Should I cycle or do hill sprints this season?

There is no denying it; rugby is a sport of speed and sprinting. It doesn’t matter if you are attacking, defending, or racing your mates to the bar for a post-match beer, your ability to sprint will directly affect your success. Some players are blessed with blazing speed, while others have to work at it.

Rugby is a unique sport, and one very important feature is that sprinting distances vary throughout the game. You could find yourself sprinting just a few strides as you sneak over the line to score a try, or the entire length of the pitch to try and stop the opposition from scoring.

Also, sprinting in rugby is seldom done in a perfectly straight line. Instead, unlike those lucky track athletes who never have to run more than a couple of gradual curves, you’ll have to master the ability to not just sprint at top speed, but do so while avoiding and colliding with other players. Ruggers need to be the masters of the zig-zag to maximize their cardio capacity.

And now the good news…

Because of this, ruggers can’t train like track sprinters – at least not all of the time. Yes, raw speed is important, but so too is agility; unless you like crashing headlong into the opposition that is!

So, while most of your training should involve multidirectional sprinting, some of it can be done in a more linear fashion. Unfortunately, sprinting can be hard on your joints, and you need adequate space to really open up and reach top speed. Unlike hitting the gym, this can make sprint training a little inconvenient.

This raises the question – can you do sprint training elsewhere, such as on an exercise bike?

The answer is…maybe.

Why such a non-committal answer? That’s because there are several factors that need to be considered.


Specificity is the underlying principle that should govern all of your rugby training. The principle of specificity describes how your body adapts to the stresses placed on it, and subsequently changes to make sure it can deal with that stress more easily next time.

For example, if you want to get stronger, you need to lift heavy weights. If you want to develop your aerobic fitness, you need to do exercises that tax your aerobic system. If you want to become more flexible, you need to stretch – time to put on those yoga pants!

Without specificity, any workouts you do will not have the effect you want. That’s why bodybuilding training is seldom the best way for ruggers to work out; it’s not specific to the needs and demands of rugby.

Sprint training on an exercise bike is not specific enough to improve your ability to sprint faster. Yes, it may increase your leg speed, but the basic muscle recruitment patterns and joint actions are very different. Doing sprint training on an exercise bike will improve your ability to do bike-based sprints. Unless you play cyclo-rugby, this isn’t really much of a benefit.



As mentioned earlier, sprint training can be prohibitive, especially if you train at a gym. Treadmill sprinting is out of the question as most machines simply don’t go fast enough for anyone except a lumbering number eight! Cross trainers and step mills aren’t much better. Rowers are a good choice but, as a rugger, you should already be doing plenty of that. That leaves the exercise bike.

That may sound like a contradiction, given the previous section, but while you cannot use an exercise bike to improve your sprinting ability, you can still use one to develop the energy systems involved in sprinting – specifically the ATP/CP and lactate energy systems. This, in turn, will improve your sprinting prowess.

Sprinting is as much about technique and muscle action/activation as it is about fitness. You can work on the mechanics of sprinting with just 1-2 short sessions a week, leaving you free to work on sprint fitness at another convenient time.

The exercise bike is ideal for this type of energy system sprint training for several reasons…

  • Allows for safe maximal acceleration
  • Non-impact so easy on the joints
  • Unlikely to result in hamstring pulls and groin strains
  • Very convenient – most gyms have exercise bikes
  • Can help develop leg speed
  • Can be used to mirror rugby sprint training durations and intensities

Remember, you need to do some REAL sprinting to develop your sprinting performance on the pitch, but you can supplement that training with bike-based training to increase your sprint-specific fitness.

Bike-based sprinting workouts for rugby

Here are a few workouts to try. Spend a few minutes doing some light cycling to prepare your heart, lungs, and muscles for what is to come. Also make sure your bike is set up properly.

  1. Your knees should be only slightly bent at the bottom of each pedal stroke
  2. The ball of your foot should rest on the middle of the pedal
  3. The handlebars should be level or slightly above the seat

For sprint training to be effective, make sure you go all-in, and work at your top speed for the given duration. You should complete each interval having given it your all. Push up the resistance so that you don’t bounce up and down in the saddle. If you are bouncing, you need more resistance.

The best type of bike to use for rugby sprinting workouts is a spinning bike with a large, heavy flywheel and fitted with toe straps. These provide a smooth pedaling action and plenty of resistance for even the strongest rugger’s legs to work against. In addition, changing resistance is quick and easy. Don’t worry though – any exercise bike will do in a pinch so use whatever you’ve got.

Get the most from your bike-based sprint workout by using a serving of Twitch-Faster before you start. 

Workout 1 – upside down Tabatas

Tabata training is brutal, and a very efficient way to improve anaerobic fitness. Ironically, it was first performed using an exercise bike. The traditional Tabata method uses 20 second intervals punctuated with 10 second rests repeated eight times to total four minutes.

While this approach is undeniably tough, leg speed and workout quality can quickly drop as fatigue sets in.

Instead, ruggers should flip Tabata on its head and do 10 second work intervals and 20 second recoveries. This work to rest ratio will allow you to sprint at top speed so that exercise quality remains high.

Workout 2 – pyramids

This workout will take you through several intensity levels to develop all-around sprinting fitness. You’ll be resting twice as long as you work so that you can sprint as hard as possible on each interval.

  1. Sprint 10 seconds
  2. Rest 20 seconds
  3. Sprint 20 seconds
  4. Rest 40 seconds
  5. Sprint 30 seconds
  6. Rest 60 second
  7. Sprint 40 seconds
  8. Rest 80 seconds
  9. Sprint 50 seconds
  10. Rest 100 seconds
  11. Sprint 60 seconds
  12. Rest 120 seconds

You can either stop here or work your way back down the pyramid.

Workout 3 – death by riff

If you train to music, this is the workout for you! Pick 2-3 songs with a strong, repetitive riff and put them in a playlist on your MP3 player. Once you’ve warmed up, pump up your play list and do a sprint every time you hear the riff. Most riffs last about 16-24 beats – long enough to give you a great sprint workout. If you can’t identify the riff, maybe you need to listen to some great guitar rock instead Justin Bieber! Alternatively, just sprint whenever you hear your chosen song’s chorus. 

So, you can definitely do sprint training on an exercise bike but, unless it is combined with some real-life sprint training, it won’t have much effect on your speed on the pitch.

On the other hand, bike-based sprinting will definitely increase your sprinting fitness, and that may be the type of rugby-specific conditioning you need. And remember – you can enhance your recover from these and any other workouts by using Post-Rugby after training.


Patrick Dale

Patrick Dale

Pat is an ex-Royal Marine and owner at fitness qualifications company Solar Fitness Qualifications Ltd. Pat has authored three exercise books and thousands of articles. Pat has competed at a high level in several sports including rugby, triathlon, rock climbing and powerlifting.