Why Sprinting Is Strength Training in Disguise

Photo: Getty Images/ blue jean images
When you think of sprinting, what comes to mind? Do you imagine sprinters on their starting blocks on a track, getting ready to hit their marks or maybe professional athletes bursting across the field? Perhaps, “great cardio” also makes the cut.

Although parts of those answers may be true—yes, sprinters and elite athletes in sports that require quick burst runs are naturally going to focus more on sprinting, and yes, there are cardiovascular health benefits—sprinting is also immensely beneficial to anyone looking to build their health and fitness. In fact, sprinting is a key piece of any comprehensive strength training program because sprinting builds muscle.

Experts In This Article

To understand why, let's first take a step back to appreciate the essence of strength training. Physiotherapist and strength coach Brian Kinslow, PT, DPT, explains the rationale behind strength training as “exposing the muscle to a stimulus that forces it to work and get stronger.”

Sprinting aligns very closely with that principle. Certain muscles and body regions during sprinting undergo much higher levels of exertion and stress than more traditional strength training, e.g. resistance bands and weight lifting.

For example, a study comparing hamstring activation between strength training exercises and sprinting (using electromyography aka emg) found that—at most—strength training could only get to around 75 percent activation compared to sprinting. Further, that 75 percent was only for one specific muscle (the hamstrings is a group of three muscles) while the other two max activations were 60 percent and 40 percent of sprinting, respectively.

In other words, sprinting exposes the hamstrings to a level of resistance that strength training has a hard time doing. “Sprinting adds another tier to strength training because of the stress it puts on some of your muscles,” says Dr. Kinslow. “Since one of the key principles of strength training is ‘progressive overload,’ meaning gradually and methodically exposing the muscle to higher levels of stress, an appropriate sprinting program is a great tool to hit that next level.”

Therein, the framework on sprinting as completely separate to strength work is misguided. It’s another key tool to build strength and can be a welcome (and fun!) change from your usual strength programming. Humans are built for locomotion after all.

How does sprinting compare to steady state running?

Sprinting is quite different from steady state running for numerous reasons. Firstly, as we touched on before, sprinting involves high-level muscular force and exertion. That isn’t the case for steady state running. Secondly, the cardiovascular effect of sprinting—which tends to be shorter and for higher effort levels—is different from steady state running which tends to be longer and for lower effort levels, relative to sprinting.

Running coach (and ultra runner) Christopher Kokotajlo explained in more detail: “The body has three different energy systems,” he says. “I won’t get into the details, but one is for short-burst, high-intensity activity; one is for medium intensity and medium distances; and the last is for lower intensity, longer distances. Sprinting tends to exist on one side of the spectrum while steady-state running exists on the other.”

Lastly, sprinting also involves a significant acceleration and deceleration component, which presents much different challenges compared to steady state running, especially in terms of the load on your muscles.

The good news is that, just like sprinting and strength training, steady state running and sprinting also complement each other, working different parts of the cardiovascular system.

Sprinting builds muscle, but can it replace strength training?

To put it simply, no. That’s because although sprinting builds strength, it’s just one component of an effective, well balanced strength training program.

If sprinting is the only strength training you’re doing, there will be many neglected muscles and body regions along with a high risk for overtraining because sprinting has a higher intensity and workload than most strength training.

There’s no single exercise or type of training that checks all the boxes for effective strength training; sprint training is no exception to that rule.

What’s an effective, safe way to start sprinting?

The same principles that apply to any other type of training, apply for sprinting: Start small and gradually build up. Ideally, this will be on flat ground and not on a treadmill so you get the full acceleration to high speed to deceleration experience.

With sprinting, the key variables are going to be distance/time, intensity, and reps. My recommendation is to hold the distance/time constant and then progress by increasing reps and intensity. Here’s a basic example of a sprint progression:

  • Week 1: one sprint for 15 seconds, 5/10 intensity. Complete once per week.
  • Week 2: two sprints for 15 seconds, 5/10 intensity, rest one minute in between each. Complete once per week.

If you have no issues, progress until you hit five sprints. At that point, increase the intensity to a 7–8/10, drop back down to one sprint and back up the ladder until you hit five sprints. On the next cycle, up the intensity to 10/10. At that point, increase the time/distance and restart at 5/10 intensity and one sprint.

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