity is about evaluating the capacity of the sensor of measuring changes in the setup.
  • We got some laser cut discs, and we put them on the bike. Before that, we evaluated the bicycle in the wind tunnel and employed some theoretical principles to measure the impact of the discs. With that data, we use the Notio to see if we could have the same value variations.
  • The smallest disc had four centimetres. And the Notio was capable of tracking these differences.
  • It means that it is user-friendly. It gives a tool for the user to change the setup and see the variations.
  • If we validated the Notion, we would not need to say it is reliable and sensitive.
  • When measuring CdA, it is almost impossible to validate something. When running a validity study, you have to have a gold standard to compare. Therefore, we always have a limitation.
  • We could validate it with the wind tunnel, but it does not account for bends in the velodrome. It does not take into account rider movement.
  • On the wind tunnel, athletes adopt positions much more aerodynamic than on the track.
  • Ultimately, the calibration of the wind tunnel balance is also a limitation for the measurement of CdA.
  • I recommend most people to do first, is do a standard aerodynamic measurement so that you can compare changes. I also would not focus on the absolute value of the CdA measure.

Mehdi's future projects

1:12:10 -

  • I will continue my coaching services. But also focus on research.
  • I have some power duration and sprint research to come out.
  • What I like about publishing is that it allows me to confirm my thoughts with other academics. I want to get the knowledge out there so that people can use it or improve it.

Rapid fire questions

1:14:35 -

What is your favourite book, blog or resource?
Google (laughs). Related to sports, Scihub.

What is an important habit that benefited athletically, professionally or personally?
Do not be afraid to admit you are not right.

Who is someone you have looked up to or who has inspired you?
My old rowing coach Chris George. He is trying to get to Kona now. And he is seventy-five, I believe. He was the one who taught me how to row better. And he did it all for free.


Bernardo Gonçalves

Bernardo is a Portuguese elite cyclist and co-founder of SpeedEdge Performance, a company focused on optimising cycling and triathlon performance. He writes the shownotes for That Triathlon Show, and also produces social media content for each new episode.

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