How Often Should Distance Runners Do Sprint Training?

This is a guest post from David Csonka, author of NaturallyEngineered.com.

Many of the best runners incorporate sprinting into their training routines, and I have no doubt that you as a Strength Running reader do so as well. It’s a powerful training tool that when utilized properly can transform your performance and help you to get past a plateau.

Regular sprinting sessions where you are running at maximum exertion over a short distance will bring about several physiological adaptations that are surprisingly beneficial to your endurance output. First of all, this type of high intensity training is one of the few ways a distance runner will be able to enhance their fast twitch muscle fiber recruitment.

Your body has a diverse pool of recruitable muscle fibers, mixed between fast twitch and slow twitch fibers. The slow fibers are predominantly used during steady endurance work. Being able to better utilize your fast twitch muscle fibers will allow them to pick up the slack when your slow twitch fibers are fatigued, and possibly help you keep a hard pace going for a little bit longer.

This is especially important at the closing stage of a race, where you’ll have to really kick and sprint in to the finish line. Training your body to generate that kind of force even when already tired will be necessary if you want to be able to reliably draw upon your reserves.

With all of the advantages of developing muscular capacity through high intensity training, there is also a downside. Sprinting is incredibly stressful on the central nervous system (CNS). This is because it involves a tremendous amount of signaling by the nervous system to optimize muscle contraction and do so as quickly as possible. Distance runners rarely stress their CNS to such a high degree like this during base building work.

The CNS controls everything; if it’s fried your performance is going to suck. So you have to be careful about CNS intensive methods and allow for a full and proper recovery. Any time you put the body under that much stress it needs some time to recover because a huge part of recovery happens in the nervous system, and a good deal of energy is spent repairing it.

Ideally, you never want to perform two CNS intensive workouts on back to back days. Although you may not feel sore the next day after a high intensity workout like sprinting, that doesn’t mean that you are ready to train. While listening to Mark Sisson speak at a conference a while back, I heard him wisely instruct us that, “if you’re doing them right, you’ll only be able to do them once a week.”

His point was that if you’re sprinting hard enough during your training session, your body will probably only be able to manage one session like that a week.

I’ve found his advice to work well, and I try to incorporate that kind of methodology into my weekly training. My sprinting sessions are usually 6 or 7 reps of 100m max effort sprints, with several minutes of slow walking back to the starting point as rest. I make sure to space apart any sprinting or heavy weight lifting sessions several days a part from each other, and intersperse easy runs or MovNat in between those workouts.

Sometimes I get full of myself and try to jam more workouts into the week than my body can handle. This rarely works out well for me. When it comes to training at high intensities, less (workouts) is more. Coming from an endurance mindset, you might be eager to try and do more, more, more – but don’t. Sprint one day a week, or two tops. Otherwise just add a short speed rep at the end of your normal workout.

Start doing that and I’m confident that you will see some remarkable results!

David Csonka is a blogger and natural health enthusiast living in Denver, Colorado. His blog NaturallyEngineered.com covers topics ranging from evolutionary diets to barefoot running and natural movement.

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Jason’s Note: My favorite (and most taxing) sprint workout are hill sprints. They’re fun but incredibly valuable to distance runners as they can make you less prone to injury, increase your power, and improve your running efficiency.

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Comments

  1. Great advice! I like the reminder not to “be eager to try and do more, more, more”. And that it also taxes the CNS. You think about your legs recovering but not how it affects that.

    • Sprinting’s effect on the CNS shouldn’t be underestimated. People respond differently, but overall you should only do a hard sprint workout 1-2 times a week. Some superhumans can handle 3 workouts/week, but they’re definitely the minority.

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