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Will Sprinting Help With My Long Distance Running?

Sprinting is a great way to build stamina and pretend that you’re Usain Bolt. For me, sprinting is a key part of my long distance training. Even if I’m working towards a 26.2 marathon, I’m sure to have at least 1 day of low mileage sprinting a week. Even though it doesn’t add volume to my training, my sprint workouts are beneficial beyond the miles they add to my training schedule.

Sprinting helps with long distance running because it increases endurance, influences muscle development, and improves pain tolerance. Sprint sessions benefit any long distance training program by giving the body the support and adaptations it needs to run for a long period of time.

You may be thinking that sprinting is counter intuitive to long distance running. Yeah, it definitely seems that way on the surface, but we’re going to break down the reasons why sprinting can help you achieve your long distance goals. 

Sprinting Builds Your Endurance and Performance

Whenever you’re huffing and puffing after making a big effort to run as fast as you can, you’re building your endurance. Specifically, you’re improving your VO2max, which is your body’s ability to take in and use oxygen. 

If you think about it, every time you sprint, you are forcing your body to use oxygen more efficiently. As you continue to sprint week after week, your body starts to understand that it behooves it to use oxygen as efficiently as possible. That way, you don’t feel like you’re dying each time. After practicing, you’ll notice that you’ll be able to sprint faster and farther without losing your breath as quickly.

If you don’t believe me, there’s research to back it up. Studies show that periods of HIIT training, including sprinting, significantly enhances VO2max and O2 pulse and power output (source). This means that incorporating HIIT into your workout routine can help you use oxygen more efficiently, which is always a great thing when trying to run for hours.

Another study showed that 8 weeks of HIIT training at 90-95% heart rate increased 10k running performance by about 3% (source). I’ll take a 3% increase any day! 

You might be wondering if any kind of HIIT training would work. HIIT simply stands for “high intensity interval training.” It doesn’t stand for “sprinting.” Conceivably, the research shows that any type of HIIT training works to increase your VO2max and running performance. In my opinion though, sprinting will give you the most bang for your buck. Sprinting is the most compatible with long distance running because, well, it’s running. Yes, cross training is very important for any holistic running program, but we’re not talking about cross training right now. We’re specifically concerned with increasing your running endurance and stamina. Sprinting is a great HIIT workout that lets you continue with running while you get the HIIT benefits. Burpees don’t do that. There’s just nothing like the gasping and wheezing that comes after a great sprinting session. 

When you increase your VO2max and running endurance with some sprinting sessions, you’ll notice that your long distance running efforts will feel easier. Even though sprinting can feel like death sometimes, your body and lungs are learning how to use oxygen more efficiently and becoming adapted to the efforts that running requires. 

Sprinting Influences Muscle Development

I’ve been told that I have “fluffy marathon legs.” Stand me next to a sprinter and you’ll see why. Long distance runners tend to have more slow twitch muscle fibers, or type 1, and sprinters tend to have more fast twitch muscle fibers, or type 2. The reason is that slow twitch muscle fibers are more often associated with endurance activities, while fast twitch muscle fibers are more often associated with quick bursts of activity (source).

If you’re training for a long distance event like a marathon or ultra, you’ll probably have “fluffy legs” like me. These slow twitch muscle fibers are what you need to maintain the endurance required for a long distance race. This doesn’t mean that you should ignore fast twitch muscle fibers though. Cultivating some fast twitch muscle fibers will help you push through hills, make a sudden sprint past a competitor, or show a strong effort at the finish line. Basically, working on your fast twitch muscle fibers will help you activate some oomph and speed when you need it during your long distance event.

Studies show that incorporating sprinting into a running routine can increase a runner’s proportion of fast twitch muscle fibers (source). This particular study liked to the right found results in only 6 weeks of sprint training. That’s a quick return.

Sprinting Will Improve Your Pain Tolerance

I don’t know about you but, for me, pain tolerance is ¾ the battle of a marathon. For some strange reason, my brain fights back against being in pain for hours on end. Crazy, right? Well, sprinting really hurts. It’s exhilarating and a good hit of dopamine, but it’s also really painful. No one stands hunched over with their hands on their knees when they’re feeling good.

Sprinting gives you a great opportunity to develop a fond relationship with pain, specifically the pain you feel when running. Even though burpees can also be put in the “death” category, sprinting gives you a more comparable training in pain tolerance. What does it feel like when you’re out on the road ready to collapse or puke your brains out? How do you cope with it and move on? These are great questions you can get some real-life answers to while running.

For me, sprinting helps me learn how to push through tough moments and know that I’ll survive it. It helps me learn that, right when I feel like giving up, I can push a little bit harder and know that the reward of my timer going off is right around the corner. Mentally, this type of training is invaluable. 

How Often Should You Do Sprint Work

I like to do sprint work once a week when I’m training for a race. This frequency is what many of my training plans have recommended, including Run Less, Run Faster. It’s also what I’ve found works well for me. There isn’t a hard and fast rule here though. Once you’ve found a training program or a coach that works for you, take their advice and experiment from there to figure out what works for you. 

Things to Keep in Mind with Sprinting

Sprinting is no joke. You’re basically catapulting yourself through space as quickly as your legs can carry you. This is not something you want to do without preparation. Granted, sprinting is something we’ve all instinctually done since the time we were kids during recess. It isn’t rocket science. But, as we get older and stiffer, it’s good to keep some things in mind. 

Firstly, be careful that you don’t overdo it. When you’re a long distance runner, it can be hard to reduce your mileage down to 1 or 2 miles and consider it a training run. You really have to though. If you do sprints properly, you’ll properly clock in with 1.5 miles or warm up and cool down and half a mile of sprinting. That’s ok! That’s how it should be. 

I’ve actually gotten in the habit of ditching my mileage tracker during my sprint workouts. It unnecessarily stresses me out about mileage when I shouldn’t be focused on mileage to begin with. Sprinting is very intense and should only be done in short intervals. Worrying too much about the mileage is going to encourage you to run too much during your sprint workouts, which can lead to injury. 

Speaking of injury, the second thing you should consider is properly warming up, cooling down, and stretching. As we just chatted about, sprinting is really intense. It puts a lot of immediate and heavy force on your muscles that you might not be used to as a long distance runner. Be sure to take the time to properly warm up, cool down, and stretch afterwards. If you don’t, you could end up really sore or, possibly, injured. Be careful out there. 

Thirdly, you want to experiment with the timing of your sprint workout within your weekly running schedule. Especially when first starting with sprinting, you’re going to be sore the next day. The day after my sprint day is usually when I discover muscles I had forgotten about. For me, it’s best to schedule an easy run for the day after my sprint workout. This gives me a chance to stretch out my muscles and let them recover while still staying on track with my training program. 

Sprinting is a great way to improve your abilities as a runner and work towards your race goals. Also, you’ll learn to have fun with it. Long distance running can get really monotonous. It’s really refreshing to have one run a week that’s all about short and fast sprints instead of long and slow miles. Put on a neon shirt, play some obnoxious music, and pretend like you’re a kid at recess playing a game of tag. It doesn’t get much better than that.