Why we all need to sprint

Why should you include sprinting in your long distance training? With a 5 or 10 kilometer you are looking for a certain relaxation in your stride, not for absolute top speed, right? Still, sprinting can help you become a better long-distance runner.

Most visitors to this website train for distances longer than 5 km. If we ever come close to a sprint during a race, it is in the last hundred meters before the finish and although that acceleration felt like a sprint, in reality it is sometimes disappointing. Why should you also sprint? Isn’t long-distance running a matter of spreading your energy over a much longer period of time than 10, 20 or 30 seconds? Beats! But having a good sprint at home can help you with that.

Sprinting for long distance runners

Short sprints are a regular part of the training schedules I make. Leading up to a half or full marathon, the interval training in the first weeks of the schedule consists of a series of short accelerations of about 30 seconds, and during the long runs I add sprints of about 15 seconds, sometimes in the middle of the course, sometimes in the last kilometer. Just address those fast twitch muscle fibers. And that works well. Long-distance runners who regularly run at speeds much higher than their race pace find that the very short, fast work contributes to smooth and clean running at much slower paces.

Reserve speed

How does that work then? According to the French exercise physiologist Veronique Billat, a long-distance runner needs a ‘speed reserve’. For a marathon runner, that ‘reserve speed’ should be twice as high as marathon pace. According to that theory, someone who runs a marathon in 4 hours should be able to develop a top speed of 2 minutes 50 seconds per kilometer. Mind you, that’s not a speed you should be able to maintain for 100 or even 200 metres; you only need to be able to tap that top speed, even if it is a fraction of a second. During such a long race you will of course never come close to that top speed, but having that gear range in house helps you to run your race pace better and more efficiently.

A physiological effect of sprinting is that you teach your body to use more muscle fibers, ‘neuromuscular recruitment’. Compare it to building a staircase: you need a solid step to make the next step. Base speed is one such step at the bottom of that stair.

How do you do them?

How do you do them, those sprints? Try to focus on high cadence and not power. So don’t push yourself away as hard as possible, like ‘real’ sprinters do on a 100 metre, but focus on accelerating by significantly increasing your stride frequency. There is just a difference with the powerhouses of the short distance. You accelerate to a speed just below your maximum, try to hold it for just a few seconds and then drop the speed again. You won’t start your next rep until your heart rate drops and you feel strong enough again. To get the most benefit from the sprints – or strides – you want to run them with good form, so starting the next half broken will overshoot your target.

Want to get faster over long distances? Throw in some sprints! You’ll see, it’s fun too.

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