Just because sprinting and distance running are separate events in track and field doesn’t mean you can’t incorporate sprints into your half marathon or marathon training. In fact, sprinting is a valuable exercise for all runners—not only does it improve race performance, but it can also positively affect your everyday fitness.
Runner’s World consulted experts and research to round up the benefits of sprinting. But before we get to the pay-offs, it’s important to differentiate sprinting from your other types of training runs.
What is sprinting?
Sprinting is the action of running all-out at top speed for a short period of time. It requires powerful, explosive movements. Typically, when you go out for a run, you’re not focusing on an explosive or powerful stride—you’re trying to maintain a steady pace over a long period of time.
If you only run distance, you only train your aerobic system—through which the body uses oxygen to produce energy—and slow-twitch muscle fibers, which run on oxygen for energy and are designed to hold off fatigue for long periods of time. You do need to train both your aerobic capacity and slow-twitch fibers to get better at going the distance, but sprinting can offer other benefits to your training.
Sprinting, for example, taps into your anaerobic system, which uses glucose instead of oxygen to produce energy—because of the intensity, oxygen demand outweighs the supply so your body need another fast-acting source. Sprinting also recruits fast-twitch muscle fibers, which generate more force and power than slow-twitch fibers, but tire quicker.
When you near the end of a race and your natural instinct to finish as fast as possible kicks in, you might find it hard to step up and dash to the finish if you only trained your aerobic system and slow-twitch fibers. By practicing sprinting, and therefore your anaerobic system and fast-twitch fibers, you can hone a better finishing kick.
But, you may ask, ‘does sprinting really matter if I’m running long-distance races, which can take up to hours and hours to complete?’ The short answer: yes.
A study published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance in 2019 discovered significant correlations between 5K and 10K times and sprint speed. The researchers had twelve elite runners run both a 100-meter time trial and 400-meter time trial. They found that the best sprinters of the group tended to have the fastest 5K and 10K season best times (with the exception of one outlier).
The researchers concluded that sprinting ability makes a difference in race performance, suggesting that “it would be more important for long-distance runners to enhance their sprinting ability than has been previously suggested.”
Even if you’re not an elite athlete, sprinting can offer some real benefits to your training, whether you’re looking to get faster or go longer. Let this list of advantages you’ll gain lead you to speed.
Sprinting boosts your acceleration and top speed
It might seem obvious, but training to run faster does make you faster. A review published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2016, which looked at eight studies about sprint-specific training, observed improvements in subjects’ speed after at least six weeks.
Another study of 16 trained trail runners, published in 2017 in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, found that four to seven 30-second sprints (performed at max effort), followed by four minutes of recovery, performed three times a week for two weeks, improved subjects’ 3,000-meter run time and time to exhaustion. It also increased their maximal aerobic speed.
These speed gains not only help you move faster around the field in a recreational sport like basketball or soccer, but even during your marathon. When the finish line is in sight, you can unleash a vicious kick to pass the competition, chop seconds off your time, and feel confident in your racing ability.
Sprinting improves your running mechanics
When running, your brain sends a signal through the nervous system to your muscles. Those nerves and muscles combined make up the neuromuscular system, which controls balance, posture, coordination, and gait—all important aspects of strong running form. Think about running a marathon: it takes a lot of composure (and firing of your neurons and muscles) to maintain efficiency for hours of running.
But, “the gait that you have for running is different than what you have for sprinting,” Christian Robinson, USATF Level 2 certified coach in sprints, hurdles, and relays and owner of Sprint Academy, tells Runner’s World. “When you’re sprinting, you’re literally leveraging every neuromuscular component you have to try and get from point A to point B as fast as possible.”
For example, if your arms swing wildly, or your stride is too long, or your hamstrings don’t properly activate, you waste energy. As a result, you won’t get to the line as fast as you would if you had more efficient form. To sprint efficiently, you naturally have to practice good mechanics. And by practicing good mechanics, you train your brain to teach your muscles how to run effectively.
“If you can run faster efficiently, then you can run slower efficiently,” says Robinson.
Sprinting improves your running economy
Running economy refers to “the energy demand of running at a constant submaximal speed,” reports a 2015 study in Sports Medicine. In other words, it’s how efficiently you use energy when running at aerobic paces.
In a systematic review and meta-analysis published in Sports Medicine in 2016, researchers analyzed 16 studies and confirmed that explosive training methods improved running economy in endurance athletes. While many of those studies employed plyometrics or weight training, the functional goals were the same as sprinting: improve power and explosiveness.
In addition to its other findings, the previously mentioned 2019 study in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance also found significant correlation between sprint speed and running economy. So don’t be surprised if you feel more efficient on steady-state runs after a couple months of sprint training.
Sprinting builds muscular power
Sprinting isn’t just about good mechanics and economy—it also requires strong, powerful legs. As mentioned earlier, sprinting trains fast-twitch muscle fibers. Those muscle fibers are larger, more powerful, and generate more force than the slow-twitch muscle fibers used in slower, longer running, according to the book Management of Track and Field Injuries. Therefore, you gain power in your legs with sprint training and you can think of power as the marriage of strength and speed—a coveted combo for getting you across a finish line with a new PR.
What’s more: The same Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research study published in 2017 and mentioned above, not only found improvements in speed after two weeks of a 30-second all-out sprint protocol, but also increases in mean power and peak power.
So when you’re sprinting, you’re gaining stronger and more powerful muscles. Next time you squat in the gym or have to lift a heavy box, or even explode off the line of a race, you can thank sprinting for the extra muscle power.
Sold? Here’s How to Start Sprinting
If you want to add sprinting to your training regimen, Robinson has some advice. He likens adding sprint work to your schedule to taking medication or going to a physical therapist: “Most people try and self diagnose and then try to self medicate.” He stresses that 200-meter repeats or 400-meter repeats are not sprinting, even though it might feel like it to a long-distance runner. During sprint training, you’re more likely to cover under 100 meters, rather than over. So keep the distances short.
Also, sprinting puts a lot of stress on the body that must be properly implemented into your schedule or you might injure yourself. That’s why Robinson recommends getting an assessment from a coach or professional to determine your specific physical capabilities and skill set, so they can appropriately build a program for you. He compares it to jumping into freshman year of high school without the 14 years of education that came before: “[If] you are never instructed on how to read, write, or do arithmetic and someone threw you into a calculus class and advanced English literature where you’re going to analyze Shakespearean sonnets [it would be really tough to keep up]—that’s what happens to people when they start trying to sprint.”
After an assessment, set appropriate goals. Robinson makes sure to draw up a reasonable timeline based on where athletes are currently and where they want to go. “I don’t tell them what’s possible. I tell them where they’re at and then the work that’s necessary to go in the direction they want.” He then measures those goals based on incremental drops in short sprint times, such as a 30-meter dash, and slow-motion form evaluations on video.
Finally, when folding sprinting into your routine, make sure to emphasize rest and recovery. Robinson says this is the biggest factor that determines whether or not athletes injure themselves. “Working [sprinting] into a program would be at least one day a week consistently,” he says. ”But then you’re going to need rest before you tap into that system, anywhere between 48 to 72 hours depending on the person.” And make sure you do it on a track or soft, flat surface like grass or turf—putting stress on your body on uneven surfaces can lead to imbalance and injury.
If you think sprints suck at first, that’s okay—it’s part of the process (and also super common). “You stick with it, and after three or four weeks you realize, ‘I feel great,’” says Robinson. “That feeling of being consistent and seeing the improvement definitely travels into other parts of your life.”