Who doesn’t love a good sprint? Whether you’re doing them yourself or watching Usain Bolt and Allyson Felix torching up the track, sprinting is a wondrous experience. Yes, they might make you doubt yourself, or even cry on occasion, but you feel so good afterwards that they’re worth the pain.
Then there’s the body composition and health payoffs of powering through regular speed workouts, making sprinting one of the best habits to have. This article will tell you what you’ll get out of sprinting and how to do it, with specific protocols for different conditioning levels. You’ll also get a few cross-training interval workouts for variety.
#1: The well-tested 20 minute, 8-seconds on, 12-seconds rest, cycle protocol.
Benefits: Lose fat, improve insulin health, build muscle, and increase power.
Who’s it For: Newbies
Studies performed on both men and women show that an 8-seconds on, 12-seconds active rest cycle protocol repeated 60 times for 20 minutes will lead to significant fat loss.
For example, when overweight young women did this protocol three times a week for 15 weeks, they lost an average of 2.5 kg of body fat. They also lost 0.15 kg of visceral belly fat, which looks like a small amount but is significant due to its location around the organs. In young men, similar results were seen with an average loss of 2 kg of body fat and 0.14 kg of belly fat.
This study was noteworthy because the leaner women within the group lost less fat than those who were more overweight. With the four leanest women removed from calculations, average fat loss was 4 kg, suggesting that this protocol is well worth the effort if you’re overweight and want to improve health.
The interval trainees’ metabolism was also revved up by the end of the study as seen by lower fasting insulin levels and decreases in concentration of the hormone leptin.
Use It: A quick and potent 8-s. on/12-s. off protocol is ideal if you are new to interval training or have not been engaged in intense training recently. Longer intervals are indicated for trained individuals, although that doesn’t mean you couldn’t use this protocol for a few weeks for variety.
#2: Four-minute Tabata training or a single 2-minute maximal sprint.
Benefits: Elevate metabolism, boost insulin health, and improve gene signaling.
Who’s it For? People who have zero time to train but know how to push themselves maximally.
Scientists have been busy trying to determine the least possible amount of exercise necessary to achieve metabolic and health results. They’re finding that tiny bouts of intense exercise make a big difference for health and well being.
One recent study compared the Wingate protocol (see #4) with a single extended 2-minute maximal sprint and found that both improved insulin sensitivity the same amount. The protocols were matched for volume, resulting in the same caloric burn during exercise.
It was what happened in the 24 hours after exercise that was different: The Wingate group had 63 percent higher fat oxidation and the extended sprint group used 38 percent greater fat for fuel in the immediate post-exercise period.
So, even though a Wingate protocol is going to boost metabolism more due to it being more stressful to the body, doing a single 2-minute maximal effort workout is worth it.
Other benefits show very short all-out workouts improve gene signaling and can “switch” on a pathway in the body that is linked to tissue repair and muscle building.
Tabata training, which is a 4-minute set with 20 seconds maximal effort and 10 seconds rest, is also useful for variety because you can do it with sprints, a sled or other strongman exercise, or body weight exercises.
A single 4-minute set of body weight squat jumps revs up the metabolism so that participants burn an average of 60 calories during the workout (it would take about 20 minutes or four times longer to burn that amount with casual aerobic exercise) and experience double calorie burning in the 30-minute post-workout period (80 calories following Tabata versus 39.5 in a control group).
Use It: Knowing how to push yourself physically is a skill. Maximal effort training is for people who have this skill (a casual approach doesn’t cut it here).
Another application of Tabata and single all-out efforts is to do it multiple times throughout the day if you’ve got a desk job. You’ll boost metabolism, get your brain working better, and live a more “ancestral” life.
#3: Multi-set Tabata of 4 sets for 20 minutes in addition to regular lifting.
Benefits: Increased metabolism, large energy use, robust lactate buildup and hormone response, muscle building, and fat loss.
Who’s it For: Anyone with technical training skill who prefers exercises to sprints for metabolic conditioning.
A 4-mintue Tabata workout is unlikely to produce significant fat loss unless you modify your diet dramatically. A more surefire way is to do 4 sets of Tabata because you’ll experience a greater metabolic effect and increase growth hormone levels, which lead to much greater fat burning.
For example, a recent study tested a variety of exercises in a Tabata format in which each exercise was done in 20-second segments for a minute and then a new exercise was started. The exercises included high knee run, jump rope, burpees, mt. climbers, plank punch, Russian twists, push-ups, jacks, squats, split squats, skaters, lunges, and box jumps.
Energy expenditure ranged from 240 to 360 calories for the workout and led to a significant accumulation of lactate, which correlates with growth hormone release. More advanced trainees can do a similar workout by adding dumbbells, a weighted vest, or designing a barbell complex to apply additional overload for a greater fat burning, muscle building effect.
Use It: Use the 20-minute Tabata as a body comp workout 2 to 4 times a week, depending on if you’re doing regular strength training. Body weight exercises are ideal for novice trainees or when you lack equipment.
More advanced trainees will benefit from greater overload, or if you’re gymless, go to a park and intersperse hill sprints with the body weight exercises used above.
#4: The well-known Wingate protocol (4 to 6 x 30s. all-out sprints).
Benefits: Lose fat, target fast-twitch fibers, improve insulin sensitivity, and boost endurance.
Who’s it For: Intermediate trainees whose focus is body comp and athletes who need to get in shape quickly.
The well-known Wingate protocol, which uses 30-second maximal intervals, allowed one group of study participants to lose an average 12.4 percent of body fat. They also improved time trial performance on a 2000-meter run by 4.6 percent of 25.6 seconds.
Not only did sprint training lead to an average 1.6 kg of body fat loss in six weeks, participants also gained 0.6 kg of muscle for a better body composition. Scientists think spring training is so effective because it cause increase the amount of oxygen used during the post-workout recovery period, which promotes a larger energy deficit.
In addition, interval training increases the activity of enzymes and proteins involved in fat burning and the transport o fat into mitochondria, leading to body fat loss.
The Wingate protocol also helps athletes get in shape: Division 1 soccer players improved conditioning by 42 percent more than a group of players who did endurance running.
Use It: Wingate is the perfect workout to add to a strength training protocol or sport practices if your goal is fat loss and conditioning. Take 6 weeks and do 3 sprint workouts a week to get lean and shredded. If you want to cross train, the Wingate protocol can also be done on a rowing machine or bike.
#5: Long duration intervals with 1:1 work-to-rest ratio.
Benefits: Endurance, conditioning, greater lung capacity, fat loss
Who’s it For: Athletes and advanced trainees
Long duration intervals are well known to improve endurance capacity. They can also be used to improve body composition if they are done above the lactate threshold so that a robust hormone response is achieved.
If maximal oxygen uptake is the goal, use longer intervals at 85 percent of maximal speed for 2 to 3 minutes with a 1:1 work-to-rest ratio.
For fat loss and lean mass gains, you want to spend as much of your training time above the lactate threshold as possible.
Use It: Try 4 X 600 meter intervals on a track, working up to 6 repeats. In one study this led to much greater lactate buildup than 6 X 500 meter hill intervals due to higher absolute running speeds in the track workout.
#6: Short duration sprints using strategies that maximize quality over quantity.
Benefits: Speed, conditioning, power, target fast-twitch fibers, fat loss
Who’s it For: Athletes and advanced trainees
Shorter duration intervals are ideal for body composition and sport preparation. For fat loss and muscle building with short sprints, you’ll want to push intensity and volume.
A series of protocols that have been tested on young athletes that trigger a powerful growth hormone and IGF-1 response as well as improving short speed and anaerobic endurance can be done as follows:
• A decreasing distance workout on the track of 400, 300, 200, and 100 meters at maximal intensity. Rest intervals were a total of 9 minutes in both protocols with 4 minutes rest following the 400, 3 minutes rest following the 300, and 2 minutes rest following the 200.
• Shuttle sprints of 4 X 50 meters, repeated 4 to 6 times with 2 minutes rest between sets.
• Four to six repeats of 250 meters at 85 percent of 100-meter time.
Use It: Just as you would with strength training, do sprint training in a periodized fashion. Use small variations of one protocol for 2 to 3 weeks. Athletes who are practicing their sport can sprint twice a week, whereas recreational trainees can sprint 2 to 4 times a week depending on goals.
#7: Pyramid the intensity of sprints to save time and get more done faster.
Benefits: Increased maximal oxygen uptake, endurance, greater work capacity.
Who’s it For: Experienced trainees favoring aerobic or repeat endurance ability.
“Fast start” intervals improve endurance capacity and allow you to save time: A recent study tested the effect of doing five 30-second sprints at maximal speed followed by five moderate intensity repeats. By starting the workout with a bang, trainees spent 2.5 times longer above the “critical threshold” where maximal oxygen uptake is reached.
Use It: Try “pyramiding” down in intensity as your workout progresses. Notice that it’s a similar theory as the decreasing distance protocol mentioned in #6, which has been found to “feel” easier than workouts that increase distance as they progress.
#8: Repeated super short sprints for strength and power
Benefits: Strength, power, anaerobic capacity, better energy use.
Who’s it For: Anaerobic athletes such as those in combat sports like wrestlers and judokas.
Super short sprints of less than 5 seconds per sprint with minimal rest will improve power. They have also been found to produce the greatest lactate buildup of all measured protocols.
Use It: Try six to ten repeats of 35-meter all-out sprints with 10 seconds rest. That’s what combat athletes did twice a week for 4 weeks in order to increase peak power by 16 percent, work capacity by 32 percent, and achieve a more favorable testosterone to cortisol ratio.
#9: Optimize recovery. Don’t overload the central nervous system (CNS).
Benefits: Continued adaptations, neuromuscular strength, a responsive CNS
Who’s it For: CrossFitters and other hardcore trainees who are pushing volume and intensity.
A recent review of sprint training for athletes revealed that unlike the boatload of studies being done on moderate volume sprint training, there just isn’t that much evidence on high-volume, high-frequency sprinting.
Many hardcore athletes are sprinting too frequently, causing dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system. When this happens, you’re increasing your heart disease risk and glucose control worsens. You also lose heart rate variability, which is critical for health and well being.
If we look at sprinting from an evolutionary perspective, we see that our ancestors were excellent sprinters, but they only did so when they were running after game or escaping a predator. Anthropological studies suggest that this didn’t occur daily, much less twice a day.
“Cave” people probably only went all out a few times week, doing moderate to heavy lifting and light activity on a daily basis.
In addition, recent studies show that the immediate post-workout period is a key recovery time for your nervous system. Ideally, you’d get post-workout nutrition and recovery therapy in the form of massage or active release, and do minimal activity.
But real-world recovery often includes running off to work, picking up the kids, or doing some other moderately to highly stress activity that doesn’t allow your nervous system to recover as easily.
Use It: Don’t worry. You can recover and live a busy life, but only if you train with proper frequency (2 to 4 sprint workouts a week depending on strength training and sport practice), eat properly, get adequate sleep, and use the additional recovery methods reviewed in this article: