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Running 101: Getting Started With Sprints

How short, fast bursts can produce long-term benefits for your workout

author image Patrick Striet
Patrick Striet has been writing fitness and wellness related articles since 2000. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including "Men's Health" and "Men's Fitness" magazine. He holds a Bachelor of Science in health & sports studies from Miami University, Ohio
Running 101: Getting Started With Sprints
A woman is getting ready to sprint on a running track. Photo Credit DeanDrobot/iStock/Getty Images


Running isn't usually considered a power movement. That’s because running is often associated with long, slow distance. Endurance work. Jogging.

But running is an ideal way to develop power if we define it as sprinting rather than steady-state training. When it comes to power development, there might not be a more effective method than sprinting. Sprinting also offers a more efficient workout, and boosts your metabolism more traditional cardiovascular workouts (think: 30-minute elliptical trainer sessions). And as an added bonus: Sprinting makes you feel like an athlete.

As with any high-intensity activity, it’s important to progress gradually to avoid injury.

Here are some the benefits of sprinting, along with the proper warm-up for a sprint session, how and when to introduce sprints into your weekly schedule, and some sample workouts for doing so.

The Benefits of Sprinting

Sprinting offers a number of benefits:

1. It’s terrific for power development because it requires you to produce and apply force rapidly and explosively. “Muscle activation in the lower body muscles - including the glutes, hamstrings, quads, and calves - reaches very impressive levels, which leads to increases in lean muscle mass and power,” said Arizona based biomechanics expert Bret Contreras, CSCS.

2. Sprinting is superior for fat loss because it is high intensity in nature, requires multiple short bursts of effort, and greatly increases your post workout metabolism. You will continue to burn calories at an increased rate for hours after your workout is over. Although sprinting often is thought of as a cardiovascular conditioning activity (which it certainly is), it actually is an effective muscle building activity for the lower body because it recruits high threshold type II muscle fibers. There’s a reason Olympic sprinters have such well-developed glutes and quads.

3. For adults concerned about bone density, sprint training is a great program to follow. Says Contreras, “Overcoming the inherent ground reaction forces involved in sprint running places considerable loading on the bones, which causes the body to remodel and increase bone density.” Sprinting is much more stimulating and time efficient than traditional cardiovascular workouts. Long, slow cardio workouts can be boring and quickly reach the point of diminishing returns. Plus, most people would rather have the lean, powerful physique of a top-level sprinter than the skinny look of a marathoner.

Proper Warm-Up

Much like you wouldn't attempt to take your car from 0 to 60 without warming it up, you need to warm up your body. “If you wouldn't do it with your car, why treat your body with any less respect?” says Tony Gentilcore, CSCS, co-owner of Cressey Performance in Hudson, MA.

Sprinting is a high-intensity activity that must be eased into otherwise you risk injury, particularly to the hip flexors, hamstrings and Achilles tendons. Do the following beforehand:

1. Use a foam roller on your illtotibial (IT) bands, hamstrings, quadriceps, glutes and calves, for 30-60 seconds on each area.

2. After foam rolling, perform a series of dynamic stretching drills targeting the hip flexors, hamstrings, quadriceps and calves.

3. Following the dynamic warm-up, do some static stretching for the hamstrings, hip flexors, calves and quadriceps. Spend 30 seconds on each area.

4. Before starting the actual sprint workout, perform three to four “flying sprints” or “striders” at 50 to 75 percent of maximum speed over 20 to 40 yards to get your muscles acclimated.

How and When to Introduce Sprints

Newcomers to sprinting should start with once or twice a week and work up to three times. Some prefer to sprint on strength training days, either immediately after hitting the weights or later in the day. The benefit of performing sprints immediately post workout is that your temperature is up, and your muscles are activated, so your warm-up can be much shorter. If you choose to perform a sprint workout later in the day, you should do a standard warm-up.

You also can perform your sprint workout as a standalone cardiovascular routine on days you do not strength train.

As far as intensity, I never recommend sprinting all out. In strength training circles, it often is advised to leave a rep or two in the tank and avoid complete muscular failure. This holds true for sprints as well; think about only hitting about 90 percent of your maximum speed, especially during your first couple weeks.

Time is a great debate subject when it comes to sprinting. Some advocate sprints of 20 to 30 seconds, but sprinting is most effective in the five to 12 second range.

For most people, this means 30 to 90 yards. Sprints should be high intensity, short burst efforts.

Anything beyond 10 to 12 seconds and you start to work another energy system, will become excessively fatigued, and likely will get injured.

As far as recovery between sprints, use a work-to-rest ratio of 1:3-5. If you sprint 40 yards in six seconds, you should rest 20-30 seconds (or more) between sprints. Walking back to the starting line after each sprint will put you in this recovery range.

The idea with sprint training is power and performance. If you sprint for an excessive amount of time or distance, and do not allow enough recovery, both power and performance will decline.

As for volume, beginners should start with five sprints, once or twice a week, and progress to 15 sprints up to three times a week. This might not seem like a lot, but it is important that sprinting be progressed gradually in order to avoid injury. A sprint workout need not exceed 20 minutes, including work and recovery periods.

Fifteen 50-yard sprints taking 8 seconds apiece with 40 seconds of recovery would take only 12 minutes to complete. The great thing about sprint training is that it produces maximum results with minimum time commitment.

When it comes to surface, try to sprint on field turf, grass, or a nice all-weather track for flat land sprints. If you want to do stadium stair or hill sprints, you’ll likely be running on concrete or asphalt, which is unavoidable, unless you can find a nice grassy hill. Try to avoid asphalt and concrete as this places more stress on your joints.

Putting it All Together

Let’s take a look at a sample sprint program:

Week 1

• Warm-up

• Five 30-40 yard sprints with five times the recovery (i.e. if you run 40 yards in six seconds, rest 30 seconds between sprints)

• Perform one day per week

Week 2

• Warm-up

• Eight 30-40 yard sprints with five times the recovery

• Perform two days per week

Week 3

• Warm-up

• Ten 40-50 yard sprints with five times the recovery

• Perform three days per week

Week 4

• Warm-up

• Twelve 40-50 yard sprints with five times the recovery

• Perform three days per week

Week 5

• Warm-up

• Fifteen 50-60 yard sprints with five times the recovery

• Perform three days per week

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