Sprinting is the very final thing you can add to your MARS approach to exercise, because you need a decent level of fitness before you can start to add sprinting.

In other articles, we discuss the mitochondria: the powerhouse / battery of our cells. It turns out that they love sprinting so much that they start to procreate, creating a greater and greater power source. When our hunter-gatherer ancestors experienced a close call with predators snapping at their heels, Nature decided to provide the cells with more power for the next encounter during that night’s sleep.

Of course, the good news is the more mitochondria organelles we have in each cell, the more fat and glucose we can burn. However, our mitochondria don’t reproduce when we’re doing endurance sports because the last thing the body wants to do while undergoing endurance activities is to create something that burns more fuel!

Before we make sprinting part of our weekly routine, it’s important to get our weight down first. We will do more harm than good if our waist to height ratio is less than 2 and we start pounding the tarmac. Sprinting should be seen as pretty much the last thing on our list of changes.

What are the benefits of sprinting, and why should we do it?

Let’s face it, even if there was no scientific reason it’s kind of obvious that we are designed to sprint - if our ancestors were not able to do so, you wouldn’t be around to read this, and we wouldn’t be here to write it. Our species would not have lasted long if we could not sprint. Since we have required the ability to sprint away from danger for hundreds of thousands of years, you can bet your bottom dollar that Nature has designed us to be good sprinters and to gain benefits from doing so.

In terms of return on investment, nothing gets close to sprint training. It burns fat while building muscle, increases the health of our heart and lungs, improves circulation and metabolism, and provides us with better mental cognition. While long jogs and cycle rides rarely result in fat loss, sprinting is the king of fat burning. Even just sprinting for 10 to 20 seconds, 3 to 6 times a week, conducted over just 1 or 2 sessions, can burn off heaps of fat. How is that possible? When we sprint properly, our muscles continue to burn fat for hours after the actual exercise. If you think sprinting only improves the muscles in our legs, think again. If we really want to find our six-pack, nothing beats flat out sprinting.

Please don’t panic when we say the word sprint, it doesn’t always mean on the road. You will most likely start with short sprints in the gym on either an exercise bike or rowing machine, both of which are much safer for our body when we first begin to sprint. Whether we are sitting on the bike or rower, or indeed running, the principles are all the same. Let’s first look at the ‘why’ and then move to the ‘how’.

When we sprint for short distances, it is done without the intake of much oxygen. It is therefore classed as an ‘anaerobic’ exercise. This builds strength quickly, especially in our powerful, fast-twitching muscle fibres. With our muscles’ rapid explosion of instant requirements, the heart has to pump really hard to deliver blood, which in return helps strengthen the heart. And a stronger heart is a heart more resilient to disease. Plus, when we sprint, the body believes we are running for our lives and rewards us with extra mitochondria for our next dangerous encounter. This helps us burn calories faster and lose weight. And there is another benefit: the endorphins that are released act as a natural painkiller and provide us with a real feeling of wellbeing.

When it comes to achieving a return on investment, very little in life beats sprinting. In return for less than two minutes of significant discomfort (less than 0.02% of our week spent in utter exhaustion), we receive all the following benefits from our flat-out sprints:

  • Lose weight (post-sprint, we will experience an increased metabolic rate for several days)
  • Build core strength, not just in our legs but our abs and bottom too
  • Increased growth hormones
  • Growth in our heart and arteries (a true cardiovascular workout)
  • Lowered blood pressure
  • Lowered blood sugar levels
  • Lowered levels of insulin
  • Improved cognitive skills (yes, we become smarter)

Sprinting intervals - how to do them

So, now we know why we should try and add sprinting to our exercise regime, let’s find out how.

To begin with, you will do a combination of slow and brisk walking. After a few stretches to warm up your muscles, start off with a light stroll, so you are hardly out of breath at all. Walk like that for a few minutes. Then, try walking as fast as you can for two minutes – making sure your feet don’t leave the ground. You might look and feel a bit silly, but this difference in pace is great practice for when you start sprinting in a few weeks. After two minutes of speed walking, go back to the super slow walking for a few minutes or however long it takes for your heart rate and breathing to have slowed right down again. Repeat three or four times, and that’s it.

Do these slow walk/fast walk intervals for a couple of weeks or more until you feel like you can walk the fast walk interval for longer than two minutes. Increase the walking efforts to three minutes, but make sure you continue to walk effortlessly during your recovery interval.

After a few weeks of these walking intervals, you might feel ready to progress to sprinting on an exercise bike or rowing machine. Sprinting on a treadmill is fine too, but it’s a bit trickier to keep changing the settings on a treadmill, switching from walking to sprinting. We tend to advise the exercise bike or rowing machine over sprinting on tarmac because the former is much kinder on our joints. But if you can’t access any exercise machines, give running on tarmac a try; just keep a close eye on any aches or pains.

You are going to complete three full intervals: similar to the walk/fast walk intervals you started with. Warm up with a gentle walk for two minutes and then sprint as fast as you possibly can for 10 to 20 seconds, walk again for two minutes, sprint, walk again and then do your final sprint. By the end of these intervals, you should have done three sprint intervals and your total time sprinting is one minute maximum. At the end of each sprint, note down your heart rate as well as the distance covered (or watts generated if you’re on an exercise bike).

Make sure you are walking really gently between your sprint intervals: you want to conserve as much energy as possible for the sprinting. As you get fitter and stronger, you should find you can cover more distance during your sprinting intervals. You can benefit from all the advantages sprinting brings by doing just one spring interval session a week!

Steve normally does his sprint sessions after a weight training session, but occasionally he’ll do them on their own and use the rest of the time in the gym to improve form or muscle kinesthesia (awareness).

One cautionary note on sprinting: while the legs are going to burn like crazy and our breathing becomes very loud and heavy, we should not feel any pain or tightening of the chest. If we do, we should immediately stop and let somebody in the gym know, and see a doctor.