Many of us probably can’t remember the last time we sprinted. Maybe you pulled a hamstring on the soccer field as a teen and you’ve been hesitant ever since. Maybe someone told you it’s hard on your joints. Or maybe you think running fast is for kids, so out it’s gone, along with playing tag and swinging on monkey bars.
The truth is, as long as you’re healthy and don’t overdo it, sprinting offers many benefits.
“Your body adapts to what you throw at it,” says run coach Rebekah Mayer, RRCA, USATF Level 2. If you’ve avoided running fast lately, sprinting will spur your body to build more capillaries and red blood cells so you can fuel working muscles more efficiently. “That makes you both fitter and faster.”
Sprinting also improves bone density, body composition, and metabolic health. It tones muscles and improves power — the ability to generate force quickly — a proven contributor to longevity in older adults. It does all this in far less time than most long-distance runners spend pounding the pavement.
Finally, for most people, a little bit of raw speed in the workout mix is — dare we say it — fun. It’s a chance to recapture life on the playground.
These three sprint workouts are of increasing intensity, and they’re best performed on a track, grassy field, or a flat stretch of lightly trafficked road. Give them a try whenever you feel the need for speed.
Begin each workout by warming up with some jogging or light calisthenics for 10 to 15 minutes. (For an all-around warm-up, visit “The Perfect Warmup”.)
After your warm-up, perform your first sprint — or work interval. Jog slowly (or walk) for the time indicated in the Rest Period column. Repeat until you’ve completed the assigned number of rounds.
Do not exceed the effort level indicated in the Zone/Biofeedback columns. The Zone indicates which of the five heart-rate zones to aim for, while Biofeedback offers physical cues of exertion. (For more on the zones, see “The A.T. Factor”.)
The first time through a given workout, run a little slower than you think you should, slowly adding speed as you become accustomed to the workout.
Try to jog during your rest period. If you feel very tired, walk, but do not stop or sit down. If you become exhausted before the end of your workout, stop and perform your work intervals at a slower pace next time.
Follow your final sprint with five to 10 minutes of jogging, walking, and performing gentle stretches.
You can perform the same interval workouts on a treadmill, elliptical machine, rower, or indoor bicycle. Perform interval workouts no more than once or twice per week.
“Everyone can handle going fast for a minute,” says Mayer. “That makes this a perfect interval for beginners.”
But rest assured, it’s tough: By the time you’ve completed just 18 minutes of work (six one-minute intervals, each followed by two minutes of easy jogging), you’ll be ready to call it quits for the day.
“This workout mimics the effect of quarter-mile repeats,” she says — a workout that strikes fear in the heartiest of track athletes.
As hard as those intervals can be, try to keep up a jog between rounds: “If you stop moving, blood pressure drops and metabolic byproducts accumulate in your muscles,” she says. Jogging clears those byproducts out so you feel fresher on your next round.
Work Interval (seconds): 60
Rest Period (seconds): 120
Number of Rounds: 6
Effort Level: 7/10
Zone/Biofeedback: Zone 3/Can speak a few words at a time.
Speed for Intermediates
Switching the duration of your work and rest intervals makes all the difference in this tough workout — again less than 20 minutes in duration your first few times out.
“You’re training the anaerobic energy system,” says Mayer. That’s the fuel system that supports high-intensity efforts — and causes working muscles to burn.
At first, this type of workout can be uncomfortable. “It’s not necessarily fun,” says Mayer. The burning sensation never entirely vanishes — that’s one way you know you’re doing it right — but you get used to the discomfort, and your body gets better at clearing the metabolic byproducts that cause it. The result? More speed, and an improved ability to handle burning leg muscles when you get tired.
Interested in improving your 5K or 10K time? This type of workout gets you there.
Work Interval (seconds): 120
Rest Period (seconds): 60
Number of Rounds: 6–10
Effort Level: 8.5/10
Zone/Biofeedback: Zone 3 to 4/Difficult to speak during work period
Ready to see what you’re made of? Three-minute intervals — working just below your max pace — are just what you need.
“These are great for both overall fitness and performance,” says Mayer. VO2 max — a measure of your cardiovascular fitness — gets a bump.
You get more comfortable running at a fast clip. As with the two-minute variety, your muscles will burn, but the extra rest means you can start each round fresher. “You feel better going into each work round,” says Mayer.
Feel like pushing even harder? “Your VO2-max sprints can last up to five minutes,” she says. “And you can do up to six rounds.”
Nail that and you’re ready for some competitive road races.
Work Interval (seconds): 180 (or 240 or 300)
Rest Period (seconds): 180
Number of Rounds: 5–6
Effort Level: 9/10
Zone/Biofeedback: Zone 4/Impossible to speak during work period.
This originally appeared as “A Need for Speed” in the October 2020 print issue of Experience Life.