4 Goal-Based Sprint Workouts

Want to burn fat, add muscle, and improve your endurance? These goal-getting sprint workouts are the perfect addition to your regular training plan.

Erin Calderone, MS, CSCS | March 14, 2017

For most people, sprints are the stuff of nightmares because, let’s face it, they’re freakin’ hard. Besides, not everyone wants or needs to be Usain Bolt. But sprinting isn’t only for developing Olympic-like speed — it’s also key for burning fat, improving VO2 max and, yes, even adding muscle.

“The general benefits of sprint training even go beyond speed,” says Farzad Jalilvand, MS, CSCS, RSCC, USAW, adjunct strength coach at College of the Canyons and a lecturer and researcher at California State University in Northridge, California. “It is beneficial for recruiting Type II muscle fibers and improving rate of force development.” In other words, sprinting will give you more dexterity on the field or court and increased lower-body power in the weight room. And if you want to get shredded like a Greek statue, look no further than the starting blocks.

Check out these four sprint programs created from a compilation of current research and Jalilvand’s scientific principles of speed. Find the one that fits your goal and use it to get there — fast.

Goal-Getter Sprint Programs

Goal: General Fitness

New exercisers or those married to their regular bodypart/long-slow cardio split might not think of sprinting as being a gen-pop workout, but nothing could be further from the truth: Sprinting can improve aerobic and anaerobic endurance, burn a ton of calories and improve your lactate threshold, meaning you can go harder for longer periods of time. Sprints also improve overall conditioning and work capacity, making your body a more efficient machine. And in the long term, sprinting trains your neuromuscular system to recruit motor units faster and more accurately, forming neural connections that can actually help you prevent muscular atrophy later in life.

Directions: 

Do these short sprints with a focus on technique. Jalilvand recommends using a track rather than a treadmill to best learn proper mechanics. Take a longer recovery break in between, and walk or jog slowly to help clear lactic acid from your muscles. Do no more than two sprint workouts per week, leaving at least two days between them for full recovery.

Goal: Get Lean

Most of us do long bouts of cardio in order to burn fat, but the best way to torch that belly jelly is by sprinting. Case in point: Researchers in Singapore found a 42 percent increase in oxygen consumption (think calorie burn) two hours after sprint interval training and a 75 percent higher rate of fat metabolism in the sprinters versus the control group. Furthermore, recent Canadian research found that after performing SIT three times per week for six weeks, male study participants lost an average of 7 pounds of fat, females lost 2 to 3 pounds of fat and both genders gained an average of 1 to 2 pounds of muscle mass. And, of course, the more muscle you have, the higher your metabolism and the greater your fat-burning potential.

Directions: 

Aim to hit and maintain top speed and intensity for each of these 30- to 45-second sprints. Walk or jog for your active recovery, gradually decreasing your work-to-rest ratio as the weeks go by to boost intensity and increase the fat massacre.

Obviously, your ability to accelerate quickly, powerfully and efficiently is important for sports, but it’s also a kick-ass way to target your posterior chain, since acceleration depends primarily on lower-body drive. Training this skill will improve performance in posterior-chain lifts such as deadlifts, good mornings and even squats.

According to a recent review of sprint studies, co-written by Jalilvand, doing sprints while wearing a weighted vest or towing a sled were the most effective techniques for training acceleration because the goal here is neuromuscular: Since Type II fibers are only recruited under high force or power demand, adding resistance trains these fibers to fire when you need them. Use a weight that is 10 percent or less of your total bodyweight for your resistance to get the overload you need without compromising form, Jalilvand advises.

Goal: Add Muscle

While steady-state cardio is great for endurance, long bouts of it can actually promote muscle breakdown. Sprints, however, are a time-efficient, neuromuscular-enhancing and muscle-sparing activity, and because of their intensity, they cause a cascade of hormonal and intracellular activity that promotes hypertrophy.

A study out of Canada showed improved body composition and increased lower-body mass after subjects did six weeks of sprint interval training on a self-propelled treadmill three times per week. And a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that performing sprints with resistance up to 25 percent of the subjects’ bodyweight in conjunction with strength training as part of the program improved both sprinting power and squat one-rep max. Researchers believe this could have been caused by several different mechanisms, including enhanced motor-unit recruitment and growth of Type II muscle fibers. Since the goal with hypertrophy is neither speed nor neuromuscular adaptation, using resistance such as a weighted vest or doing sprints on a steep incline (thereby increasing the pull of gravity on your body) can blow out those muscle Type II fibers and promote muscular gains faster.

Directions: 

Perform these weighted vest or hill sprints with the focus on acceleration, and walk or jog lightly in between. Add up to 25 percent of your bodyweight to the vest, unless you can’t maintain good form. And remember, the steeper the hill, the more intense the gravitational pull and the more challenging the sprint.

Goal: Increase Speed-Endurance

The need to maintain maximum speed for as long as possible has coined a new term that is somewhat contradictory: speed-endurance. Most sprinters reach their maximum speed by 20 or 30 meters, and thereafter the winner is simply the athlete who slows down the least. Even endurance athletes need to sprint occasionally during a race, especially if they’re neck and neck with the competition rounding the last turn.

The goal with speed-endurance is to train your mind, muscles and metabolic systems to resist fatigue. Psychologically your brain learns to push through the burn, and physiologically your body learns to clear metabolic byproducts (i.e., lactate) and burn fat for fuel at higher intensities quickly and efficiently.

Directions:

Do these longer speed-endurance sprints and focus on maintaining a fast pace for each interval. Jog for your active rest, at about 60 to 70 percent max effort — enough to recover without slowing down a lot.

Do’s & Don’ts

  • DO warm up for five to 10 minutes pre-sprint with some light jogging, dynamic stretching, drills and mobility work. Follow with a proper cool-down and stretch, and some foam rolling for good measure.
  • DON’T sprint longer than you have to. “Sprinting should be specific to the relevant distances covered in your sport,” Jalilvand says. For example, if you’re a basketball player, you probably don’t need to sprint 1,500 meters, but likely 20- to 50-yard explosive suicides are up your alley.
  • DO give sprint training its own day in your workout week. “Maximal sprinting is highly anaerobic and must be done when you’re metabolically fresh to ensure that each sprint is executed with maximal effort,” Jalilvand says.
  • DON’T double up sprints and lower-body work. If you can’t dedicate one whole day to speed, consider your sprints a lower-body workout, and only hit your upper body in the gym that day.
  • About the Author

    Erin Calderone, MS, CSCS

    Erin Calderone, MS, CSCS

    Erin Calderone has a master’s degree in kinesiology from California State University, Northridge, and is a kinesiology instructor at Glendale Community College. She recently started taking Brazilian jiu-jitsu classes. Her advice to dedicated exercisers? “Focus on the quality of your movement patterns. If we want to keep moving our whole lives, we have to not just move more but move well.”