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Tap Your Inner Caveman: Regain Your Primal Speed with Sprint Workouts

Posted Feb 16 2011 9:18pm
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Develop Your Speed with Sprint Workouts...but not on railroad tracks.

As distance runners, the majority of our mileage is fairly easy – and it should be.  Maintenance distance runs make up most of our weekly training.  After all, you can’t run hard every day.

But should you run fast every day?  Maybe not every day, but there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that doing some fast running on most of your training days can provide huge benefits for an upcoming race and your overall susceptibility to injury.

Let’s define our terms: running fast is simply running at mile pace or faster.  More accurately, it’s 95% – 100% of your maximum sprint speed.  For the trained runner who can run a 4:30 mile – mile pace is a much higher percentage of his maximum speed.  For the untrained beginner who can only run an 8:30 mile, it is necessary to go much faster than mile pace during these fast sessions.

Most runners simply don’t run fast often enough.  During a block of training before a big race, you may do 1-2 fast sessions per week.  But what about the other five days?  And what about your base building period when you are focusing more on mileage and your long run?  Most runners don’t do any fast running during that period.

First, accept that your body wants to run fast.  It’s in your genes.  Your inner child wants to go out and play – and that means sprinting around.  Have you ever seen kids at a playground?  They don’t walk politely to the monkey bars.  Running at breakneck speed is primal, natural, and something that your body wants to do.

It’s important to rediscover that sprinting is not hard.  Sprint for a few short bursts and you’ll see that it’s easy – and incredibly fun.  People used to run more often and it’s a shame that so few run fast these days.  In fact, some believe ancient humans were faster than professional sprinters today. Ancient humans practiced more often.

Not only is sprinting something that is hard-wired into your genes, it will help you become a better distance runner.  Even if you are training for a marathon, sprint workouts can help lower your time.  Running at close to your maximum speed reinforces proper bio-mechanics and form.  It teaches you how to run efficiently and powerfully.

Several weeks of fast sprint workouts will refine your form at the neuromuscular level.  It will also make your distance runs feel easier and you may even start running faster day to day without any extra effort.

Once you accept that your body is itching to sprint, you’re ready to start.  You don’t need slower transition workouts to get ready for a really fast session.  The day after your first sprint workout, evaluate any soreness and take a day or two of recovery before your next workout, long run, or sprint session.

There are a lot of different ways to incorporate maximal or close to 100% effort sprints into your training plan.  For a great overview, Mark Sisson provides a variety of sprint training workouts that you can choose from.  You can keep them as unstructured and fun as you want.

For the more science-oriented runner, check out Steve Magness at Science of Running.  His description of sprint workouts for distance runners is incredibly valuable.  It’s vital to not only build your aerobic base, but your neuromuscular and mechanical base through sprint workouts.  This concept is also one of the cornerstones of Brad Hudson’s training philosophy (Brad Hudson used to coach Dathan Ritzenhein, American record holder in the 5k).

Need more workout examples?  Watch Jay Johnson’s speed development video for more concrete examples of specific workouts you can do on the track to tap your inner caveman.  Running Times also has a great overview of hill sprints from Brad Hudson.  If you’re not sure these types of intense workouts are for you, remember that their intensity is very brief.

For me, I incorporate several different types of sprinting into my weekly schedule to take advantage of its many training benefits.  My favorite sprint workout is my weekly hill sprints.  I like to do 5-6 x 10 second reps with 60-90 seconds walking recovery.

I will also add 20-30 second fast surges during the end of my distance runs with at least60 seconds of running to recover.  Alternatively, I’ll do classic strides after a distance run for about 100m.  Strides accelerate from slow jogging to a near sprint, then decelerate to a stop.  I take about 45 seconds of walking to recover in between strides.

Form and mechanics aren’t improved just by sprinting. Specific strength exercises, like compound and multi-joint movements, will help you develop power and strength. The training benefits from lifting heavy weights are similar to hill sprints and can make you dramatically less injury-prone.

These workouts improve your form and mechanics, help you avoid injury, increase your stride power, and make you a more efficient runner.  What are you waiting for?  Go have fun!

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