Written on March 28, 2013 at 5:23 am, by Eric Cressey
While sprinting has been around since the dawn of man, only in the past few years has it really taken off as true fitness trend. In other words, it was either what we did to kill our dinner in prehistoric times, or it was a modern athletic competition. Only recently have we realized that doing sprint work for our interval training is a tremendously effective way to get/stay lean, enhance mobility, improve athleticism, and prepare ourselves for the demands that life throws our way.
Heading out to sprint full-tilt when you haven’t been doing any running work in recent months is, however, analogous to signing up for calculus when you haven’t brushed up on basic math of late. The main difference is that you can’t rip your hamstrings off your pelvis doing calculus!
Sprint work requires tremendous mobility, good tissue quality, and adequate strength to tolerate significant ground reaction forces and a wide variety of joint angles. You don’t prepare for this with your “typical” gym workouts, so before I have some specific modifications in place that you’ll want to follow. To that end, below, I’ve provided you with seven tips you can apply to ease into sprint work so that you can get the benefits of it with less of the risk.
1. Do these foam rolling drills and four mobility exercises every day for a month.
These drills are like summer reading before a tough English class. You have to do them so that you can hit the ground running (pun intended).
2. Sprint uphill first.
People often get hurt when they overstride; they’ll pull the hamstrings on the front leg. Sprinting uphill doesn’t really allow you to overstride, though, and it’s also good because you go up with each step, but don’t come down quite as much. Ground reaction forces are much lower, so this is a great option for easing into top-speed sprinting. (great studies here and here, for those interested).
While it’s more ideal to do uphill sprinting outside, it is okay to do this on a treadmill. After all, you’re just trying to lose your spare tire or be a little better in beer league softball, not go to the Olympics.
I like to see a month of 2x/week uphill sprint work before folks start testing the waters on flat terrain.
3. Don’t sprint at 100% intensity right away.
Contrary to what you may have heard, you don’t have to run at 100% intensity to derive benefits from sprint work. In fact, a lot of the most elite sprinters in the world spend a considerable amount of time running at submaximal intensities, and they are still lean and fast.
The bulk of your sprint work should be in the 70-90% of top speed range. You might work up to some stuff in the 90-100% zone as you’re fully warmed up, but living in this top 10% all the time is a recipe for injury, especially if you’re over the age of 35-40 and degenerative changes are starting to kick in.
When you first start out, sprinting is new and exciting, and it's very easy to get overzealous and push the volume and frequency side of the equation just as you would the intensity side. Don't do it. For most folks, twice a week is a sufficient complement to a comprehensive strength training program, and the session shouldn't last for more than 30-45 minutes - most of which will be you resting between bouts of sprinting. If you find that they're 90-120 minute sessions, you're either doing too much volume or not working hard enough. The speed and quality of your work will fall off pretty quickly as you fatigue, so be careful about forcing things too quickly. Beyond just injury prevention benefits, taking it slower on the progressions side of things allows you to test out your footwear of a few weeks to make sure that they're the right shoes for you.
5. Don't sprint on pavement.
I can't think of a more unforgiving surface than pavement, especially since it means that you're more likely to get hit by a car. Unfortunately, it's also the more easy accessible surface for most people. In an ideal world, I like to see folks sprint on grass, artificial turf, or a track surface. Broken glass and hot coals would also be preferable to pavement (for the record, that was a joke, people; don't be that schmuck who goes out to try it).
6. Don't sprint through fatigue early on.
This is a "go by feel" kind of recommendation. On one hand, you have to sprint through some fatigue to get in the volume it takes to derive the training effects you want: namely, fat loss. However, we also have to appreciate that states of fatigue drive injury rates sky-high in the athletic world. With that trend in mind, I encourage people to run conservatively in the first few months of their sprint training programs; in other words, don't allow a lot of fatigue to accumulate. Instead, take a little extra time between sprints. Then, as your sprinting mechanics and fitness improves (and you've gotten rid of the initial soreness), you can push through some fatigue.
7. Generally speaking, sprint before your lower body strength training work, not after.
People often ask me when the best point in one's training split is to sprint. As a general rule of thumb, I prefer to have people sprint before they do their lower body strength training sessions. We might have athletes that will combine the two into one session (sprinting first, of course), but most fitness oriented sprinters would sprint the day or two prior to a lower body session. A training schedule I like to use for many athletes and non-athletes alike is:
Mo: Lower Body Strength Training (with athletes, we may do some sprint work before this as well)
Tu: Upper Body Strength Training
We: Sprint Work
Th: Lower Body Strength Training
Fr: Upper Body Strength Training
Sa: Sprint Work
In this case, the intensive lower body work is consolidated into three 24-36-hour blocks (Mo, We-Th, Sa).
Conversely, I've also met lifters who like to sprint at 70-80% effort the day after a lower body strength training session, as they feel like it helps with promoting recovery.
As you can tell, while there are definitely some tried and true strategies for avoiding injury when you undertake a sprinting program, there are also some areas that are open to a bit of interpretation. The value of incorporating sprinting into one's program is undeniable, though, so I'd encourage you to test the waters to see how it fits in with your strength and conditioning programs. At the very least, it'll give you some variety and help get you outdoors for some fresh air.
If you're looking for ideas on how to incorporate sprinting in a comprehensive strength and conditioning program, I'd encourage you to check out my latest resource, The High Performance Handbook.
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