Shawn Crawford, former US Olympic sprinter. Photo by Nick Krug.
Have you ever noticed how Olympic-level sprinters look like shredded NFL safeties, but professional marathoners look like they just escaped a Siberian prison camp? They’re both runners — so shouldn’t their bodies look at least a little similar? The answer, of course, is no. And the difference lies in the nature of sprinting, which is one of the easiest, most powerful forms of exercise.
Sprinting doesn’t just induce fat loss; it also increases muscle growth. In many ways, sprinting is actually more like weight lifting (anaerobic exercise) than cardio (aerobic exercise), except you don’t need a gym, equipment, weights, or speed metal to get you jacked up. All you need is shoes, 50-100 yards of open space, or a nice big hill. You don’t need to wait for the gym to open, or a bunch of bros to get done bogarting the squat rack — you can get up and go sprint right now, whatever time of day.
This guide is designed to quickly and easily teach you why and how to start sprinting. We’ve done all the research and compiled what we believe is the most essential information you need to start today. You want to look like a sprinter? Then do what they do. Start sprinting.
Sprinting Builds Muscle
When you sprint properly, you go all out, running as fast and as hard as you can for 10-25 seconds. Putting this much power into each step requires a huge amount of effort from your muscles. To adapt to this force, your body has to build stronger muscles. It’s similar to weight lifting, insofar as lifting more weight or moving at max speed requires greater muscle recruitment. The bigger the weight and the more force you use to lift it, the stronger your muscles become. And here’s the bonus: Sprinting induces muscle growth in your entire body, not just your legs.
Sprinting Burns Fat
Sprinting is a high-intensity exercise that uses up a huge amount of energy in a short amount of time. To compensate, your body needs to rely on its stored up energy reserves. At this point your body can break down either muscle or fat, and because it’s already focused on building muscle, it turns to fat for fuel. Sprinting is especially effective if you are overweight, and doesn’t take long to see results — only two weeks in many cases.
Sprinting Increases Testosterone
Studies that measured hormones after sprint workouts showed significant changes in hormone levels — the most important of which for men is testosterone. Just 20 minutes of sprinting, alternating 30-second sprints with 90 seconds of rest, caused big increases in testosterone. Increases have been shown even in wrestlers, who are already juiced to the gills with testosterone, when they sprint.
Sprinting Increases Endurance
It might seem counterintuitive, but while sprinting is a short, quick exercise, it also produces massive benefits for longer endurance training. In fact, you can almost get the exact same effects of long distance running or cycling with short sprinting workouts.
Sprinting Is Time Efficient
Sprinting is an exponentially more efficient exercise than jogging or low-level cycling (not spinning) because you get the same benefits in only a fraction of the time. For example, a sprint workout lasts only about 20 minutes — 30 max, with a good warmup — while cardio or endurance running sometimes stretches into hours. Sprinting for only 20 minutes twice a week can lead to big changes (see above) in your body over time.
Proper Form for Sprinting
Here’s the key to a proper sprint workout: INTENSITY. You have to do a full-on SPRINT. That doesn’t mean you have to be fast, it just means you have to run as fast as you possibly can — like you’re being chased by a rabid dog. If you’re gasping for air between runs, great — that means you’re doing it right.
It shouldn’t take you less than 10 minutes to complete a set of sprints. If it does, increase your sprint times. It also shouldn’t take you more than 25 minutes — if it does, shorten your sprint times. Full intensity for 10-25 minutes, and you’re done.
As you get stronger, you should increase either the total time you’re sprinting or the number of runs.
Warm up the Right Way
Warm up gradually. Never start sprinting while your muscles are cold. Getting a good warmup in is one of the best things you can do to avoid injuries. That said, warmups vary, so do what is best and feels good for your body. Here’s an average warmup I do:
- Start out walking three to five minutes.
- Go into a light jog for five to seven minutes.
- Dynamic stretches: high knees, butt kicks, toy soldiers.
- Five runs of 50 yards each (half a football field) at 50% effort with a short rest (<one minute) in between runs.
First Time Sprinting?
Don’t be a hero if you’re starting from zero. If this is your first time doing a sprint workout, start slow and build up. Do 10 second sprints with 60-90 seconds of recovery time and repeat this cycle for 20 minutes.
If you can’t go the full 20 minutes the first time, that’s totally fine. Instead, start out doing 10 minutes if that’s best for you and increase the time gradually over future workouts.
If it’s too easy, add on sprint time or decrease recovery time.
The Sprint Workout
- Warm up: The first rule of any workout is to avoid injuries, so always warm up first (see more on this below).
- Sprint 15-30 seconds at FULL INTENSITY.
- Recover for two to four minutes: the amount of recovery time depends on your fitness level and how long you’ve been doing these workouts. For your first few workouts, you might need more time.
- Repeat steps two and three until 20 minutes have elapsed.
Alternative: If you have bad knees and running is a no-go, this workout can be adapted to the bike. On a road bike or stationary bike, do 10-second sprints with a 30-second rest for 20 minutes. Your goal eventually will be to work up to 30-second sprints with 90 seconds of rest in between sets.
In any workout or exercise routine, the first rule should always be to avoid injuries. Here are a few ways to not get hurt while sprinting:
- Jog into the sprint instead of starting your sprint from a standing position. It’s that quick twitch burst off the line that so often leads to quad tears, hamstring pulls, and achilles injuries.
- Always leave a few runs in the tank. Do not sprint to exhaustion or failure. Consistent, gradual increases in time and distance are much better than pushing yourself too hard, too soon, and risking injury.
- Take time to rest. Always rest one to two days before sprinting again.
- Don’t lift weights with your legs before or after sprinting. In high school on the baseball and football team, the seniors used to haze the freshmen by pushing them go heavy on leg days then making them immediately go out and do sprints. Inevitably, their legs would give way and they’d all fall flat on their faces. It might be funny in high school, but it’s dangerous when you’re an adult trying to get into shape.
- Know the difference between acute pain and leg fatigue. If you feel a tweak, pain, or tightness in your feet, hamstrings, or calves, stop the workout and go ice it down. No shame there — hamstring injuries are the most common muscle injuries among sprinters.
- Don’t sprint on a treadmill. It’s dangerous and just looks stupid.
- Do hill sprints. Sprinting uphill is much easier on your knees and hamstrings and still get a great sprint workout.
Sprinting Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Straight-Line Running
You now have the why and the how of sprinting as an easy, cost-effective way to increase muscle mass, lose fat, and get in shape. If you’re like most people, though, you probably look at this article and these video links and say to yourself: “I get it, but man, this looks so boring!” I feel you. Running in a straight line back and forth, over and over again, is not much different from running on a treadmill if you’re easily bored.
Fortunately, there are ton of great ways to do a sprinting workout without having to actually force yourself into this rote, habituated modality. You can actually have fun while sprinting. Here are some great alternatives:
- Pickup basketball
- Soccer leagues
- Hockey leagues
- Jumping rope
- Mountain biking
- Water sprints
- Wingate sprints
At the end of the day, enjoying your workout is the most effective form of exercise, so if any of these options speak to you, pick one, go out, and give it your all. The results will be undeniable. Happy sprinting!