While some of those answers may be true—yes, sprinters and elite athletes in sports that require fast running will naturally focus more on sprinting—and yes, there are cardiovascular health benefits, sprinting is also immensely beneficial to anyone looking to improve their health and fitness. In fact, running is a key piece of any comprehensive strength training program because sprinting builds muscle.
To understand why, let’s first take a step back to appreciate the essence of strength training. Physical therapist and strength coach Brian Kinslow, PT, DPT, explains the rationale for strength training as “exposing the muscle to a stimulus that forces it to work and get stronger.”
Running aligns very closely with that principle. Certain muscles and regions of the body during sprinting experience much higher levels of exertion and stress than more traditional strength training, for example, resistance bands and weight lifting.
For example, a study comparing hamstring activation between strength-training exercises and sprinting (using electromyography, also known as emg) found that:at most—strength training could only get to around 75 percent activation compared to sprinting. Also, that 75 percent was for only one specific muscle (the hamstrings are a group of three muscles), while the other two peak activations were 60 percent and 40 percent of sprinting, respectively.
In other words, sprinting exposes the hamstrings to a level of resistance that strength training has a hard time doing. “Sprinting adds another level to strength training because of the stress it puts on some of the muscles,” says Dr. Kinslow. “Since one of the key tenets of strength training is ‘progressive overload,’ which means gradually and methodically exposing the muscle to higher levels of stress, a proper sprint program is a great tool for getting to the next level.”
In this, the framing of sprinting as something entirely separate from strength work is flawed. It’s another key strength-building tool and can be a welcome (and fun!) change from your regular strength programming. After all, humans are built for locomotion.
How does the sprint compare to the steady state race?
Sprinting is quite different from continuous running for a number of reasons. First of all, as we mentioned before, running involves a high level of muscular effort and strength. That is not the case for steady state operation. Second, the cardiovascular effect of sprinting, which tends to be shorter and at higher effort levels, is different from that of constant running, which tends to be longer and at lower effort levels, relative to sprinting.
Running coach (and ultrarunner) Christopher Kokotajlo explained in more detail: “The body has three different energy systems,” he says. “I won’t go into details, but one is for high-intensity activity and short bursts; one is for medium intensity and medium distances; and the last one is for lower intensity, greater distances. Sprinting tends to exist on one side of the spectrum, while constant racing exists on the other.”
Lastly, sprinting also involves a significant acceleration and deceleration component, which presents very different challenges compared to constant running, especially in terms of load on the muscles.
The good news is that just like sprinting and strength training, sprinting and sprinting also complement each other and work different parts of the cardiovascular system.
Running builds muscle, but can it replace strength training?
In short, no. That’s because while sprinting builds strength, it’s just one component of an effective and well-balanced strength training program.
If sprinting is the only strength training you’re doing, there will be a lot of neglected muscles and body regions along with a high risk of overtraining because sprinting has a higher intensity and workload than most strength training.
There is no single exercise or type of training that checks all the boxes for effective strength training; Speed training is no exception to that rule.
What is an effective and safe way to start running?
The same principles that apply to any other type of training apply to sprinting: Start small and build gradually. Ideally this will be on flat ground and not on a treadmill so that you get the full experience from high speed acceleration to deceleration.
With the sprint, the key variables will be distance/time, intensity, and reps. My recommendation is to keep the distance/time constant and then progress by increasing reps and intensity. Here is a basic example of a sprint progression:
- Week 1: a 15 second sprint, intensity 5/10. Complete once a week.
- Week 2: two 15-second sprints, intensity 5/10, one minute rest between each. Complete once a week.
If you’re not having trouble, progress to five sprints. At that point, increase the intensity to 7–8/10, drop back down to one sprint, and work your way up the ladder until you reach five sprints. On the next cycle, increase the intensity to 10/10. At that point, increase time/distance and restart at 5/10 intensity and a sprint.