Beginners Guide to Sprinting
Unless you ran track in high school, you may be familiar with the many benefits of sprinting but have no idea how to get started. Unlike distance running there are few sprinting clubs or weekend races with finisher’s medals. Described here is a complete beginner’s guide to sprinting.
Reasons to Sprint
Thanks to Usain Bolt’s impressive feats on the track, more people are becoming interested in this fast-paced sport. There are many reasons to sprint, including:
Sprinting is great for overall body conditioning, which is why weight lifters can often be found on the local track. Sprinting is an anabolic exercise, meaning that it builds strength while increasing muscle mass.
When it comes to torching fat, there is no better activity than sprinting. In fact, a single sprinting session has been shown to improve fat oxidation by up to 75%1. While endurance running can have negative effects on body composition by reducing muscle mass, sprinting reduces fat while preserving muscle.
One benefit of going for a long run is the boost in mitochondrial growth. However, it turns out that sprinting can build mitochondria just as efficiently. Even sprints as short as 4 seconds2 long were found to improve mitochondrial biogenesis in humans.
Enhances Distance Running
If you are a distance runner who is looking to improve, sprinting is the way to go. Sprinting increases running efficiency while building important muscle fibers and enhancing the body’s ability to use fat for fuel3. Additionally, the more comfortable a person becomes while running fast, the more comfortable he or she will be while running a relatively slow pace, such as during a marathon.
In order to reap the benefits of sprinting, athletes don’t have to spend hours of their day on the roads or trails. One study4 found that sprinting three times per week (only 4 – 6 sprints per session) had the same effect on whole body insulin sensitivity, microvascular density, and arterial elasticity as cycling for 40 – 60 minutes five days per week.
Sprinting vs. Distance Running
Before we begin, it is important to make a distinction between sprinting and distance running. While distance runners may think their speed work constitutes as sprinting, the fact of the matter is that two entirely different techniques are utilized. Distance running relies on long, sustained efforts punctuated with periods of high-intensity interval training. These sessions range from 200 m to 1600 m and have limited rest, typically less than 3 minutes.
Sprinting, on the other hand, is an anaerobic activity that does not require oxygen for fuel. Technique is one of the most important components, as full-body muscle activation is important for a true sprint. While the goal of speed workouts designed for distance runners is to improve efficiency in longer races, the goal of sprint workouts (where the longest amount of time spent all-out sprinting is generally 30 seconds) is to continue to develop muscle strength, better technique, and enhanced muscle activation for faster times.
Before you can begin your sprinting regimen, there are a number of considerations you should make.
If you are serious about sprinting as a competitive sport, consider hiring a coach. There are many coaches available (particularly online) that can properly guide you in your quest to become fitter, faster, and stronger. Like distance running, proper form, technique, and the right workouts are crucial in the development of a sprinter.
Sprinting does not require any specialized equipment, however, venue is important. Access to a track can make sprint workouts easier. Sand, grass, astro turf, and dirt are all acceptable surfaces for sprinting as well. Avoid concrete or asphalt, as sprinting places more force on a person’s muscles and joints and even short bursts on hard surfaces can lead to serious injuries.
Proper running shoes are also important. Sprinters do not require heavily cushioned shoes, so these should be avoided. Instead, a minimalist shoe that forces a runner to his or her toes is ideal. If sprinting primarily on a track, consider purchasing track spikes.
Other pieces of equipment that can be helpful (but are not necessary) include miniature hurdles and parachutes. Mini hurdles are great for improving technique and serving as an aid in certain drills. One example is to place 8 – 12 miniature hurdles approximately 2 meters apart. Next, sprint through the hurdles as fast as you can. This drill will improve knee drive and help overcome form inefficiencies. A sprint parachute5 is used as a form of resistance training during sprinting.
Also read: What Makes a Runner Fast?
A training session for a sprinter looks drastically different than a training session for a distance runner. Whereas distance runners often train 6 – 7 days per week, beginning sprinters should allow adequate time between training sessions for their bodies to recover. In the beginning, sprinters should aim for 3 – 4 days of training per week while gradually building volume. Although sprinting requires far less mileage than distance running, the intensity is much greater.
Always warm up before a sprinting workout. When temperatures are below 40o F, sprinters should take their workouts indoors in order to avoid a muscle strain. The first part of the warm up should include a light jog, such as 2 – 3 laps around the track, or a minimum of 5 minutes. Wearing extra clothing, such as sweats, can help further warm up muscles on chilly days.
Dynamic Form Drills
The next step is to incorporate dynamic form drills, which will help activate important muscle fibers while ensuring large muscle groups are adequately prepared. After your warm up, do 2 x 20 m of high knees, butt kicks, A-skips, B-skips, C-skips, scissor run, carioca, walking lunges, and side lunges.
A great explanation of these exercises, as well as a visual demonstration, can be found here. It is important to mindfully go through these exercises and not simply go through the motions in order to complete them as quickly as possible. Each component of sprint training is important, and without a proper warm up, a runner can seriously injure him or herself.
Without proper technique, sprinters will be unable to get the most from their workout. Whether you are sprinting for 4 seconds or 40 seconds, you should aim for having the best technique each time.
The most crucial component of a sprint is the start. Avoid using starting blocks unless you have a coach or are familiar with their use. In the beginning, a standing start is fine. Your biggest focus should be on driving your strongest foot forward and hitting the ground as quickly as possible. In the first 20 meters (approximately the first 3 – 5 steps), focus on keeping your body low, your back leg extended, and your eyes on the ground.
After your first few steps, use the next couple strides to gradually bring your body upright. Once your head is level with the ground, accelerate forward while fixing your eyes on something in the distance, such as a tree or a fence post. Doing so can improve your speed by 23%.
Just like in distance running, the way you use your arms is important. Make sure your arms and legs are working in unison. When your right knee is at full height driving forward, make sure your left arm is driven forward at its maximum height.
Finally, an important component for sprinters is the mind. A sprinter who is thinking is a sprinter who isn’t performing. Clear your mind and only focus on getting from point A to point B as quickly as possible. In between sprints visualize your body moving with perfect form.
Now that you know how to properly sprint, the next step is to develop a training program. Listed here are example workouts.
Example Workout #1
4 x 80 m sprints with 3 minute recovery
3 x 60 m sprints with 2 minute recovery
2 x 40 m sprints with 1 minute recovery
1 x 30 m sprint
Example Workout #2
6 x 30 second sprints at 80-90% effort with 5-minute recovery
Example Workout #3
2 x 30 m with 3 minute recovery
2 x 200 m with 3 minute recovery
2 x 150 m with 3 minute recovery
1 x 100 m
After each workout it is also necessary to cool down properly. Just as you began, jog 2 – 3 laps on the track, or, for a minimum of 5 minutes. Stretching – particularly hamstrings, hip flexors, and quadriceps – is also a good idea.
Mistakes to Avoid
There are a number of common mistakes that beginning sprinters make. The following should be avoided:
Not Working on Mobility
Distance runners are notoriously inflexible. Inflexibility for a sprinter can lead to hindered performance and injury. When you aren’t sprinting you should work on improving your flexibility, particularly in the hips.
Overstriding, also known as heel striking, is extremely inefficient for sprinters and can also lead to serious injuries in the feet and lower legs. Ask someone to record your sprinting session to ensure you are landing on your toes or the balls of your feet.
Too Much Intensity, Too Soon
Contrary to popular belief, you do not have to sprint at 100% effort in order to reap the many benefits of this exercise. Build your speed gradually in order to develop the necessary functional strength to sprint faster.
Sprinting on Hard Surfaces
Never sprint on a surface harder than a track. Doing so can lead to shin splints and muscle tears.
Sprinting through Fatigue
Beginning sprinters will find that running at a high intensity induces a different type of fatigue. If your muscles start burning at the end of a sprint, this sensation is normal. However, call it a day if you are sore before you even begin. Asking your body to sprint through muscle fatigue and soreness can lead to a torn muscle, which is difficult to recover from.
Sprinting after Weight Lifting
Weight lifting is important for sprinters, however, timing is crucial. Never sprint after a weight lifting session, which can hinder performance as well as lead to muscle strains or tears. Instead, hit the weights after your sprints are completed, but be cautious.
1. Chan HH, Burns SF. Oxygen consumption, substrate oxidation, and blood pressure following sprint interval exercise. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2013;38(2):182-7. Link
2. Serpiello FR, Mckenna MJ, Bishop DJ, et al. Repeated sprints alter signaling related to mitochondrial biogenesis in humans. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2012;44(5):827-34. Link
3. Talanian JL, Galloway SD, Heigenhauser GJ, Bonen A, Spriet LL. Two weeks of high-intensity aerobic interval training increases the capacity for fat oxidation during exercise in women. J Appl Physiol. 2007;102(4):1439-47. Link
4. Cocks M, Shaw CS, Shepherd SO, et al. Sprint interval and endurance training are equally effective in increasing muscle microvascular density and eNOS content in sedentary males. J Physiol (Lond). 2013;591(3):641-56. Link
5. Paulson S, Braun WA. The influence of parachute-resisted sprinting on running mechanics in collegiate track athletes. J Strength Cond Res. 2011;25(6):1680-5. Link