You Run Sprints? I Don’t Think You’re REALLY Sprinting

E’rybody in the club gettin’ sprinty.

Or so it seems.  It seems that when the exercise physiology community found out that interval based training is a more efficient way to boost oxygen consumption and the poorly named “Lactate Threshold”, everyone and their mothers, and especially their trainers, began doing interval training.  Or high-intensity interval training.  Or Sprints.  Even the kings of efficiency and flag bearers of poor program design abbreviate their words and call metabolic conditioning” “MetCons” for short. Hell, there might be more words for variable heart rate training than the Eskimos have words for snow, which is…not as many as you’d think.

If interval-style training is the hot thing in ExerciseLand right now, then sprints are on fire.  Speaking of fire, here I am not sprinting over one:

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Sprinting is awesome, but I’m not here to tell you why you should be doing it.  I’m actually here to tell you why you’re not doing it.  Dear exercise community: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

My grass-fed beef with sprinting begins with how we define the word.  Most folks will define sprinting as “Running as fast as you can.”  A simple definition, yes, but it doesn’t quite cut it.  Do you mean to tell me that Paula Radcliffe, who has broken her own marathon World Record, is a sprinter?  Didn’t think so.  So, “Running as fast as you can” is pretty vague.

What about by time?  Frequently interval training prescriptions are described using an on/off time system.  This involves “work time” which is assumed to be maximal or near-maximal effort, followed by “rest” time, which may be passive or active recovery.  We tend to break these down into minutes as well as halves, thirds, and quarters of minutes.  That’s 60 seconds, 30 seconds, 20 seconds, and 15 seconds, used in a combination of work:rest ratios.

Combinations of any and all of those may work for ‘generic’ metabolic conditioning.  But we’re not talking about generic conditioning, we’re talking about sprints.  Since we know those aren’t based on perceived exertion, let’s look at an athletic definition.  The 3 events used at the Olympics and World Championship are the 100m, 200m, and 400m events.  The Men’s World Record for the 400m is still held by Michael Johnson at 43.18s.  According to the fine folks at Wikipedia,

Races up to 100 m are largely focused upon acceleration to an athlete’s maximum speedAll sprints beyond this distance increasingly incorporate an element of endurance.Human physiology dictates that a runner’s near-top speed cannot be maintained for more than 30–35 seconds due to the accumulation of lactic acid in muscles. 

Let’s use those factors to throw out the 400m event, because there’s no way we’re coming anywhere close to Johnson’s time; I bet we’re closer to a minute.  Additionally, consider tossing out the 200m distance, because I’m guessing we’ll be closer to the 30 second mark than Usain Bolt’s 19.19.  We’re looking at the 100m sprint, which is probably the truest measure of maximum speed.

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There’s a difference between “Maximum Speed” and “As fast as possible”, and that’s where I find most of us miss the point of sprinting.  Maximum or absolute speed is about the fastest you’re moving during this locomotive endeavor.  It’s usually given in MPH (‘Murica) and km/h or a time for a set distance.  At the risk of being as reductive as alternate definitions, let me say this:

If you’re not focusing on absolute speed, you’re not sprinting.

Anything else is running.  That’s cool, if your goal is to build endurance over greater distances, create a specific hormone response, or a specific cardiovascular response.  If running is the best tool for those goals, then by all means, use it.  Just don’t call it sprinting.

As an example of our mis-definition of sprinting, let’s take a look at one of my most favoritest exercises, the hill sprint.  These fellas are awesome at creating a low(er) impact conditioning effect to improve endurance and burn fat.  They are not the best when it comes to actually running fast though.  If you’re hauling ass up a hill, you’re probably not moving at maximal speed, even though you’re applying maximal effort.  If you require personal proof, time yourself running a 50m sprint on a respectable hill and compare that to your 50m sprint on a playing field.  Or ask your 7th grade math teacher to review trigonometry with you.

We frequently try to recreate “hill sprints” and flat ground sprinting on The Devil’s Belt, otherwise known as the treadmill.  That’s great for rainy day running, and if you’re looking to do interval training, but unless you have specialized equipment, you’re not sprinting on a treadmill.  Specialized equipment, or you’re very, very, slow.  Read:  Your treadmill doesn’t go 25 miles per hour.

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You may be running as fast as you can.  You may be working as hard as you possibly can.  Go set PR’s left and right; I’m about that life.  What I’m not about is confusing a technique and power exercise for a conditioning or endurance exercise.  I’m not about running repeat 400m “sprints” because you were told it makes you faster.  It makes you feel crappy, might burn fat, and might might you better at running repeat 400’s.

Sprinting isn’t conditioning.  It’s power.  Running, pushing a sled, swinging a kettlebell, going for a (farmer’s) walk, and going to a Zumba class are all examples of conditioning that are at different intensities.  Before we confuse one for the other, let’s just make sure that we’re all on the same page.

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4 Replies to “You Run Sprints? I Don’t Think You’re REALLY Sprinting”

  1. Love the article, but let’s not confuse “pacing” with “sprinting”. Feel free to argue the point here, but Paula Radcliffe can run mile splits over 26.2 faster than I can run a mile. Does that mean she’s running as fast as she can? Nope – it means she’s running as fast as she can… for 26.2 miles. That’s pacing. If Paula went full throttle out of the gate, she’d never make 26.2. That’s sprinting.

    1. Roy, you’ve said it better than I have. I’d love to expand on that distinction, since we tend to confuse the difference between maximal speed and maximal velocity. I love the marathon PR idea. Thanks for that!

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