Whatever your goals, even if you’re training to run long, it pays to go short—and fast.
If you have a half marathon or marathon on the horizon, or even a 10K, it might seem counterintuitive to go out and train your body to run 100 metres as fast as you can. But even if you’re gearing up for a super-long endurance event, adding workouts with the briefest of intervals into your schedule can improve many aspects of your running over the long haul.
“Sprints are always important, no matter what distance you are training for,” says Jenna Wrieden, interim head coach with Hoka NAZ Elite. “Sprint workouts as a whole help improve your efficiency, power, neuromuscular development, posture, and form better than any other workout an athlete can put themselves through.”
Keep reading for everything you need to know about how to do sprint workouts, plus two sample sessions to add to your routine.
What are sprint workouts?
Sprint workouts are a type of speed work incorporating repeats of somewhere between 15 to 60 seconds at your max speed—after a slow warmup to prep to your muscles to work hard, of course. So, you’re looking at distances about of 200 metres or less (or up to 400 metres for super-speedy runners).
Because the distances are so short, it might seem like there’s only so much you can do with them, but there are actually tons of ways to structure a sprint workout to keep you on your toes. You can do your intervals as a stand-alone speed workout or add them to the end of a short, easy run as strides. You can stick to repeats of the same distance or mix them up in something like a pyramid workout. Or, if you’re not running on a track, you don’t even have to go by a precise distance but instead sprint as fast as you can for 10 to 15 seconds per interval.
“For 50- to 100-metre sprints, you’re looking at top speed, sharp mechanics, and good form,” says Meg Takacs, NASM-CPT, a run coach and founder of the Movement & Miles app. “The shorter the sprint, the more technical it gets, which is great for distance runners since it recruits mechanics and muscles you don’t typically fire as strongly during long runs.”
Longer sprints of 200 metres tap into your aerobic system a bit more and boost your speed endurance, Takacs says. In other words, they help you hold a faster pace for more kilometres. She advises aiming for a rate of perceived exertion or RPE of 7 to 9 during sprints, starting on the lower end of that at the beginning of the interval and pushing it as hard as you can toward the end.
What are the benefits of sprints?
Unlike longer distances at a comfortably casual pace, pushing yourself through a series of sprints challenges both your anaerobic and aerobic systems, says Takacs. The sprints themselves work you anaerobically, and your aerobic system kicks into gear during rest breaks to prep you for the next sprint. “Sprinting improves your running economy and makes your ‘easy’ long-run pace feel even easier,” she says.
Those improvements to running economy, along with improved muscular and metabolic adaptations and greater VO2 max, led to overall faster performance among endurance athletes in a review published in the Journal of Sport and Health Science. Researchers looked at previous studies that had examined the benefits of a variety of HIIT workouts, with most including intervals ranging from 15-second sprints to 400-metre repeats.
In a way, the longer the race or goal distance you’re training for, the more important all these benefits become. “If you think about a long race like a marathon, for example, an athlete will take more steps than any other shorter race they do—so why not be the most efficient as possible, conserve the most energy as possible, and have the best form as possible since you are out there for multiple hours?” says Wrieden. “Sprint workouts are the way to help with those things.”
How do you structure a sprint workout?
First, always start with a dynamic warmup. “Sprints are fast, and your muscles need to fire quickly,” says Takacs. “It’s easy to pull a muscle with these, or get another injury, if your body and heart rate aren’t warmed up.” She recommends jogging at least 10 minutes minutes at a slow, easy pace or doing a series of dynamic warmup drills, like high knees, A-skips, and single-leg swings. “Dynamic warm-ups fire up your muscles, elevate your heart rate, and prepare your body to implement the correct mechanics in your stride,” she says.
After an adequate warm-up, sprint repeats could be the bulk of the workout (see below for two workouts to try). After each interval, make sure to hit pause and rest. For shorter sprints, Takacs recommends a 1:3 or 1:5 ratio of work to rest. So, if you sprint for 30 seconds, rest for at least 90 seconds before your next rep. This window of R&R allows for the lactate to clear from your muscles and adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, to reform in your muscles; that’s the energy source your muscles tap into during sprints.
Another way to tackle sprints is to do extra-short bursts of speed (between 50 and 100 metres) as strides tacked on to the end of an easy run, says Wrieden. To try these, after the bulk of your run, first do five or six dynamic drills (as mentioned above) for about 30 metres each to get fully loose. Then do six to eight strides of 80 to 100 metres, focusing on your posture to help improve your power output and form.
Try adding sprint workouts to your routine once or twice weekly, suggests Takacs, remembering that can look like strides at the end of a long run or easy midweek run instead of the bulk of your session. Keep the next day as an easy run or rest day to give your body enough time to bounce back.
What should you focus on during sprints?
Running sprints well is all about proper form, says Wrieden: “Posture is a crucial thing to focus on. You want to tap into the most power and efficiency, and you need to put your body in the right positions to do so.” Think about staying relaxed, she says, and trying to let your feet land under your hips; if you overstride and they touch down in front of the rest of your body, you won’t be able to push off as effectively (and also risk injury).
Think about trying to keep your body in a straight line from ear to ankle, driving your knees up to 90 degrees, and pushing forcefully off the ground. “The more force you put into the ground, the more force you get back—this vertical force will ultimately help move you horizontally across the ground faster when you add momentum,” says Wrieden. And always aim to keep your shoulders relaxed, says Takacs: “The tighter your upper body, the more unnecessary energy you expend.”
Sprint Workouts to Try
Before each of these workouts, jog for at least 10 minutes at a slow, easy pace. Then do some dynamic warmup drills (like skipping, strides, and high knees) to get your muscles warm and ready to go.
100s for Form
Why it works: To help improve your running efficiency and form
How to do it: After warming up, do 8 to 10 reps of 100 metres at an all-out effort, or RPE 9 to
10. Rest for 2 to 2.5 minutes between reps.
Why it works: To help you shift into high gear on tired legsHow to do it: After warming up, do 8 reps of 200 metres at RPE 7 to 9. Between reps, walk for 150 metres, then jog slowly for 50 metres.