Sprinting is literally the speediest way to get in better shape. “There is no more athletic or metabolically intensive activity a person could do than to sprint,” says Mike Young, PhD, CSCS, an elite USA Track & Field Level 3 coach and director of sports performance at Athletic Lab in Cary, N.C. “It burns fat, builds lean muscle and naturally increases human growth hormone.”
Present in our bodies throughout our lifetimes, our levels of human growth hormone (HGH) typically decline as we age. The hormone is important not only in helping us maintain a more youthful appearance, but also in improving bone density and immune system function. And these are just a few of the reasons that sprinting does your whole system good.
Postsprint, your system continues to burn fat at an increased rate for up to 48 hours. “Jogging is like lighting a small match. It’ll burn some fuel while it’s lit. Sprinting, on the other hand, is like setting a bonfire that will continue to burn all night long,” says Young.
In addition to burning more fat, sprinting helps develop stronger, leaner hips and legs. Sprinting will also improve your running economy, translating to improved distance work, Young explains: “When endurance athletes do a little sprinting, it increases their ability to run efficiently and they utilize less oxygen when training aerobically.”
Sprints don’t necessarily have to involve running, though. Bicyclists, swimmers and others also benefit from sprint work, because practicing any high-intensity movement grooves new patterns into your neuromuscular system.
The more you sprint, the better your body gets at figuring out which muscles to switch on and off, and when. As your body adapts, your nervous system gets more efficient at recruiting the right muscles and contracting them faster. Net result: improved power output, intermuscular coordination and efficiency in virtually any activity.
Ready to go? Turn the page for three sprint workouts designed by Young, who’s worked with sprinters Dallas Robinson and Dennis Boone, high jumper Joe Kindred, and baseball player Andres Torres. Two are best performed on a track or a field where you can measure off distances easily, and the third requires a long set of stairs. You can sprint one to three times a week, but build your speed and frequency gradually. If you’re just getting into shape, start by performing the warm-up on its own for a couple of weeks.
Before getting started, spend 10 minutes doing this dynamic warm-up, which will not only increase your core body temperature, but will also prepare you for the ballistic nature of sprinting.
100-Meter Skip: Push off the ground and lift your knee, one leg at a time, just like you did as a kid on the playground.
600-Meter Jog: Jog at a slow pace — you’ll have plenty of time to kick up the speed later.
50-Meter Alternating Gallop: Like a kid riding a stick horse, lead with one foot for two galloping steps, then lead with the other, alternating sides for the duration.
50-Meter Pickup Run: Run for three steps, then reach down and touch the ground, as if trying to pick something up. Repeat.
50-Meter Skip Lunge: Skip with your left leg, and then land and lunge with the right. Alternate sides.
50-Meter Shuffle Step: Without allowing your feet to touch or cross, shuffle 25 meters to the left and then 25 meters to the right.
50-Meter Backward Jog: Simply jog backward (making sure you have a clear path behind you).
80-Meter High-Knee Jog: Jog for 40 meters, lifting your knees as high as you can. Rest a moment, then repeat the movement for another 40 meters.
Workout No. 1: Walk-Back Sprints
For those new to sprinting, this interval workout is a good place to start.
If you’re running on an outdoor track, remember that each straightaway is 100 meters long. If you’re on an indoor track, find out how many meters it is.
- Sprint 100 meters.
- Walk back to where you started, and get ready to run again.
- To kick your sprint speed up a notch, take a longer rest between sets — about a minute after you catch your breath.
- Work your way up to 10 sprints (and in the meantime, stop when you feel you can’t take any more).
Workout No. 2: There-And-Backs
Mark out 10-, 20-, 30- and 40-meter intervals at your track with cones or pieces of tape. Exact distances aren’t important: A large step is approximately 1 meter, so simply take 10 large steps and mark the interval. Repeat this for the 20-, 30- and 40-meter intervals.
- Start by sprinting out to the 10-meter mark, and then turn around and sprint back to the start.
- Next, continue on to the 20-meter mark and back.
- Then, sprint out to the 30-meter mark and back.
- Finally, sprint to the 40-meter mark and back.
- Rest for three minutes before repeating. Work your way up to four sets.
Workout No. 3: Stair Repeats
Walk up 20 to 25 steps of stairs (stadium steps, indoor and outdoor staircases all work fine), and set a marker at the top so you’ll know your turnaround point.
- Run up 20 to 25 stairs as quickly as you safely can.
- Walk back down the steps slowly for recovery.
- Repeat. Work your way up to 12 sets.
Quick Tips for Safe Speed Work
- Because sprinting spikes your heart rate to maximal levels, your cardiovascular system will be working overtime to pump oxygen to different parts of your body. If you’ve got asthma, heart and lung problems, or exercise-induced bronchitis, short bursts of intense activity could do more harm than good, so make sure to check with your doctor before you get started.
- If you have any joint pain or musculoskeletal injuries, wait until you’re fully recovered before you make the transition from walking to running.
- Don’t overdo it! Sprinting is about quality, not quantity, so start with short distances and gradually work your way up. You’ll need to sprint at least once a week, but not more than three times a week, to reap the full benefits.
Sprinting is a high-impact activity, which can be jarring to the body. Injuries, joint problems or pregnancy might prompt you to seek out gentler alternatives that don’t involve a “flight phase” (that split second when both feet leave the ground, followed by a hard landing). You can also experiment with other ways to reduce impact:
- Change the surface. If running on a track is too tough on your knees, find a park, grass field or patch of dirt. A softer surface will lower the impact a notch. Or, try running up a hill and walking back down.
- Change the activity. Instead of running sprints, try sprinting while biking or swimming. (Note: You’ll want to increase the distances accordingly, especially with biking.) Although this won’t necessarily improve your running speed, the hormonal response will be very similar — the increase in testosterone and human growth hormone comes in response to all higher-intensity activity, not just sprinting.
- Take the stairs. Walking or running up a flight of stairs will raise your heart rate fast without jarring your body, because there is no flight phase, and because you’ll be stepping onto an elevated platform, which is easier on the knees. Running down stairs can be a shock to the joints, however, so as with running hills, make sure to walk back to the bottom.