Most runners and athletes are used to adding speed workouts into their training. Maybe you’ve even added in tempo runs or fartleks to your weekly workouts here or there. However, one of the best forms of exercise that gets breezed by most frequently is sprinting. And it shouldn’t be forgotten because there are SO many benefits.
Part of the reason we don’t think about sprinting as a workout for “normal runners” is because we think about the sprinters we watch in the Olympics, or the friends we had in college or high school who were track stars. We typically think about a traditional track, not our normal neighborhood runs. Most long distance runners are not used to sprint workouts or sprint training.
But as distance runners, one of our common mistakes is skipping sprinting (and it’s only takes a super short period of time). We’re missing out on major benefits if we don’t implement sprinting into our training. Sprinting is an intense cardio exercise (but short!) that can make you faster, stronger, help with weight loss by fat burning, and has tons of other physiological and health benefits.
Let’s into the benefits a little bit more.
One of the major benefits of sprinting is heart health and improved blood pressure and improved blood cholesterol levels. The type II muscles, which are also called fast-twitch muscle fibers, are built during sprints, and they improve your heart function. The effort you put on your muscles while you sprint makes your heart pump harder (which, as you can imagine, make your blood circulation better). This strengthens your heart, which is a major benefit you get from sprinting. When you go on an easy run, you’re working your slow twitch muscles, so focusing on improving both will make you a stronger runner overall, as well as increase your range of motion.
Heart disease is more common in younger/healthier people than you may realize, so it’s very important to be taking good care of your heart health, even as a healthy runner! (InsideTracker is one of the tools I use to keep tabs of my heart health.)
Believe it or not, sprinting helps you build muscle mass the same way that strength training does. That’s because it’s an anaerobic exercise (the more you know, right?). With sprinting, you get more bang for your buck since sprinting works dozens of muscles at the same time, whereas weight training is typically focused on one part of your body at a time. As you sprint (and lift weights) you’re fighting osteoporosis and working on your balance/coordination. Here is more information on what muscles running works– think glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, and calves.
As you sprint, you’re naturally building endurance by training your body to utilize energy faster. Sprinting pushes your power and muscle endurance to the max which actually helps build higher VO2 max and increase endurance.
Sprinting naturally builds up a runner’s endurance because it trains the body to utilize more energy, faster.
While it’s obvious that sprinting IS an increase in your running speed, it’s slightly less obvious that you’ll actually become a faster runner over time by adding in sprints to your workouts. Sprints require quick energy and over time, this makes your body more efficient at storing glycogen in your muscles. Like I mentioned above, since sprinting is an anaerobic exercise, you’re breaking down muscles, building them back up, and training your body to process lactic acid build up a little faster each time. And, over time, as your body gets used to sprinting, you increase your tolerance for the pain or soreness that you can experience after a hard sprint. Just make sure you plan for recovery days if you add sprinting to your training.
Just like adding distance and longer duration to your training over time, speed work also builds on itself to make you faster overall.
Sprinting isn’t alone in doing this, but it’s a quick way to get that feel-good runner’s high that a long run also brings. Running in general helps reduce stress by circulating more blood to the part of your brain that responds to stress. Running also releases endorphins which gives you the post-run high. The stress hormones in your body, like adrenaline and cortisol, drop after sprinting, which also helps reduce stress, so sprinting promotes good mental health along with physical health.
And since sprinting gets your more bang for your buck, you’ll feel these effects after just 15 minutes of sprinting vs. it taking a longer amount of slower running to get those endorphins flowing. Both are great, but sprints are a quick way to get that stress relief if you’re pressed for time. (Read this for more of my tips for stress relief.)
Another major benefit of springing is that it burns more calories in less time, and increases your metabolic rate for DAYS after your workout! This is called EPOC which stands for excess post exercise oxygen consumption (or as some know it as “afterburn”) which means you keep burning calories even after your workout is over.
Studies are showing that that high intensity interval training (HIIT or sprinting) results in significant improvements of fat loss (even that pesky, stubborn visceral fat in the belly) and overall health benefits than moderately intense activities such as jogging (source).
Obviously running in general helps reduce body fat, however steady exercise without variation can actually be ineffective for reducing body fat stores. Sprinting is super effective at improving weight loss because of its intense, diverse nature. And while you’ll see your body composition change on the outside as a result of sprinting, your body will also grow stronger as a whole. Your hips will get a new range of motion, your hamstrings will work in a different way, you’ll engage your abs and torso differently, and you’ll start to notice that your body is better suited for running conditions with this variation in training.
A great benefit to sprinting is how fast (pun intended) it is to get a workout in. Most steady runs are likely 30-45 minutes on an average day, but sprinting can take about 20 minutes, start to finish, WITH recovery built in! Warm up for 10 minutes. Then, sprint for 1 minute, recover for 2, and repeat 5 times. This is called sprint interval training, and you’ll be huffing and puffing, but it’ll be over before you know it.
Sprinting can deplete glycogen stores in muscles which is a great way to make sure you don’t have too much insulin in your body and prevent diabetes. Even though insulin is essential for your body, too much generally results in fat that gets stored, and this can create insulin resistance which makes it difficult to lose weight. Sprinting is a quick way to reduce those glycogen stores and increase glucose control.
Sprinting is one way to make more mitochondria in your body, and the mitochondria (you know, the powerhouse of the cell!) is responsible for extracting energy from nutrients to produce ATP (Adenosine 5′-triphosphate) which is the molecule for storing and transferring energy in cells. The more mitochondria you have, the more power you have available for your brain and body. And the more the better since lots of degenerative diseases are characterized by malfunctioning mitochondria! Read more about that here.
Like running, you’re able to sprint anywhere, even indoors. In fact, I love to save speed work for the treadmill since I’m able to be so precise with my speed and time. I also love running sprints on the track, but don’t be deterred from sprinting if you don’t have a track nearby. Hill sprints are SUPER effective (and fun, especially with friends), and sprints down your street are JUST as effective!
Let’s talk about proper sprinting form.
For perfect sprinting technique, focus on head position. Your head should be upright (think good posture and keep your chin slightly up!), in line with the rest of your body, and try to keep RELAXED. Release your tongue from the roof of your mouth, unclench your jaw and release the tension in your forehead. You’ll be surprised how much stress you’re putting on your body by doing these things. Des Linden, one of my favorite professional runners, has a mantra of “Relaxed running is fast running.” It’s true!
There is SO much power in your arm swing. You’ll notice that the more you pump your arms, your stride will also increase! Swing your arms all the way to shoulder level to make sure you’re getting the most out of each stride. The length at which you swing your arms will also increase your stride length.
Adding in plyometric exercises (i.e. explosive movements) such as jump lunges, jumping squats, toe taps and high skips, will benefit your running economy and form. These exercises increase muscle power, making you a better sprinter.
While it’s great to practice speed starts as well, when you’re first adding sprinting to your training, start by running out at a normal pace and then quickly transitioning into a sprint. Then slow down again before stopping. This will help reduce the risk of injury, while also making sprinting more enjoyable. You can keep the distance really short, between 50-100 meters.
Some of you are ready to click away from this page after reading that! But I promise just a few of these will make you a stronger, faster runner. “Running uphill simulates the forward lean of the acceleration phase at the start of a race,” explains personal trainer and sprint coach Geoff Walcott. “Running downhill simulates overspeed running, but the gradient shouldn’t be too steep, for safety reasons.
Find a hill in your neighborhood and sprint to the top 6 times. Jog or walk slowly downhill to recover before starting again. A big perk of this is that it’s over quickly! It’s a perfect workout to add to your routine on a day that you’re pressed for time. Focus on getting your knees up slightly higher than normal, and use the front leg to power up the hill with each stride.
Strength training is super important for runners, but also for making your sprints better. Famous sprinters include weights in their workouts. Focus on lower body (of course), core, and then arms as well. And make sure you combine strength training with your running a few times a week for optimal results. Here’s how I balance both in one week.
I want to know your thoughts on sprinting! Do you hate it or love it, and do you ever attempt hill sprints?