Speed Gains Part I - Sprint Training

Speed Gains Part I - Sprint Training

May 30, 2013 0 Comments

For some, speed work conjures up nightmarish visions of a weak, wheezing,  version of oneself, barely moving, in a state of deep existential pain.  For others, it is the gateway to feeling fully alive, fully invigorated.

There is no denying it, sprint training is incredibly demanding.  Since it asks the body to work at maximum effort, with varying recovery periods, it isn’t for the faint of heart.  The incredible benefits this method of training can bring to anyone interested in fat loss, building strength, and those looking to gain a high-return from an efficient amount of invested training-time are numerous. Coupled with the fact that speed work does not result in some of the detrimental aspects of steady-state endurance work (read: aerobic) while concurrently building the body’s aerobic capacities equally well, there is no reason why this kind of training should not be integrated into a regular training regimen.  Since sprint training activates the musculoskeletal, cardiovascular and nervous system in symphony, its benefits are realized in many ways throughout the mind and body.


Before addressing the great physical benefits of sprint training, one of the primary advantages of this kind of workout is incredible efficiency. Short, intense, interval workouts produce high returns in short amounts of time, making them ideal for those looking to optimize their efforts in the gym.

Sprint workouts (anaerobic) don’t require a large amount of time compared to purely aerobic training because of their high intensity. In this light, the government-recommendation of 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise, 4-5 times per week is rendered unnecessary.  One can reap the strength and fat loss benefits of sprint training with a mere ten-minute workout. The key is applying maximal effort.

Fat Loss, Body Composition, and Insulin Sensitivity


Brief, intense bursts of sprinting have been proven to have positive fat loss results. The high degree of effort required by sprinting means a large caloric expenditure. Short, intense intervals also result in a significant post-calorie burn (aka: Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption - EPOC), providing fat-loss benefits long after the workout’s completion!  This kind of training also increases the anabolic hormones that improve body composition - IGF-1 and Human Growth Hormone

A study conducted at the University of Glamorgan observed that six 30-second sprints three times per week (a weekly aggregate of 9 minutes)_can have the same weight loss benefits as jogging up to 45 minutes various times a week.  Even at one 45-minute aerobic session per week, we have a 5:1 ratio of invested total training time.

Other studies have observed both fit and obese subjects improve their muscle oxidative potential to a degree comparable to, or higher than, aerobic-based training of the same amount of time. The skeletal muscle adaptations that the body undergoes through sprint training result in improved fat burning potential and improved glucose tolerance. Muscles also become more efficient at relying on fat for energy and conserve glycogen stores! This is a massive benefit to those looking to improve body composition!

One study observing two exercise groups, one group exclusively performing steady-state aerobic work while the other trained in sprint intervals concluded that while both groups improved cardiovascular fitness, only the sprinting group had significant reductions in total body mass, fat mass and fasting plasma insulin levels! Overweight subjects also lost more fat compared to leaner ones.

The effects of sprint interval training on fasting insulin and insulin resistance are very significant. A review analyzing all studies that have looked at insulin response to sprint training observed advantages of between a 23-58% increase in insulin sensitivity in people young and old, and with various levels of fitness. Boosts in human growth hormone have also been observed in women

All these factors together provide a powerful cocktail for fat loss, while not compromising lean muscle mass.

Build Muscle without Sacrificing Endurance

Studies observing sprinters indicate that this type of training can build muscle mass and strengthen fast-twitch muscle fibres. Fast-twitch muscles are great for rapid, explosive movements and since they consume high amounts of energy they are an important tool toward maintaining a lean body. Sprint interval training helps build muscle by improving protein synthesis pathways by 230%! This means large gains for minimal effort.

With less than ten minutes per week of high intensity sprint training, moderately active subjects have been observed to double their endurance capacity, thereby improving aerobic fitness. This means that peoples’ ability to do endurance work was improved without actually doing any long distance training! This kind of thinking counters the conventional line that training more, for longer is the only way to maintain a lean, strong body. Other studies have observed dramatic improvements to aerobic capacity after only six sessions of sprint interval training.

Intervals at high speeds also lead the body to use energy more efficiently by increasing the amount of glycogen that can be stored. Preserving muscle glycogen and training the body to use fat for fuel results in a prolonged work capacity. In a 2005 study, researchers observed that “time to exhaustion” more than doubled in their subjects. In other words, subjects improved their ability to work harder for longer periods of time by using sprint training.

Coach’s notes: All faculties of fitness subscribe to a hierarchy, those that demand more from the Nervous and Endocrine Systems sit at the top of the tier and when trained, positively affect those on the lower rungs of the tier.  This is a top-down system.  The benefits do NOT however flow upstream from the bottom levels of the tier to the top.  Sprint training is a perfect example of how to improve the aerobic system, while working in the more demanding anaerobic system.

Mental Toughness

Sprint training helps build focus and determination. When executed properly, sprint training is more mentally and physically taxing, in a shorter amount of time, than steady-state endurance work. Asking the body to work at maximum effort requires a mind willing to bear a degree of discomfort.
Sprint-work demands your full attention on the task at hand while pushing through the pain and discomfort will require your will-power.  This method of training requires that you devote all of both your mental and physical reserves; you simply must be fully committed and present, thinking about what you are going to make for dinner during a sprint is not an option.  And as such, this is an excellent way to develop your focus, resolve and pain tolerance.
This kind of training can also compliment other aspects of our daily lives, since the mental toughness this builds can train the mind to improve its degree of comfort and determination in stressful situations.  Also, the mental clarity gained from focusing solely on ourself for a time can be incredibly refreshing in our world of distractions.

Injury Protection

In addition to its positive health benefits, sprint training (particularly hill sprints) can protect against knee injuries by encouraging trunk, pelvis and foot stability. The proper body movement needed in order to scale a hill quickly, optimizes the force generated by the legs in a way that encourages functional muscle development around the knee joint.

Avoiding the Costs of Aerobic Work

Prolonged aerobic work can cause high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can interfere with the body’s natural hormone cycles, affecting sleep and weight loss as well as increasing inflammation and the production oxidative stress. There is little evidence indicating similar stress is caused by sprint intervals. Some research even suggests sprint training decreases cortisol levels and negatively affects (reduces) chronic inflammation. Aerobic training’s reduction in lean muscle and its stresses on the adrenals and immune system also don’t appear to occur with sprint training.

In Sum

Sprint training is hardly ever mentioned by the large endurance sport industry that promotes high volume endurance and distance running. One can wonder at the reasons why, but on an individual level, many people do not try this kind of work out of a sense of self-consciousness, and because there aren’t large social networks surrounding sprint training.

Embracing the challenge of sprint training can not only improve your physical performance and help maintain a lean body. The mental benefits it provides can also have a spill-over effect into the rest of our daily lives. It will indeed be a challenge, but one that can easily be surmounted and adopted as a way to improve the mind and body in a multitude of ways.

Stephen H. Boutcher, “High-Intensity Intermittent Exercise and Fat Loss.” Journal of Obesity Volume 2011 (2011), Article ID 868305
E G Trapp, D JChisholm, J Freund and S H Boutcher, “The effects of high-intensity intermittent exercise training on fat loss and fasting insulin levels of young women.” International Journal of Obesity (2008) Vol 32, 684–691

E. Jansson, M. Esbjornsson, I. Holm, I. Jacobs, “Increase in the Proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibres by sprint training in males.” Acta Physiologica Scandinavica. Vol 140, Issue 3, (1990) 359-363

Jennifer C. Richards, et al. “Short-term sprint interval training increases insulin sensitivity in healthy adults but does not affect the thermogenic response to β-adrenergic stimulation.” Journal of Physiology. Vol 558 Issue 15, (August 2010) 2961-2972

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