Four Rules for Setting Up a Sprint Workout

There is really no argument these days that sprints are one of the best things you can be doing to get in shape and lose some of that unwanted body fat.  In addition to doing wonders for your metabolism, they can also be an efficient way to get in a hard workout when you’re pinched for time and can’t get to the gym. To that end, I believe almost everyone should be adding some form of sprinting into their normal routine to reap the benefits. Insert usual caveat here: given the intense nature of this mode of exercise it is a good idea to get checked out by a physician first to make sure your body can handle the stress.

Sprints, for most people, conjure up images of olympic athletes like Usain Bolt tearing it up on the track. While running is my favorite form of sprinting, there are a lot of other ways to go about it, and that is where a lot of people miss out. Things like biking, swimming, rowing, and certain bodyweight exercises are also fair game. Heck, for some even pushing a fast walk pace up an incline can qualify. So if you are worried about bad knees and joints, I’ve got some good news for you. There is probably an alternative out there for you.

My definition of a sprint is any activity, lasting between five seconds and one minute, in which you move at a maximum effort throughout the entire course of the time interval. I’m not sure what the “official” definition is, but this is just my way of placing some rules around these short, intense efforts.

Now that you know sprints are for you, lets lay down a few guidelines for structuring a sprint workout. You can head out the door and just start running hard, but with these somewhat flexible rules you can be sure to get the most out of your sprint workout.

DURATION

As stated, the 5 seconds to one minute duration of the hard interval is just about right. You may ask, “what about 400m sprints?”, which typically last over a minute for most people. I think they are great, and they have their place in a workout program to improve endurance, but past the one minute mark the work becomes more aerobic than anaerobic, and it’s difficult to maintain the “all out” pace. You either have to dial it back from the get go or run out of gas at the end.  We really want to stay in the anaerobic zone to harness all of the great benefits of sprinting.

To that end I’ve found that shorter intervals tend to work best. It is easier for most people to maintain a maximum effort the shorter the interval period is. The other great benefit of a short interval is that you can recover much quicker, and that recovery between sprints is key.

RECOVERY

We want to recover (mostly) in between our sprints. Too short of rest intervals and you can slow down during your next working rep. Too many too close together and you may even begin to creep in to that aerobic state again. Again, nothing wrong with that, but not the goal of a sprint workout. A rule of thumb that I use is at least a 1:1 work:rest ratio and more often than not a 1:2 ratio. So if the sprint is twenty seconds long, you are resting at least forty seconds. If you are going by feel, your heart rate and breathing should return to near normal levels. I know, not super scientific, but once you do this for awhile it becomes much easier to gauge your recovery between sprints. Remember, it’s the work that you are doing DURING the interval that is important.

One of my favorite set ups is using the every minute on the minute (EMOM) technique. Pick a distance I can cover in ten to thirty seconds and take off at the top of each minute, using the remainder as rest. If I see/feel my times dropping I’ll extend the rest a bit, sometimes turning it into an every 1:10 or 1:15 interval.  You just have to make sure you really truly need the extra rest, otherwise is can be tempting just to slack off and rest way longer than needed. Believe me, I’ve been there, and that’s usually when I slap lazy me with some penalty bonus sprints after the main work.

INTENSITY

If you remember the definition of a sprint I detailed earlier, than it should come as no surprise that intensity is one of the keys. A sprint should be a max effort throughout the selected time interval. We are choosing relatively short intervals for a reason: so you can attack them with a maximum effort. The shorter the interval, the harder the effort you can put forth. The beauty is that it is YOUR hardest effort, not someone else’s. It’s surprising how many people get hung up on this point. Just because you don’t perceive yourself as fast doesn’t mean you can’t  push YOUR limits and reap the same benefits as a world class athlete. The motto “Go hard or go home,” does apply here.

COOL DOWN

While cooling down from any exercise session is important, you may be surprised to find it included on my list of rules. As tempting as it is to just collapse in a heap after a hard sprint session I never do, and the reasoning behind that is based in the scientific literature. Bear with my nerdiness for a second.  During these hard efforts your body produces hormones known as catecholamines, which cause fatty acids to be released from tissue stores. Once released your body has two options of dealing with the fatty acids: it can either burn them off as fuel or it can put them back together and store them as body fat via a process called reesterification.

I don’t know about you, but I prefer to burn off as many of these fatty acids as possible, and that’s were low level aerobic activity after a sprint session (aka the cooldown) can work wonders. Follow up your session with a slow jog or even just a brisk walk to burn off some additional fatty acids while you bring your heart rate down. I always tack on ten to fifteen minutes of jogging/walking when I wrap things ups.

The four rules I’ve outline here have kept the information pretty basic. You can geek out with heart rates and periodization, and track your numbers that way, but I am always in favor of simplification if possible.  For most individuals these four simple rules should allow you set up a pretty darn good sprint session every time you venture out. If you still need some inspiration to spark your creativity, here are a few examples of workouts I’ve done in the past month or so:

3 rounds of:
A) 80 yd sprint x2 – EMOM
B) 160 yd sprint x2 – Every 1:45

12 rounds
A) 60 yd sprint
B) Walking Lunge x20, walk back to sprint start

5 rounds of:
A) 80yd, jog back
B) 80yd, walk back
C) 80yd, 45s rest

Hill Sprints x 12 (~18s to run up, walk back down to start (~1:00))

5 rounds, EMOM x 15:00
A) 80yd sprint
B) 70yd sprint
C) 60yd sprint

You can see that I try and include a lot of variety in my sessions. That could even be a bonus fifth rule. Hey, let’s make it one.

BONUS RULE #5: VARIETY

The body is amazing and will compensate in response to the training to become more efficient.  If you keep repeating workouts over and over again they will become easier, which is great because you want to see improvement.  However, if you don’t change up the stimulus from time to time the workout will lose its effectiveness. I don’t know about you, but for workouts as tough as sprint workouts I want them to be as productive as possible to reap the greatest benefits so I tend to vary them like this from time to time. Whether it’s linear progression by adding a sprint or two each week or completely changing the stimulus by switching distances or adding hills, I am varying each workout in some way.

In summary, go short, go hard, mix it up, cool down and recover. It really is that simple. If you are not implementing some sort of sprinting into your training program once or twice a week (and you are physically able to), do yourself a favor and start ASAP. It can make a world of difference.

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