The role of sprint training for endurance athletes

Over the past few years speed development sessions have gained traction amongst endurance coaches. Successful endurance coaches of all levels—from high school to post-collegiate– are adding true speed development sessions to their year-round training regimen. I’ve had the opportunity to coach and consult with several top distance coaches, allowing me to see how speed development sessions can be incorporated into various systems and philosophies throughout the year.

But integrating speed development is not an easy task for many coaches. Many coaches exploring the idea still have skepticism regarding why and how to implement speed work year-round. Two common questions I often hear from endurance coaches on the fence about implementing this kind of training are:

  1. Why integrate speed work year-round, including during the base and strength training phases?
  2. Why work on sprinting when distance runners are fresh when the only time they sprint in a race is at the end, when they are tired?

The benefits of year-round speed training

Let’s address the questions in order and start with why speed training should be used year-round. Here are a few arguments for integrating speed throughout the season, even during the mileage-building phases:

Reason 1: Sprinting helps clean up mechanics, regardless of the speed of movement

Consider that sprinting for a distance runner can also be seen as very specific strength training . Sprinting offers heavier loads, more forceful contractions, and greater motor unit recruitment for distance runners than what they get during their low intensity endurance work, tempo runs, and most interval training. When an athlete is challenged in load and intensity, the body tends to “self organize.” That is, it figures out the most efficient way to move because the loads and intensity require a sense of urgency that the body doesn’t otherwise experience. When running with extreme urgency, or “sprinting”, the body usually organizes more efficient ways to move in space and off the ground.

In other words, fast, intense sprinting helps clean up mechanics. Efficient movement patterns, trained regularly, transfer to improved mechanics at slower speeds, which in turn effects overall running economy. Since high volume, base mileage periods involve the MOST use of an athlete’s mechanics, this is the most important time to instill correct movement patterns in the form of some sprint work.

Distance coaches will argue that sprinting during high mileage periods increases injury risk. Resisted, intense, short runs are a low-risk strategy to introduce sprint training during phases dominated by low intensity volumes of running. For example, with a session of 10 x 20m stadium stair sprints, athletes are running hard and recruiting a higher amount of motor units than what they recruit during long runs. But because the sprint intervals are so short, posture is easily maintained, reducing injury risk. Resistance is present in the form of uphill work, which allows effort to stay high, but maximum speed is not achieved, also reducing injury risk.

As runners progress to the early racing season with short interval sprint sessions behind them, they are then prepared to handle longer bouts of speed development work in the 40-90m range. At this point, many coaches will devote one session per week to intervals in this range, usually paired with a more intense lifting session. As the championship racing season nears, many workouts involve faster race modeling work anywhere from 80-350m or so with longer bouts of rest. At this point late in the season these race-pace intervals typically take the place of separate speed development sessions, since the distances and intensities blend together at this point.

Providing a regular opportunity for the endurance athlete to handle the heavier loads and more intense contractions of sprinting allows the runner to rehearse sound running mechanics year-round and gain specific strength in the process. Not only does it train the mechanics, but the mechanics also easily transfer to submaximal running.

Reason 2: Sprinting provides a contrast in movement and intensity that stresses soft tissue differently than sub-maximal running. This contrast enhances the overall durability of the athlete’s soft tissue matrix.

The body’s soft tissue matrix strengthens and “protects” the most commonly used muscular contractions and ranges of motion. During phases of relatively slow running, an athlete’s connective tissue is not stressed along big ranges of motion or high intensities of muscular contractions. Thus, sprint training during the base mileage phase triggers the body to strengthen its connective tissue along bigger lines of stress , and more intense muscular contractions. In explaining the benefits of athletic development work in an article last year, I compared this concept to a plant’s stem that grows toward the sunlight. The stem leans towards the sun and strengthens itself that direction. If we bend the stem too hard the other way, it will break. When the plant is moved and forced to bend differently to catch the sun, the stem’s matrix strengthens itself in that new direction, thus making the stem stronger in more than one plane of movement.

As a runner progresses from low intensity running to more intense training sessions, the matrix of soft tissue essentially plays “catch-up” to protect and strengthen along bigger ranges of motions and higher rates of muscle recruitment. However, if short bouts of intense speed work are touched upon during the base phase of training, the body receives constant signals to protect tissue along longer and deeper lines of tension. Thus, intense work in some capacity all season long creates durability for the athlete once the paces increase from base mileage period to in-season workouts.

Reason 3: Year-round sprinting creates muscle memory that is more easily triggered during hard races at the end of the season.

Finally, a third argument for employing maximum speed work year-round is that it creates muscle memory for the athlete when the speed REALLY counts at the end of a race and at the end of the season. Regular sprint training ensures that, when it is time to sprint, the body already knows how to do that because the athlete has been staying in touch with that intensity and movement pattern year-round.

Rest assured, sprint work does not need to dominate the endurance training plan. But more and more coaches are willing to sacrifice a slight bit of mileage to make room for systematic speed development sessions. The biomechanical improvements that sprinting allows in-turn creates durability, provides movement variety, and enhances proper muscle memory.

Training speed fresh

The second big question endurance coaches have when implementing speed work is, why train to sprint when athletes are fresh. After all, the only time distance runners will sprint in a race is at the end, when they are tired. I like to simplify the answer as such: we must learn the skill when we’re fresh, then apply the skill when we’re tired.

When I was a kid I loved to play basketball. My coach always opened the gym 20 minutes before practice started, and most of us used this time to dial in our shooting technique. We were fresh out of class and we casually practiced shooting from a variety of distances. There was no lactate in our muscles inhibiting our firing patterns; there was no coach looking over our shoulder counting how many shots we made. It was the perfect learning environment to dial in our shooting technique. However, usually when a player shoots during a game, she is fatigued and nervous, much like when a distance runner must sprint at the end of a race. My basketball coach always ended our practice with free throws and wind sprints. We would do a wind sprint to replicate in-game fatigue and then coach chose one of us to shoot a free throw. If we made the shot, no more wind sprints. If we missed, the whole team sprinted. We had to execute our shooting mechanics in a pressurized, fatigued state. This was game-day simulation. To be good shooters, we needed BOTH environments. We perfected our technique when we were fresh, and the absence of lactate allowed synapses to fire most efficiently. We applied our technique when we were tired and nervous. In this state, our mechanics may not have been perfect, but we had enough muscle memory to shoot as efficiently as possible with the presence of some lactate and nerves.

The same is true for endurance athletes learning how to sprint. Runners must first learn to sprint in a physiological environment where no lactate is present and the muscles’ ability to coordinate are at their highest. Just like a basketball player dials in her shooting technique before practice starts, distance runners first perfect sprint mechanics in a low stress, low fatigue environment. They can then apply these skills to real life situations during workouts, after workouts, and on race day when lactate is present and they are required to sprint.

Putting it together

Sprint training has long been recognized as a great tool for endurance athlete, but more and more we are now seeing that it is a tool that is best used when done year-round. Such speed development plans help improve mechanics and overall durability. Some coaches still have their doubts, but there are effective ways to implement sprint training without sacrificing one’s overall endurance training philosophies . Even small doses can make a difference if you know what you are working towards.