How To Get Sprint Training Right

Researchers evaluated dozens of studies on sprint training and discovered one ultimate workout for runners

Fact Checked by Michael Doyle
Avatar photo
Investigative journalist and editor based in Toronto

Published:

If you’re a runner looking to shave off a few precious seconds from your 5K personal best or speed up your overall average pace in a 10K or even half-marathon, the thought of incorporating sprint training or strides into your routine has likely crossed your mind.

Depending on who you talk to, you’ll hear a thousand different tales about the “best” formula for sprint training, ranging from arduous hill repeats, to 200m intervals on the track to intense, short fartlek sessions.

It’s easy to get swept away by the allure of the latest and greatest fitness trends, each vying for attention and endorsement (double threshold training, anyone?). But, just like a pair of super shoes that look good but don’t quite fit right, sometimes the tried-and-true prevails over the allure of the new.

A group of runners practicing sprint training on a track

Sprinting has long been recognized as a staple in the training repertoire of runners, offering a myriad of benefits supported by scientific research. While sprinting’s benefits are well-established, the optimal formula for sprint workouts can vary.

In the ever-evolving landscape of running research, a recent meta-analysis published in Sports Medicine titled “The Effects of Repeated-Sprint Training on Physical Fitness and Physiological Adaptation in Athletes”1Thurlow, F., Huynh, M. Q., Townshend, A. D., McLaren, S. J., James, L. P., Taylor, J. M., Weston, M., & Weakley, J. (2023). The Effects of Repeated-Sprint Training on Physical Fitness and Physiological Adaptation in Athletes: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Medicine. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-023-01959-1 combed through 40 publications, gaining valuable insight on the effects of sprints on running performance, maximal oxygen consumption, and a specific blueprint for sprinting success.

The bottom line is that Repeated-Sprint Training (RST), unsurprisingly, works, and it works well.

The study’s findings present a refreshingly simple, no-frills blueprint for effective sprint training. In a world where every new hack claims to be revolutionary, the meta-analysis brings us back to the basics, showcasing that sometimes, the tried-and-true methods are the most reliable.

The result? A straightforward and effective prescription:

Three sets of 6 × 30m sprints, performed twice per week for six weeks.

No elaborate equipment, no overcomplicated routines—just a clear, evidence-backed strategy.

Key Findings on The Positive Effects Of Sprint Training

To zero in on what they were looking for, the researchers did some serious digging in sports databases. They honed in on well-trained runners aged 14 to 35.

They also didn’t just pick any study; it had to meet their specific criteria. And they were extra picky, using a checklist called Downs and Black to scrutinize each study. This was their way of making sure the studies were solid and reliable for the core analysis.

Then came the fancy part – a statistical tool called multi-level mixed-effects meta-analysis. Sounds complicated, but it’s simply combining info from different studies. They crunched the numbers and figured out the standardized mean changes for the variables they were measuring.

Here are the results:

#1: Sprint Training Delivers Enhanced VO2 max and Endurance

An athlete having their VO2 Max accurately measured in a lab

The study revealed that RST doesn’t just make you faster; it significantly enhances your body’s ability to use oxygen during intense exercise, known as VO2 max.

Imagine your VO2 max as the powerhouse behind your endurance. A higher VO2 max means your body becomes more efficient at utilizing oxygen during intense exercise.

This enhanced efficiency translates to improved endurance, which means you can sustain a faster pace for an extended period. So when you head out for your next threshold effort, a pace that was once challenging will likely feel more manageable, and you’ll find you can sustain faster speeds for longer periods of time.

When it comes to your next race, whether that be 800m on the track or a marathon, you’ll find it easier to sustain your goal pace and prevent premature fatigue, contributing to an overall improved and enjoyable running experience.

Additionally, with an improved VO2 max, your muscles can receive oxygen more effectively, reducing the buildup of fatigue-inducing byproducts like lactate.

#2: Improved Sprint Performance

Improved sprint performance isn’t just about speed; it’s about gaining a competitive edge and finishing strong.

The study demonstrated that RST significantly reduces linear sprint times for both 10 meters and 20 meters. This isn’t just a statistical improvement; it translates into a real-world scenario where you’ll notice gains in acceleration and speed, enabling you to surge ahead with increased power during those critical moments in a race.

Think about your 100m sprints or that last-grasp kick at the end of a race; each fraction of a second improvement adds up.

Agility ladder drills for running

#3: Sprint Training Builds Strength and Enhances Agility

This one will be of particular interest to trail runners: the study found that RST positively influences Repeated Sprint Ability (RSA), Countermovement Jump (CMJ) height, and Change of Direction (COD) ability.

These enhancements have real-world implications for runners hitting the track or trails.

Improved RSA means maintaining speed during consecutive sprints, a game-changer for those strategic surges in a race. Imagine zipping down rutted trails or up muddy paths, seamlessly maintaining your pace.

Increased CMJ height signals a boost in explosive power, a vital element for propelling yourself forward through a finishing kick. It’s like having that extra gear when you need to kick it up a notch.

Enhanced COD ability translates to sharper turns and quick adjustments, essential skills for navigating twists and turns on the trail. Picture effortlessly maneuvering through a winding forest trail, each turn executed with precision.

RST will help transform into a more versatile, powerful runner.

Three Sets, twice a Week for Six Weeks: The Simple Prescription for Running Success

In a nutshell, running-based RST is your secret weapon for faster, stronger running performance, whether it’s speed, intermittent running performance, or VO2 max.

The study’s prescription of three sets of 6 × 30 m sprints, performed twice weekly for six weeks, emerges as your golden ticket.

Nevertheless, it’s important to acknowledge that alternative variations of sprint training explored in the study still show positive effects. Multiple methods work. But the blueprint they prescribed is simple, accessible, and effective.

In light of the evidence discussed in this paper, we may consider a shift in sprint training. Minimal sprint durations and repetitions appear more manageable and less intimidating for the average runner, potentially encouraging a larger percentage of runners to engage in sprint training.

But find what works best for you. If you have a particular sprint workout you enjoy, like the classic Tabata training where you go all out for 20 seconds followed by a 10-second rest, go for it. If you have a hill local to you that takes 60 seconds to run up, as long as you’re sprinting, you will begin to see a big benefit over time.

The key is not to be overwhelmed by the multitude of options claiming to be the best. Embrace an individualized approach based on your fitness level, preferences, and what brings you the most satisfaction and results. After all, the most effective workout is the one you’ll stick to.

The door is wide open for further exploration, urging researchers and runners to unravel the nuances of fine-tuning programming factors.

If you enjoyed this article, check out:

References

Photo of author
Ben is a qualified Personal Trainer and Sports Massage Therapist with a particular interest in running performance and injury. He has spent the last 9 years working with runners at his clinic in Brighton. Ben is a keen runner and avid cyclist. Evenly splitting his time between trail running, road biking, and MTB.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.