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What is Sprint Training?

I want to continue talking about the idea of training like an athlete to look like an athlete and the fact that when people say that they mean train to look like a sprinter.  The logic here is that the the sprinter’s body type, especially compared to the endurance athlete is due to the sprint training.

And hopefully I’ve divested you of that stupid idea.  The initial body type is genetic, racial and the fact that sports select for certain body types.  Most of what happens physique wise is related to whether or not the athlete lifts weights or not rather than the sprint training per se.

Shall We Play a Game?

But let’s play a game today.  Let’s ASSume that the body types of sprinters is built by their sprint work (I still see this floating around, the idea that you should run sprints to be built like a sprinter even if it’s total nonsense).  It’s not true but let’s assume that it is.

And the reason that I want to make this assumption is to make the following point: the people who make this stupid comparison to sprinters don’t have the first clue what sprinters actually do in training or what sprint training is.  Because invariably the types of training that they recommend to “look like a sprinter” or use this argument to claim superiority for have nothing to do with sprint training.  And I’m going to show you why.

I’m also going to look at the fact that the additional claim of “sprint” training being more time efficient (and hence even more superior) is laughably incorrect.

High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

A bunch of years back, High-Intensity Interval Training or HIIT (not to be confused with the 1-set to failure HIT weight room work) became popular.  Here’s some trivia, I believe that I was one of the first people to actually write about this in my first book on ketogenic diets in the late 90’s.

I had known for a lot of years that the intensity of aerobic work really didn’t matter (i.e. the Fat Burning Zone is crap and calorie expenditure was the primary driver on fat loss in the big scheme of things) and wrote about the Tremblay study in The Ketogenic Diet (I recall MM2k having done an article about it as well).  But as usual it would be years before the industry jumped on the HIIT bandwagon.

And jump they did.  With increasing amounts of evidence that HIIT was more time efficient and had at least the same health and physiological benefits as longer duration exercise (at least for a while anyhow, fitness gains tapered off pretty quickly), everybody got on board.  Maybe the most misunderstood study was the Tabata study/protocol which you can read about.

Researchers jumped hard on the idea that this was the key to generating fitness gains in the untrained beginner who might be put off by the time component. Nevermind that high-intensity work generates negative affect (makes people feel bad) under most conditions and that tends to impair adherence in the total beginner.  This is something I’ve said for years.

Good advice not followed is bad advice and jumping a beginner straight into high intensity work is a great way to chase them out of the gym (people in studies often feel an obligation to do them no matter how much they suck)

There is also the simple fact that HIIT only works when the intensity is high and my experience is that beginners can’t generate the necessary intensity on their own even if they do want to/will tolerate it.  Yes, with researchers encouraging them (a polite way to say shouting) they might.

But in the real world, let’s face facts: a beginner won’t work that hard and probably won’t come back to the gym if you destroy them out of the gate.  And HIIT only works if you do the intensity bit with sufficient intensity.

But let’s move on from beginners.  Trained folks have the motivation, training background and ability to generate the kind of intensity that can make HIIT effective although too much can rapidly get them into problems.  When HIIT got popular, folks forgot/didn’t notice/didn’t read past the abstract that the studies using interval training were doing that alone.

You’d see studies where HIIT was done 3X/week and compared to traditional aerobic training.  But that’s all that was being done.  When you throw HIIT (which is almost always lower body work) on top of other training, it can be too much and usually is.

If someone is training legs hard twice/week and tries to add HIIT (which hits legs intensely) twice/week they blow up.  I recall some people during contest prep diets becoming so enamored of HIIT that they did that every day instead of low intensity work.  And they overtrained.

Most elite endurance athletes only do interval work twice per week (you might see non-impact sports like cycling or swimming do it a little more frequently) because they can’t recover from more than that.  They also only typically use it for 3-6 weeks or so since the benefits taper off pretty quickly.  They usually aren’t lifting weights and it would be rare for them to be dieting during that phase of training.

Certainly sprinters typically perform both high-intensity sprint work and weights at the same time but there are significant differences both in their sprint work and their lifting.  They also tend to emphasize one or the other at different parts of the year.

Bodybuilders generally don’t and try to do everything at maximum all the time.  That’s where the problems start.  When you add endless HIIT to heavy weights on a hard diet, it all goes wrong very quickly.  Most endurance athletes are using what is called polarized training these days anyhow, about 80% low intensity work topped off by 20% higher intensity.

This is a good pattern and it’s even been argued that it does represent what Paleo man did exercise wise.   To integrate intervals with the other components of training and diet is critical and I’ve written about this topic before.

But there’s really a bigger issue which is this.

HIIT is Not Sprint Training

But honestly, here is a bigger issue I have with this whole dumb argument.  A typical HIIT workout, which is very time efficient, might be something like a 5 minute warm-up followed by 5-10 repeats of 30-60 seconds at near maximum intensity followed by 30-90 seconds of rest.  Then a 5 minute warm-down.

If someone does 10X30″/30″ that’s 10 minutes total work with 10′ warm-up/cool-down.  That’s twenty total minutes which is a lot more time efficient than 60′ of low intensity work to be sure.  It’s also arguably more interesting since you’re changing some aspect of the workout every so often.

It’s great for the typical ADHD trainee who gets bored doing 60′ of steady state at a continuous intensity (mind you, that can be gotten around as well if you’re creative).  Even a relatively longer HIIT workout of 30′ is  still less time wise than 60′ of typical cardio.

But here’s the thing 10X30″/30″ or 6X60″/60″ is not a sprint workout.  And I have seen people recommend true track sprinting which invariably just hurts people since you have to be trained to sprint correctly. It’s NOT just running as fast as you can.

At best it’s a middle distance type of workout and middle distance runners still don’t even do it that often.  It builds speed endurance, lactate buffering but isn’t a sprint workout.  This is what middle distance runners look like and I’ve yet to see someone hold up their physique in this argument.  Most dudes in your gym are more muscular.

Middle Distance Runners


True sprint training workouts are based around very short, near maximal speed activities (run, bike, swim) and long rest periods.  If it’s longer than about 6-8 seconds it’s not true sprinting since that’s about the maximum time you can maintain top speed.   Track cyclists will go up to 20 seconds but that’s because it takes them 10 seconds to get up to speed followed by a short period at top speed.

And those very short, near maximal bouts of sprinting are interspersed with very long rest intervals.  And it’s nothing like HIIT as it’s typically described.   To put this into perspective, let me look at real-world sprint workouts of two different sports.

100m Sprint Training

Since it’s usually the 100m sprinters who’s physiques are held up against marathoners (and nevermind that this is comparing the absolute extremes; someone who is doing 3 hours of aerobic work per week is not the same as someone running 120 miles per week) I’ll rough out one of their typical acceleration and maximum velocity workouts as this is when they work at maximal intensity.

First is the warm-up and this may take up to 45 minutes since true maximal work requires this to be done safely.  It would start with a 1/2 mile easy jog followed by mobility and stretching exercises.  Then there are dynamic warm-up drills (a variety but including A,B, and C walks and skips), followed by 4X30 m accelerations from a stand with a 3′ minute break.  Elite sprinters with good support might get a massage at some point during this.

So right there they’ve done 45 minutes just to get ready for the actual sprint workout.

After that is the main workout which would look something like this (and all work is done at full speed):

4X40m from a stand with 5-6 minutes break between repetitions.  Then an 8 minute break. (32′ total)
3X50m from a stand with 7-8 minutes between repetitions. Then a 10 minute break.  (another 34′)
3X60m from a stand with 8 minute break between repetitions (24′)

Then a 2o minute cooldown.  There might also be jumping/plyometrics and some workouts will have starts before the sprint work.

But overall, the workout lasts between 3.5 to 4 hours total since this is what is required for true sprint training.  Maximal quality work requires long rest intervals and true speed can only be trained under those conditions.  A common rule of thumb is 1-1.5 minute rest for every 10m run. So a 60m sprint requires 6-9 minutes rest.  An all out 100m sprint would require 10-15 minutes rest.

A true speed workout would include the same warm-up into 4X40m block starts with 5-6′ between repetitions and then an 8 minute set break.  Then 1X80m with a 10 minute break, 1X100m with a 15 minute break, 1X120m with a 20 minute break and finally 1x150m.  Then the cooldown.  Basically it’s a lot of short high quality work with a LOT of standing around doing a whole lot of nothing.

Ice Speed Skating Sprint Training

As another example, I want to sketch out one of the speed workouts we did when I was ice speed skating as this was fairly representative of what everybody on the ice did and should help to cement my point.

First we warmed-up off-ice and this started 45 minutes before the actual workout.

Our General Off-Ice Warmup
10′ jog or bike ride to get generally warm (the oval was fairly cool)
A few minutes of light PNF stretching
Several of my coaches specific warm-up drills
A bunch of technical drills that are all speed skating specific and the names wouldn’t mean anything
Low volume jumping: 20 ankle hops, 50-100m bounding, 5-8 double leg jumps and some side hops
Then I’d move to the ice.

Then we would put on our skates and proceed to a specific on-ice warmup.

Specific On-Ice Warmup
Drills for 5-15 minutes to work on specific elements of the skating stroke.
Warm-up set: 5-7 laps (3-5 minutes) at a slow speed followed by a few minute break
Starts: we’d start with a few rolling starts at progressive intensity into 5-6 all out standing starts for 50-100m.  Three minute rest at least.  Then a few minute break.
A few progressively faster 250’s: one straight, one corner, one half a straight (the little kids called these candy canes)
4x400m all out (29-31 seconds) with a 10′ break and maybe a moderate candy cane at the 5′ mark to stay warm
Then we’d get off the ice, I’d spin for 10-20′ and stretch

The entire workout took us 3.5 hours from start to finish.  And we basically did dick like all true sprint workouts. Most of it was spent resting in-between maximal effort, short-duration stuff.  In those 4 hours we accumulated what, maybe a couple of thousand meters and 10′ of total work time.  Because that’s the only way to get maximal intensity: short-repeats, long rest intervals and a whole lot of doing nothing in-between (passive recovery is better here than active recovery).

In comparison, my bike workouts were usually 60-90 minutes and burned staggeringly more calories than the sprint training I did.  And any muscular development I got was primarily from lifting although speed skating is very odd in this regard, often building legs without lifting.  But that’s because it’s kind of a natural blood flow restriction activity, something I will eventually write about.  But it’s not typical of most sports.

Other Sport Sprint Training

In a similar vein, I’d note that track cycling sprinters take about the same amount of time to do the same amount of work.  First they will do 20-30 minute light spinning warmup to some accelerations in gradually increasing gears then 4 all out 100-200m sprints with up to a 30 minute rest between repeats.  Then they cool down.

Standing starts are done every so often in a similar fashion.   All out for a short period, rest forever.  It’s hours to accomplish pretty much jack crap in terms of the total training done.  And they stay lean by spinning for an easy hour on their bikes.  Most are pretty jacked but they all lift very heavy weights.

And you’ll find that most sports that include any sort of sprint training approach it this way.  Extended warmups, some progressive speed work into lots of very short near maximal intensity bout interspersed with a lot of rest.   You take forever to accomplish very little.

My Finishing Points

HIIT is not sprint training, it’s middle distance (400-800m) work at best and short sprinters never do it.  In speed skating, our version of this was a lap-on/lap-off workout which was roughly 35 seconds of near maximal work and about 60 seconds of rest.   As I mentioned above, I’ve yet to see anybody hold up the physiques of a middle distance runner to argue for HIIT.  That’s point one.

True sprint training is not time-efficient if you do it right.  I mean, fine, if you want to get hurt go to the track, warm-up a few minutes and then go 100m all out.  Since you’ll likely only get 3 repeats before you pull a hamstring or hurt yourself, you’ll definitely be done quickly.  And probably be done for 3-6 weeks while your muscle pull heals.

Done properly, true sprint training takes hours to complete.  It’s not only not as time efficient as low intensity work, it’s totally less time efficient in terms of anything meaningful as you spend up to twice as long to accomplish exactly jack shit in terms of total work.  The most moderate low intensity workouts burns more calories and weights are what will build any muscularity.  That’s point two.

And it’s not what builds the physique in the first place, this was all just addressing an incorrect hypothetical in the first place.  If you want to build muscles, lift weights.   Sprinting has nothing to do with it.   That’s point three.

Oh yeah, even in terms of the body fat issue, sprint coaches keep their athletes lean through lower intensity training (called running tempo which is not the same as how endurance athletes use the word), ice speed skaters do it with cycling and track cyclists do it with low-intensity work on the road.  The sprinting itself does jack for reducing bodyfat and the low intensity methods win out every time.    If you’re a sprinter you should perform sprint training.

And now, hopefully, this topic should be good and well addressed and finished (yet somehow it won’t be).

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1 thought on “What is Sprint Training?

  1. Thanks Lyle, interesting/insightful read as always.

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