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The Physical Difference Between Long Distance Runners & Sprinters

author image Scott Amato
Scott Amato has been a sportswriter for a major Midwestern daily newspaper since 1985. He has covered professional baseball, football and hockey. In addition, Amato has contributed to sports publications throughout the United States and Japan. He has a Bachelor of Science in journalism from Ohio University.
The Physical Difference Between Long Distance Runners & Sprinters
From height to weight to muscle mass, there are many differences between long distance runners and sprinters. Photo Credit: Thomas Northcut/Photodisc/Getty Images

Long distance runners and sprinters have one thing in common -- they try to win races. Physically, they are complete opposites. Long distance runners are lean, which best suits them for covering ground. Sprinters are powerfully built and explosively fast for shorter stretches. The two runners differ in speed and body type.

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Generally, top long distance runners are tall. They have long arms that pump for extra power. Distance runners also have long legs that allow for a bigger stride. Covering more ground with fewer steps gets the distance runner to the finish line in less time. Sprinters typically are smaller than distance runners. Shorter legs are beneficial for quickly building speed.


Long distance runners carry as little weight as possible. Running races that cover a mile or more requires strength and endurance. Carrying too much weight is a burden for distance runners and slows speed. Distance runners constantly are burning calories in training and competition, so excessive weight gain is rarely a concern. Sprinters carry more weight, and most of it is muscle. Being heavier allows the sprinter to run with more power. Added weight also helps sprinters cut through wind.

Muscle Mass

Long distance runners develop long, lean muscles, particularly in the lower body. Sprinters have thick muscles. Strong thighs and calves help the sprinter burst from the starting line. Sprinters also have strong upper bodies. Powerful arms pump and provide maximum speed and power while aiding balance. Long distance runners rely on aerobic training to get ready for races. Sprinters also do aerobic training, but they lift weights to add muscle.

Physical Risks

Long distance runners and sprinters run completely different races. They also have different injury risks. Distance runners often are sidelined by stress fractures, shin splints and muscle cramps, a byproduct of the dehydration that can come with running long races such as marathons. Sprinters have to be wary of muscle and hamstring pulls that occur with quick acceleration. Distance runners and sprinters both are prone to ankle, knee and back injuries that can be caused by too much training and competition.

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