Now that you’ve absorbed the rationale and benefits to add sprinting to your fitness program with Part One of the Definitive Guide To Sprinting, let’s get into the details of how to conduct a great workout. The following five guidelines are presented in logical succession, so you can refer to them frequently and ensure a safe, effective sprint workout. I’ll also share a few sprint workouts you can do anytime, including my own sprint workout routine. Remember, it’s all about going big…and then going home to get on with an awesome life.
Let’s get started….
First Things First
First, get your movement and fitness objectives in a good groove before you contemplate adding sprinting to your program. When you’re ready to sprint, make sure you pick the right day. It’s essential that you feel 100 percent rested and energized—chomping at the bit—every time you conduct a sprint workout. If you have even the slightest sensation of subpar immune function or muscle stiffness or soreness, postpone your workout until you feel great. (This is the better day to do low-level cardio activities instead.) If you conduct a sprint workout in a fatigued state, bad stuff happens. First, you increase your risk of injury and extend recovery time by pushing a tired body to hard work.
When you insist upon training in a fatigued state, it doesn’t make you tougher, but rather slower. When you conduct an all-out sprint, you are asking billions of neurons in your central nervous system to process messages and motor responses with great speed and accuracy. If you’re off your A-game and attempt a sprint session, you’ll actually fire neurons and muscles more slowly and inaccurately. You’re literally training your body how to go more slowly when you start out feeling like crap and carry on in the name of “consistency,” or the demands of the ego.
Swimmers know that when your stroke becomes short and choppy due to fatigue at the end of a workout or a tough set, you’re ingraining these flawed motor patterns into your central database. Consequently, you become more likely to make technique errors all the time, even when you’re fresh. This is just like an undisciplined day in the office, when you perform sloppy work that also takes longer than usual, and become accustomed to working in what author, speaker, and performance scientist James Hewitt calls the “cognitive middle gear.”
It’s interesting to note the frequency at which the world’s elite sprinters will pull out of a race at the last minute. Even with the pressure and expectation of a stadium full of fans, the athlete will report a twinge in the hamstring during warm-ups and withdraw from meet. Implement the same strict standards for your own workouts. Even if you’re a novice, you can tell after a couple wind sprints (details shortly) if you are not feeling as snappy and explosive as usual. On those occasions, wait patiently and try again on a better day.
It’s important to warm-up carefully before any workout, but even more so for sprinting due to the increased demand placed on muscles, joints, and connective tissue. A warm-up consists of 5-10 minutes of very comfortably paced cardiovascular exercise—something registering a 1 or 2 on a 1-10 scale. For all but the fittest folks, this is simply a brisk walk, perhaps an easy jog. The goal is to break a light sweat and elevate heart rate and respiration rate so you’re prepared for the next phase of the workout. A gentle warm-up allows blood concentrated in the organs to flow smoothly out to the extremities. This minimizes the fight or flight impact of transitioning from a sedentary state to an active state.
Granted, your body is capable of springing into action anytime via fight or flight mechanisms, but this increases the stress impact of the workout as you can imagine. Even if you’re just going for a moderately paced jog, you’ll start burning glucose immediately instead of fat because you’re prompting a six-fold increase in your metabolic output from a resting state too quickly. Once you stimulate glucose burning processes, it’s difficult to transition over to the desired fat burning-dominant jogging session. In contrast, if you leave the house, walk for a minute or two, move to a brisk walk for a minute or two, then start the intended aerobic jogging pace of your workout, you’re more likely to burn fat for the duration of the session. This is true for any exercise, so spin the pedals, paddle the board, or row the oars very slowly for several minutes at every workout.
Dynamic Stretches and Preparatory Drills
While an easy cardio warm-up is sufficient for most workouts, the high-intensity nature of sprinting requires more extensive preparations before you launch into the main work efforts. You’ve probably heard about the drawbacks and dangers associated with static stretching, whereby muscles are temporarily weakened after being stretched. Dynamic stretches are different—you’re moving muscles through an exaggerated range of motion, but not applying extra force beyond what’s required to go through the range of motion. I provide photos and detailed descriptions of a great set of dynamic stretches for running sprints in The Primal Blueprint 21-Day Total Body Transformation and 21-Day Primal Reset video course.
Here’s a quick rundown of a great dynamic stretching sequence. (Stay tuned for a complete post on this important subject soon.)
- Knee-to-Chest: Start out gently pulling knees up to chest and releasing as you walk forward
- Pull Quads: Grab your foot from behind, pull gently up to butt, and release.
- Open Hips: Facing forward, rotate your knee up and along bodyline, then place directly in front of you. This is especially important to improve hip flexor mobility that is compromised by sitting in a chair all day.
- Mini-Lunge: Take exaggerated-length steps, getting your front thigh nearly parallel to the ground. Don’t overdo this one, it’s just warm-up!
I also recommend completing some preparatory drills that are actually quite difficult on their own but help refine excellent technique, and also build flexibility and mobility for sprinting. I’ll detail these drills in a future article about dynamic stretching. Generally, the drills help you refine good technique and avail full range of motion before you explode off the line at your first sprint. Following are a couple great drills to conduct before sprinting:
- Hopping Drill: Launch off one leg, driving knee high into chest, then land on the same leg. After a short hop forward, launch off opposite leg, driving knee high. Balance your launch effort between height and distance. Pump arms vigorously during each sequence.
- High Knees: This one will get your heart rate up, and help you focus on achieving correct form during sprints. Run forward with exaggerated knee lift, striving to slap palms. During actual sprinting, focus on preserving a tall, straight body, driving knees high, and maintaining a balanced center of gravity through fast, efficient leg turnover.
You should be feeling loose, fluid and explosive after the dynamic stretches—ready for some wind sprints! This is a term describing brief accelerations up to nearly full speed, then a quick easing off the gas pedal back to easy effort. Wind sprints are important to get the final kinks out, get the brain and body focused on proper technique, and hone your focus for the main set of sprints just ahead. Wind sprints can be done with bicycling, swimming, rowing or other type of sprint session. You just initiate a few powerful pedal strokes or rows to get up to speed, then quickly back off before feeling slightest bit of strain.
Wind sprints are the time for an honest evaluation of how you’re feeling and whether to proceed to the main set of sprints. Tudor Bompa, Ph.D., author of Periodization Training for Sports, describes the ready state as: optimally excited and uninhibited. You are about to fire fast twitch muscle fibers to their full potential, so you might want to emulate the Olympians and do some miniature explosive jumps and hops before you launch into your first sprint. If you feel particularly sluggish when you accelerate during the wind sprints, you may want to pull the plug on the workout.
Granted, sometimes it takes a while for the engine to get warmed up and the brain to get enthused about maximum explosive efforts, but after the warm-up, dynamic stretches, preparatory drills, and wind sprints, the goal is to feel nothing short of fantastic. Believe me, I have made the mistake many times of thinking I could man up and get through a sprint workout. Guess what? I can every time, but these are the sessions where I tweak or pull something, and/or experience much more muscle soreness and fatigue in the ensuing days.
Feeling optimally excited and uninhibited before the first sprint is critical, and it’s also important to preserve the sensation throughout the workout. What I often notice during sprint sessions is feeling great, great, great, and then noticing a bit more fatigue and sluggishness during the recovery period. I might drag my feet a bit during slow jogging, or my mind will wander from intense focus on the session to something relating to the business matters of the day. Pay attention to these little things throughout the session. If you’re endurance athlete, this requires a fundamental change in mindset from “endure” to “explode.” It’s a cool feeling to conduct yourself like a real athlete instead of just a plodder once in a while, so go for it!
(Optional) Intensive Sprint Preparation: Cold Immersion
Speaking of optimally excited and uninhibited, my writing sidekick Brad Kearns has been doing some interesting research and field testing with the practice of cold exposure, followed by a rewarming jog, followed by all-out sprints. Brad calls this operation the Unfrozen Caveman Runner (those in the older age groups will recognize the Saturday Night Life reference to one of Phil Hartman’s classic characters). The essence of the protocol is this: We know from research detailed in The Definitive Guide to Cold Therapy article that even a brief cold exposure of 20 seconds in 40ºF (4.4ºC) water triggers a 200-300% spike in norepinephrine lasting for an hour afterward. This is a legit hack to access the desired “optimally excited and uninhibited” state!
We also know that performing intense exercise on cold muscles and joints is completely stupid. Instead, you take the necessary time to rewarm after a cold immersion and before a sprint session. In Brad’s protocol, this entails a 30-minute jog at aerobic heart rates—extremely slow and gentle at first, and gradually warming into a typical training pace. Once warmed, you arrive at the track and ride the norepinephrine high for a breakthrough sprint session, as seen on Brad’s YouTube video.
The benefits of cold exposure to athletic performance and recovery have been validated in a laboratory setting by the inventors of the RTX cooling glove at Stanford University. In short, they invented a contraption you stick your hand into which quickly lowers your core body temperature. A very fit researcher named Vin Cao established a baseline fitness standard when he did 180 pull-ups in a single workout—performed in sets of 50 with three-minute breaks between sets. Not bad, for a Stanford researcher! After training with the glove for six weeks, and cooling his body temperature after every set of pull-ups, Cao was able to perform a mind-blowing 620 pull-ups in a single workout!
Your wind sprints are done? Now onto the main event.
Choose a duration between 10 and 20 seconds, and target your reps between 4 and 10. (If you’re new to sprinting, stick to no more than 4-5 reps.)
We haven’t talked about rest intervals yet, and Dr. Craig Marker and other experts urge you to take “luxurious” rest intervals during your sprint workouts. I must admit that this insight was a revelation to me.
I came to sprinting from an endurance background, where I spent decades suffering with the best of them. Wanna do a couple more reps? Sure—and forget the rest interval, let’s go right now! For years, I performed brief explosive sprints as directed, then after a brief jog would launch right into another one, and another. Why be luxurious when you can be tough? Well, it turns out that replenishing ATP and creatine phosphate (fuel used during explosive efforts of less than 30 seconds) requires around three minutes of rest before performing another maximum effort. Olympic sprinters will routinely rest for several minutes between efforts—not because they absolutely need to, but because this maximizes their ability to generate explosive force repeatedly, and minimizes cellular damage caused by the workout. Science geeks note: this is an oversimplified description of energy contribution during intense exercise. This article about the energy systems involved during intense exercise will give you a fabulous overview of everything you need to know to run a 43-flat 400-meter like Wayde Van Niekerk.
Dr. Craig Marker’s HIIT vs. HIRT article recommends a sensible work-to-rest pattern in a kettlebell workout of 10 seconds of explosive effort, repeated on the minute, for a maximum of 10 minutes. I find 50 seconds of rest is plenty for a sprint of short duration. Alas, we want luxurious as the top goal here, so feel free to extend your recovery time on the last few sprints to make sure you feel optimally excited and uninhibited every time.
Let’s put it all together with some sample sprint workouts. I’ll begin with my own running routine.
My Sprint Routine
Warm-up: 10 minutes of brisk walking/slow jogging. Maintain a heart rate well below aerobic maximum per Dr. Phil Maffetone’s formula: “180 minus age” in beats per minute.
Dynamic Stretching and Preparatory Drills: Complete as directed, probably lasting 7-10 minutes.
Wind Sprints: Do 3-5 wind sprints where you move for perhaps 10 seconds, but only two seconds are at speed.
Sprint!: Pick a fixed distance such as half of a football field or running track straightaway, knowing that it will take around 10 seconds to complete. Conduct between 4 and 10 sprints, taking at least 50 seconds between sprints. Quit as soon as you notice any muscle tightness, breakdown in form, a slower than typical time for the same distance, or an increase in effort needed to achieve the same time.
Cool Down: Commence a gradual cooldown consisting of 7-10 minutes of light jogging or brisk walking, maintaining a heart rate below “180 minus age.” At the end, you should stop sweating, have a normal respiration rate and a heart rate near normal. If you have trouble spots, injury concerns or a rehab protocol (make sure to get your doctor’s and physical therapist’s okay before incorporating a sprint routine!), conduct your static stretches and/or foam rolling after your cooldown.
Active Recovery: In the ensuing 24-48 hours after your sprint workout, make a devoted effort to be more active than usual with increased walking (especially frequent work breaks), dynamic stretching, foam rolling and flexibility/mobility drills. It’s now clear that the most powerful recovery tool is simply movement.
Stationary Cycling Sprints
Warm-up: 10 minutes of easy pedaling. Maintain a heart rate well below aerobic maximum per Dr. Phil Maffetone’s formula: “180 minus age” in beats per minute.
Dynamic Stretching and Preparatory Drills: You can still do these on a bike or rowing machine by exaggerating your range of motion. On the bike, I will try to hyperflex my ankles during pedal revolution, alternatively trying to touch the ground with pointed toes and dorsiflexing the ankle so the heel always rides high. I also will pause for a moment and lean forward onto my hamstring for a couple seconds, then resume pedaling. Find similar moves with rowing, swimming, or other that extend range of motion.
Wind Sprints: Do five quick accelerations up to sprinting speed, where you move for perhaps 10 seconds, but only two seconds are at speed.
Sprint!: Pick a fixed time duration of 20 seconds. Conduct between 4 and 10 sprints, taking at least 50 seconds between sprints. For example, you can set your watch to beep every 1 minute, 10 seconds, knowing it’s time to initiate another 20-second sprint at every beep.
Cool Down: Commence a gradual cooldown consisting of 5-10 minutes of easy pedaling, maintaining a heart rate below “180 minus age.” If you have trouble spots, injury concerns or a rehab protocol (make sure to get your doctor’s and physical therapist’s okay before incorporating a sprint routine!), conduct your static stretches and/or foam rolling after cooldown.
Active Recovery: In the ensuing 24 hours after your sprint workout, make a devoted effort to be more active than usual with increased walking (especially frequent work breaks), an easy aerobic pedaling session, dynamic stretching, foam rolling and flexibility/mobility drills. It’s now clear that the most powerful recovery tool is simply movement.
Finally, let’s wrap it up with some easy take-home points that review everything it takes for a powerful sprint workout routine.
- Choose the appropriate activity, either low or high impact
- Always be ready, feeling 100 percent rested and energized for a special workout
- Warm up with aerobic exercise at 180 minus age heart rate
- Complete dynamic stretches and preparatory drills
- Complete wind sprints
- Conduct main set with appropriate work efforts (10-20 seconds), luxurious rest intervals, and for 4-10 reps
- Cool down with 5-10 minutes of easy cardio
- Keep active over ensuing days
- Recover completely before the next sprint workout
- Have fun getting off the TV treadmill and feeling like a real athlete!
Thanks for reading, everyone. Get out there, go hard, go home and report back about your experience. I look forward to hearing from you!