It seems like everyone in the fitness world is talking about sprinting these days, and for very good reason. If you aren’t doing some kind of sprints as part of your weekly workouts, you’re missing out on amazing benefits. Sprints are a form of HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training). They are characterized by short intervals of intense effort, followed by periods of active recovery, or rest, repeated for a certain number of repetitions. Although sprints can be done with any cardio exercise, I’m going to focus on one you’re probably familiar with – running.
There are a number of variables to consider in sprint training and I’ll go into specifics a little later, but first the benefits. Sprinting is a whole body exercise that repeatedly raises your heart rate, and works your legs, glutes, abs and back. It’s an advanced technique but if you’re willing to be patient and carefully add it into your schedule, it’s a great way to get an intense workout in very little time.
The high impact nature of sprinting increases bone density, as well as tendon and muscle strength around joints. This is all good for helping you avoid injury. Sprinting teaches the legs to move faster. This can help any athlete in sports that utilize explosive power. If you’re already a runner, this is especially helpful at the end of a race for that final finishing kick. It is also good for people engaging in everyday activities; think about dashing after a child who has wandered into the street, or chasing a dog who has escaped the fence.
Sprinting aids fat loss. Studies show that the body burns more calories during the hours after sprinting than steady state moderate cardio exercise that keeps your effort in the so-called “fat burning zone.” This is called EPOC or Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption. During sprinting, hormones and enzymes spike that help the body use fat for fuel. Even athletes, such as bodybuilders and wrestlers, who don’t run as part of their sport use sprints to keep body fat down and increase explosive power, muscle strength, and growth.
Sprinting is surprisingly beneficial for endurance athletes. When my trainer said I needed to start doing sprints, I thought he was crazy. After all, I’m a distance runner with 5k (3.1 miles) being the race I usually run. But I found that he was totally right. My time improved quickly during the first season of working with sprints, and is still improving. The body learns to store and use oxygen more effectively. Running efficiency is improved and VO2 max is increased.
There are some cautions to keep in mind about sprinting. Always warm up properly before starting your sprints. You are more liable to injure yourself when doing a high intensity workout using cold muscles. In fact, it takes me so long to warm up and I get cold so easily, I won’t even attempt to do my sprints outdoors on freezing winter days. I learned this the hard way when I pulled a hamstring doing hill sprints on a chilly morning in the park. Now I use the treadmill instead.
Treadmill usage brings up some additional cautions. Carefully consider whether you want to jump onto a moving belt going at your top speed. Frankly, I don’t do my sprints like this because I’ve seen enough internet videos of treadmill mishaps to know that I don’t want to go flying off the machine. I work the speed up to my target mph and slow the machine down the same way. In addition to not tripping up, I don’t shock my muscles with speeds I’m not used to but can work up to the speed I want to reach.
That’s another consideration, your speed. If you’re new to sprinting, start off slower than your maximum effort. Going at 100% in training is not necessary or even ideal. If you go too fast when you sprint, you are more likely to pull a muscle. It takes time to heal and can be frustrating for anyone. Experience will help here.
There are a number of ways to work sprints into your weekly workouts. Although I can’t prescribe a set routine for everyone reading this, here are a few guidelines.
Try starting with 1 sprint session a week and see how you respond to the effort and the recovery. Don’t do sprints every day. Just like a traditional strength workout, your body needs recovery time between workouts, at least a full day.
Start with 3 to 4 repetitions of speed interspersed with recovery. Only increase the number of sprints after a week or two. Don’t overdo it at the beginning, or you may risk burnout or injury.
Start with short sprint intervals, 10 to 20 seconds. If you’re glancing at your watch toward the end of the interval, you’re probably on target for maximum time spent at speed. Give yourself plenty of recovery time between sprints. I like to almost fully catch my breath after each burst of speed so I can put a good effort into the next one. I may walk as long as 2 or 3 minutes between sprints, depending on how long or fast I went.
If you’re looking to progress, there are a number of ways to increase difficulty. Make your sprint intervals longer, make your recovery time shorter, run faster, run up hills or an incline on the treadmill, or finally, do more interval reps. Just don’t change them up all at once. Pick one thing to change and next week change one more thing.
Finally, as with any exercise program, you should first exercise good judgment and check with your health care provider to make sure that sprinting isn’t contraindicated for some medical or health reason. And then proceed with care. The benefits will be worth the effort.