While some of these answers may be true – yes, sprinters and elite athletes in sports that require fast runs will naturally focus more on sprinting, and yes, there are cardiovascular health benefits – sprinting is also extremely beneficial for anyone looking to develop their health and fitness. In fact, the sprint is a master piece of any full bodybuilding program, because sprinting builds muscle.
To understand why, let’s first take a step back to appreciate the essence of strength training. Physiotherapist and physical trainer Brian KinslowPT, DPT, explains the purpose of strength training as “the exposure of the muscle to a stimulus that compels it to work and grow stronger.”
The sprint aligns very closely with this principle. Certain muscles and areas of the body during sprinting experience much higher levels of exertion and stress than more traditional strength training, such as resistance bands and weightlifting.
For example, a study comparing activation of the hamstrings between resistance exercises and sprinting (using electromyography aka emg) discovered that—at most– strength training could only achieve about 75% activation compared to sprint. Additionally, that 75% was for only one specific muscle (the hamstrings are a group of three muscles), while the other two peak activations were 60% and 40% of the sprint, respectively.
In other words, sprinting exposes the hamstrings to a level of resistance that strength training struggles to do. “Sprinting adds another level to strength training because of the stress it puts on some of your muscles,” says Dr. Kinslow. “Since one of the key tenets of strength training is”progressive overload‘, i.e. gradually and methodically exposing the muscle to higher levels of stress, a proper sprint program is an excellent tool for reaching that higher level.
In this framework, the framework on the sprint as being completely separate from the work of force is erroneous. This is another key tool for building strength and can be a welcome (and fun!) change from your regular strength program. Humans are built for locomotion after all.
How does sprinting compare to steady-state running?
Sprinting is quite different from steady-state running for many reasons. First, as we discussed earlier, sprinting involves high-level muscular strength and effort. This is not the case for steady-state operation. Second, the cardiovascular effect of sprinting – which tends to be shorter and for higher levels of effort – is different from steady-state running which tends to be longer and for lower levels of effort, compared to sprinting.
Race Coach (and ultra runner) Christophe Kokotajlo explained further: “The body has three different energy systems,” he says. “I won’t go into details, but one is for short-duration, high-intensity activities; one is for average intensity and average distances; and the last is for lower intensity, longer distances. Sprinting tends to exist on one side of the spectrum while steady-state running exists on the other.
Finally, sprinting also involves a significant component of acceleration and deceleration, which presents very different challenges compared to steady-state running, especially in terms of the load on your muscles.
The good news is that just like sprinting and weight training, running and steady-state sprinting also complement each other, working different parts of the cardiovascular system.
Sprinting builds muscle, but can it replace bodybuilding?
Simply put, no. That’s because even though sprinting builds strength, it’s just A component of an effective and well-balanced strength training program.
If sprinting is the only strength training you do, there will be many neglected muscles and body regions and a high risk of overtraining because sprinting has a higher intensity and workload than most strength training.
There is no single exercise or type of training that ticks all the boxes for effective strength training; Sprint training is no exception to this rule.
What is an effective and safe way to start sprinting?
The same principles that apply to any other type of training apply to sprint training: start small and progress gradually. Ideally this will be on flat ground and not on a treadmill so you get the full experience of high speed acceleration and deceleration.
With sprinting, the key variables are going to be distance/time, intensity, and reps. My recommendation is to keep the distance/time constant, then progress by increasing the reps and intensity. Here is a basic example of a sprint progression:
- Week 1: a 15 second sprint, intensity 5/10. Complete once a week.
- Week 2: two 15-second sprints, intensity 5/10, one minute rest between each. Complete once a week.
If you have no problems, work your way up to five sprints. At this point, increase the intensity to 7–8/10, drop back down to one sprint, and work your way up the ladder until you hit five sprints. On the next cycle, increase the intensity to 10/10. At this point, increase the time/distance and start again at 5/10 intensity and a sprint.