There are two types of runners: those who are like cheetahs and can sprint 400 meters in a few beats but can’t jog more than 5K, and those who think “slow and steady wins the race” and can run a marathon without their legs giving out.
Although you might be happy sticking to your favorite workout, you could be missing out on some health and workout benefits by doing so. In fact, varying your running workouts (with options such as treadmill sprint workouts) can help you avoid injury, get better results, and make you a stronger athlete overall.
“Even for runners who are training for long distances, sprints can be beneficial because they improve the connection between the brain and the muscles being used,” Laura Norris, an RRCA-certified running coach in Indiana, explains.
How to Do Sprints
While people typically think of running when they hear sprinting, it’s possible to sprint in any aerobic activity, such as swimming, cycling, roller skating, or exercising on an elliptical machine. Sprinting in this context means varying the intensity of the activity. The key to sprinting is doing an activity at a certain percentage of all-out effort in order to increase your heart rate.
You should do sprint workout routines three times a week, with at least one or two days in between for rest or another easy exercise.
- Warm-up. Before sprints, warm up thoroughly with easy exercise for five to 10 minutes. Perform the same exercise you will be using for your sprints.
- Do your first sprint. Perform your first sprint at about 60% max intensity. If you feel any muscle tightness or joint pain, back off and continue to warm up.
- Recover. Recover for four minutes by slowing to a comfortable pace, but keep moving.
- Do your second sprint. Perform your next sprint at about 80% max intensity.
- Recover. Recover for four minutes.
- Do your third sprint. Perform the remainder of your sprints at 100% max intensity or all-out efforts of 30 seconds. You should be pushing yourself to the max for each one.
- Recover. Recover for four minutes after each sprint to allow your breathing and heart rate to slow to the point that you can hold a conversation without gasping.
- Repeat. Repeat the sprint/recovery routine four to eight times depending on your level and ability. For your first workout, you will want to stop at four sprints. Try to gradually build up to eight.
Benefits of Sprints
The researchers found that the participants who completed the sprint training had greater increases in VO2 max than those who completed a more traditional endurance-training program. Both elite athletes and recreational exercisers can use sprint training effectively. Sprint training enhances endurance performance. In one study, participants who completed eight weeks of sprint interval training saw improvements in maximal oxygen uptake, also known as VO2 max. This test is one way to measure a person’s cardiovascular fitness. The researchers found that the participants who completed the sprint training had greater increases in VO2 max than those who completed a more traditional endurance-training program.
Interval training, which consists of short bouts of intense exercise, is just as effective as traditional endurance training when it comes to improving muscle health and performance.
Other findings have shown that exercising at a high intensity for a short period of time burns more calories than exercising at a moderate level for the same amount of time.
How to Build a Treadmill Sprint Workout
Norris recommends that you have been running for at least six months before trying a sprint workout. This is to ensure that your body is used to the impact of running and to prevent any injuries from occurring.
If you’re itching to give sprints a try early on in your running career, opt for a more gentle running interval workout: Start out with a very light jog. After you’ve warmed up a bit, pick up the pace (about 30 seconds per mile faster) for 10 to 20 seconds, then slow back down to a walking speed, says Amanda Nurse, an RRCA-certified running coach in Boston. Try one of these “sprints” after you’ve thoroughly warmed up (i.e. you’ve lightly jogged for seven to 10 minutes), and then see how your body responds. If it feels like a manageable challenge, repeat four to five times. This type of workout will help you ease into sprints without pushing you to hit your all-out maximum effort, which can be overwhelming (not to mention increases the injury risk) for a new runner, she explains.
Set Your Speed
Norris says that even if you are an experienced runner who has done a lot of outdoor sprinting, you might not be able to run as fast on a treadmill. This is because people tend to take longer strides on a treadmill, and they take shorter, faster strides outside. Norris also says that some people have the tendency to sit back on a treadmill, while most people lean slightly forward outside. These seemingly tiny differences can actually make you a slower runner indoors, she explains.
To determine your easy pace, think about a speed you can run or jog where you would still be able to have a conversation with someone. Your effort for this pace should feel like a three or four out of 10. For your sprint, you should aim for a speed that feels really fast, but doesn’t require all of your energy. This would be a nine out of 10 on the effort scale.
Norris says that it’s better to start your sprints at a speed that’s slightly slower than what you think you can run. This is because it’s more important to maintain good form than to go too fast. Nurse adds that it’s also important to make sure you’re sprinting safely by being confident your legs can handle the speed.
If the sprints feel challenging, that is a good speed for you. If they do not feel challenging, you can gradually increase your speed by 0.5 mph each time.
Decide the Length and Number of Your Sprints
You’ll want to sprint for 20 to 30 seconds to get the benefits, but if you’re trying to hit your absolute maximum speed, the longest you can stick to it is for about 45 seconds.
“Type-IIx fibers aren’t trained frequently, so they need longer to recover than other muscle fibers.” You should rest for about four times as long as you sprint, so if you sprint for thirty seconds, you should rest for two minutes. Norris explains that this is because sprinting uses up a lot of energy and type-IIx muscle fibers, which aren’t used often, need more time to recover than other types of muscle fibers.
The number of sprints you do in a typical treadmill sprint workout depends on your experience level. A beginner runner should aim to do four to five sprints with recovery jogs in between, while an advanced runner might strive for 10, explains Norris.
According to the 2016 study published in Sports Medicine, it is recommended that people who are new to sprinting or are more injury-prone, to do their treadmill sprint workout at a 1 percent incline instead of a flat surface. This is because there is less impact on the body when running uphill as opposed to running on a flat surface.
Both Norris and Nurse recommend increasing your incline when sprinting to make it more challenging. Norris suggests 5-6% while Nurse only suggests 2-5%. Try starting at a lower incline and slowly increasing it.
Hills on the treadmill may not be as big as real hills, but they’re still a great workout. Your speed will be lower than on a flat surface, but you’re still getting a good workout. This can help improve your speed in as little as three to four weeks.
Other Variations of Sprints
The intensity, duration, and number of sprints in a sprinting routine can be varied to achieve different fitness goals.
If you want to start sprinting, it’s important to ease into it. Going too hard at first can lead to injury, so it’s important to build up a base level of fitness before adding sprinting to your routine. When you’re ready to start, do one set of four sprint/rest cycles. As you get fitter, you can add more sprints to each set, or add another set of sprints.
When you first start doing sprints as part of your workout routine, it may only take a few weeks before you are able to increase to an intermediate level. As you do sets of sprints, try adding more sprints at different intensity levels. Remember that you should not do sprint exercises more than a few times per week so that your body gets the rest it needs.
Elite athletes can improve their sprint routine by increasing the intensity and adding reps. For example, they could try sprinting hills or wearing weights. Swimmers can use strength-building techniques to focus on just the upper or lower body or add resistance with a Push Plate.
There are a few mistakes that sprinters commonly make. They include starting too hard, advancing too quickly, and doing too many sprints for too long. Sprints, by definition, are not meant to be performed to the exclusion of more moderate-intensity exercise.
A study showed that if you don’t take enough time to rest between sprints, you won’t be able to perform as well during the sprint phase.
Safety and Precautions
Sprint workouts can be done while running, swimming, cycling, or almost any other cardiovascular exercise. The following precautions should be considered before adding sprint training to your schedule:
- Safety: Because sprinting is a high-intensity exercise, it is recommended that you check with a healthcare professional and review the physical activity readiness questionnaire (PAR-Q) before beginning a sprint workout.
- Base fitness: It’s also important to have a strong base of fitness in the activity you are using for sprints. To build a base of fitness, follow the 10% rule, and gradually increase your training volume.
- Frequency: Because of the intensity of sprint workouts, most athletes shouldn’t do sprint work more than three times a week.
- Muscle soreness: Launching into a sprint program may be difficult or cause delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) if you haven’t done much training prior to trying sprints. Experts recommend having about three to four weeks of base fitness before beginning.
Make sure you warm up properly before your sprint workout to avoid injuries.
Sprints are useful for long-distance runners as they improve the communication between the brain and the muscles. When you do sprints, your body learns to run quickly, and this makes the brain better at sending signals to the muscles. This means that when you are running at a normal pace, you use less energy.