Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
8 May

Why We Don’t Sprint Anymore (plus a Primal Health Challenge)

Last week, I covered a glaring deficit in the lives of most modern people: the lack of walking. And it’s not just the “normal” people who aren’t walking enough; two thirds of those readers who took the poll get fewer than five hours of slow easy movement each week. Since everyone walks at least a few hundred steps a day, people are generally aware – among even the general population – that people just don’t walk anymore. They might not think that’s a true problem, but they’re definitely aware of it. Today, I want to discuss another glaring (in my eyes) deficit in our modern lives: the lack of sprinting.

At first glance, this might seem ludicrous. Sprinting? Sure, it’s a cool thing to do, and it’s good for us, but do you really expect everyone to line up at a track and sprint all out for 100 meters? Besides, is sprinting really essential, the way walking is essential? Because let’s face it: running at top speed for 10 to 15 seconds is an unrealistic expectation for most people, especially older folks. Many people just aren’t physically able to do it.

Sprinting isn’t just running really, really fast, though. When I say sprinting, I’m simply talking about intense movement at the highest speed you can safely muster. Sprinting can be running, obviously, or it can be on a bike (and in fact, many of the sprinting studies use cycling). It can even be aqua sprinting, or running in a pool. Some people push the prowler, a weight sled loaded with hundreds of pounds, as their sprinting. They aren’t moving very fast, but they’re trying to – and that’s the key. Are you moving at the fastest, safest possible speed, given your physical limitations and the demands of the environment (weights attached to you, grade of the hill you’re ascending, your bum knee, etc.)? If yes – even if that manifests as an exhausting uphill walk – then you are sprinting.

Last week, I used pedometer-derived, peer-reviewed statistics to support my claim that people don’t walk enough. This week, we’ll have to rely on the power of the anecdote to get my point across. When’s the last time you saw anyone pushing himself to his limit for an all-out sprint? Skinny jean-wearing fixie rider doing 600 meters at a breakneck pace? Early morning jogger doing 70 meter wind sprints? Weekend warrior next door busting out the prowler for some 150-pound 40 yard pushes? Exactly; this type of thing just doesn’t happen in the real world. We don’t have to chase our dinner, nor run from something or someone that has us on the menu. And anyways, being highly demanding and costly, sprinting has always been a relatively rare occurrence. Grok wasn’t sprinting after everything all day, all the time. Such foolishness would get a hominid killed, fast. We barely even walk anywhere anymore, so there’s no way we’re going to be engaging in a difficult, costly, relatively rare behavior from our past on a regular basis (however beneficial it might be). It ain’t peer-reviewed, but oh well.

You know how I like to talk about acute stressors versus chronic stressors? Sprinting is a perfect example, perhaps the single most representative encapsulation of an acute stressor. By definition, a sprint is brief, intense, and efficient. You can’t talk to your buddy when you sprint. You can’t think about the mortgage or mull over the TPS reports you’ve been lagging on at work. You may not even breathe for the duration of a sprint. No – by definition, a sprint is all-encompassing and overpowering, and it commands all of your attention. When you sprint, your musculoskeletal system, nervous system, and cardiovascular system are all “turned on” and on high alert.

Yeah, sprinting is highest-intensity training.

What’s truly remarkable about a sprint workout is that while the sprinting itself is all-consuming and extremely tiring as you’re doing it, this feeling doesn’t linger. You’re not going to feel beat up after some good sprint training. You might be sore in places you weren’t aware existed (because you’re probably working your muscles in a uniquely explosive manner), but you won’t be hobbled. You might feel a bit spent in the legs the next day, but you won’t wake up with an elevated heart rate from pushing too hard the previous day. For me, a sprint session leaves me feeling energized. I don’t exactly have a burning desire to exercise again that day, but I’m not a useless blob, dry-heaving and panting on the floor.

And yet the beneficial effects are pronounced:

Sold yet? You had better be, because we’re doing another poll and week-long Primal health challenge.

How many times in the last 30 days have you run (or cycled, or swam, etc.) as hard as you could for a short period of time? In other words…

How many sprint sessions have you performed in the last month?

View Results

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Primal Health Challenge

Same drill as last week: I want you to sprint once in the next seven days, starting today.

You’ll want to warmup before launching into a sprint, of course. First, do some active dynamic stretching – leg swings, Grok squats, some high knee jumping, walking knee raises, that sort of thing – but keep it to just one or two sets per stretch, with 14 reps per set; a recent study found that while such stretching improved sprint performance, three sets were too many and actually reduced performance and induced fatigue. Then, do three to four runs (or cycling, etc.) at 60, 70, 80, and 90% intensity to prepare for the sprints.

Shoot for eight to ten sprinting efforts. If you can’t do eight do as many as you can. I’m partial to running sprints (especially hills, which are easier on the joints), but those aren’t necessary. Cycling works very well (and a lot of the studies use cycling), as does swimming. Just remember what I said earlier – what matters most is that you’re moving intensely and maximally. Actually, what matters most is that you’re moving safely. I don’t want anyone pushing themselves so far they pull a hamstring or break a hip. Be careful and know your limits.

Since we’re talking sprints – maximal, all-out efforts – you’re going to need some rest in between efforts. I like Tabata intervals, but those are a different beast altogether. This time, take one or two minutes in between sprints (or even a smidge more, if you need it) to recover. The longer your sprint, the longer your recovery time. A 100 meter runner or a 30 second cycling sprinter might need three minutes to recover enough to give it his or her all on the next one, while a 40 yard dasher or a 20 second cyclist might need just a minute or two. Take as much time as you need to compose yourself in between efforts.

Well, readers, what do you think? Does that sound reasonable? A single session of eight to ten sprints this week? I know I’m in (I manage to do so just about every week). Are you? Let me know in the comment board. And also let me know how last week’s challenge of logging at least an hour of dedicated low-level aerobic activity each day went. Grok on!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Ive been doing crossfit fit for 6 years and love it.
    In addition to it I try to do a track wod a couple of times per month which usually consists of
    4x400m rest 2-3 mins between
    10×60 m sprints

    I also enjoy the prowler as well as C2 Rower sprints

    Hunter wrote on May 8th, 2012
  2. I did sprints last week up hill! Energizer bunny – that is how I felt. Really great!

    How often – once per week or twice do you think?

    Susan wrote on May 8th, 2012
  3. I got my husband to start sprinting rather than his previous 45-minute cardio-style workouts and he loves them! Efficient, temporarily exhausting, but doesn’t wear him out over time like cardio does. We both sprint once a week.

    JennF wrote on May 8th, 2012
  4. Last fall I started doing Tabata sprints 2-3 times per week. The feeling of sprinting for 20 seconds was so foreign to me at first that I knew I was on to something. After 2 months to Tabata training, I easily ran 11 miles one day as a test — having done no other running for at least 6 months. Aside from my regular sprint training, I also sprint the 4 floors of stairs in my parking garage every day.

    SteveD wrote on May 8th, 2012
  5. Mark-

    I love sprint work yet like many I’d get bored hitting the track and sprinting a couple times a week. As a former professional athlete I needed to get my work in but it became so tedious. The best and most fun way I’ve found to get my sprint work in is when I started to incorporate an Aerobie.

    The Aerobie is that orange flying disc with a hole in the center that when thrown properly flies up to 100 yards. My friends and I love to take that thing to a local field and chase it around for a while. We sprint harder because we’re trying to run the disc down and we’re having so much fun that time literally flies by. At the end we’ve usually gotten in an hours worth of sprints, feel great, and can’t wait to get out and do it again.

    Ryan wrote on May 8th, 2012
  6. We did sprints for the first time in a while on Sunday. Hubby was quite sore in his hamstrings yesterday, me just my abs due to the PB fitness on Saturday I did. The total focus is nice. And watching our 1 and 4 year olds running after us was fun!

    Kristin wrote on May 8th, 2012
  7. I started running 2 years ago, running intervals (faster times not dead out springs) really improved my speed! Went paleo in October, lost 15 pounds that didn’t come off with just running. Changed my workouts, ran less, added more bodyweight exercises and hikes. Incorporated sprints 1 to 2 x a week. Was doing great. Yet 3 weeks ago, pressed for time, i ran a slow 1 mile warm up and then sprinted up the next hill and pulled my hamstring. I can still bike but can not run at all. So frustrated. Maybe its my age, 47… i will still sprint, but just on flat ground with gradual increases in speed.

    Kathy wrote on May 8th, 2012
  8. 5 uphill sprints today (before I read your post). OK, I’ll up it to 10 7 days from now. They felt good.

    SteveO wrote on May 8th, 2012
  9. I hurt my shoulder so I havent been able to do any resistance workouts but I’ve been doing the Peak 8 workouts that Dr. Mercola recommends on my Airdyne along with a few hundred squats during the week. Still losing weight and gaining muscle.

    Eric wrote on May 8th, 2012
  10. I generally agree with the premises and conclusions of this post. I do have an issue, though, with one theme (quite popular on MDA), that you could get your dinner by sprinting. There’s not a single animal worth catching and eating that you could get by sprinting. The only feasible way to use running for hunting is persistance hunting.

    Having said that, the two forms of running that I do are very slow, longish runs (equivalent to some people walking or hiking) and sprints.

    Martin wrote on May 8th, 2012
    • I think the idea is more like sprinting out and throwing a spear or something… Not too many animals you could actually catch, but I could see, say, sprinting toward a large mammal and chucking a spear or something…

      Jenna wrote on May 8th, 2012
      • (and certainly sprinting AWAY from an animal so as to not BECOME dinner…)

        Jenna wrote on May 8th, 2012
        • And plus you would not have to run faster than the animal chasing you, you would only have to run faster than your friend.

          David wrote on September 18th, 2014
    • I agree with you, Michael. Most hunting was probably done from ambush: being very still while an animal moved within striking range, or with some hunters driving the prey within range of their buddies. Pack cooperative hunting, more like wolves than cheetahs or lions. Also, a significant portion of the hard work of hunting was probably lugging the food back to the village.

      BillP wrote on May 8th, 2012
      • Whoops! Martin, not Michael.

        BillP wrote on May 8th, 2012
  11. I love all the comments trying to justify non-sprinting activities as sprinting.

    I change my daughter’s diaper as fast as I can. Is that sprinting?

    Jay wrote on May 8th, 2012
  12. Would anyone be willing to share their experience with sprinting form?

    I have an easy time toe-striking when I run barefoot at anywhere from 20-80% effort (which I don’t do much anymore these days)… But I find it much harder when sprinting barefoot at 100% effort. Does anyone have any tips? Or does anyone else find it more natural to heel-strike when sprinting?

    Colin wrote on May 8th, 2012
    • I remember a long time ago…well 12 years, not THAT long but still…
      I was quite the athlete in high school and was a very good track 100 meter dash sprinter. I remember when sprinting I never struck my heel to the ground. It was on the balls of my feet only. Don’t forget to pump your arms too.
      If you look at track spike shoes you will see that the spikes are ONLY on the balls of the feet area of the sole of the shoe. Nowhere else.
      I hope this helps you somewhat.

      Also gonna see if anyone else has anything to comment. Interested to see how different people feel about form. This is just from my personal experience. I was in a professional athletics club and coached also. Sorry it’s late at night here and I probably completely butchered the English language.

      Earthspirit wrote on May 9th, 2012
  13. I’d like to know what the most ‘bang for your buck’ is, with regard to sprinting. Uphill? Shorter or longer sprints? 15 min, 3x a week? Or what?
    Max benefit in least time.

    Camille wrote on May 8th, 2012
  14. Sprinting or some form of exercise that requires movement and tremendous body engagement is truly beneficial in training. I do outrigger canoeing, yes you use your legs as a driving force too. With racing just starting we have been doing our fair share of all out paddles in the ocean/bay. Plus mix that in with some dead-weight pulls on the beach for several miles on off days and you have a much fitter body!!

    Zach man wrote on May 8th, 2012
  15. yes we are sprinting at Crossfit! also on the concept2 rowers. I find that I enjoy racing a group of people. I’ve done some hill sprints solo before, but most if not all of my recent sprinting has been done at CF, racing in a group. More intense!

    Bill Berry wrote on May 8th, 2012
  16. I always like to over complicate things and in the end the answers were there to begin with. ha ha. ok – so I’m confused with the term, because it sometimes sounds like intervals. Like for example, if I pick 2 exercises (jumping jacks and jumping rope) and I do say 40 seconds as fast as I can and than 20 second rest. Is that the same thing as sprinting?

    Also, are you just talking about outside real running, real biking, real swimming or is this something people can do inside either on equipment do something (like jumping jacks) without equipment?

    Mary Poulin wrote on May 8th, 2012
  17. I recently had knee surgery so this post inspired me. I did intervals on the bike at my max today and I walked on the treadmill at a 7% grade. I obviously can’t run, but I can still do sprints! Thanks for this posting this at just the right time!!

    joey wrote on May 8th, 2012
  18. Mark, after reading your 21 day book, I do your recommended once a week sprint session. I work in Minor League Baseball and still find the time. I love it!

    Mike wrote on May 8th, 2012
  19. One of my professors used to warm up the class with games, and one of them stuck with me as the best sprint/play combination I’ve ever experienced. We used to play “Everybody’s It” before the class got rolling. It is exactly what it sounds like. Everyone is it, and if you get tagged by anyone, you’re out. Last one standing is the winner. You sprint, you change directions, you feel real, imminent danger and you turn your brain off for the duration. Awesome.

    Ware wrote on May 8th, 2012
    • Awesome, I want to attend that class! Lol!

      Jennifer wrote on May 8th, 2012
      • Well, that’s theater school for you. Not as academically rigorous as I’d like (though that’s easily solved by the addition of anatomy, biochem, politics, etc.), but it does get you moving more than most programs. And, if you get the right teachers, they really do emphasize play, which is nice.

        Ware wrote on May 8th, 2012
  20. I warm up on a treadmill, and always make sure it is set to be an uphill elevation (not too steep). I only have a short time to train, so the last section, when I am tired, I up the speed and run like crazy. I HATE working out at 6am but its the only time I have in the day so I don’t run too long! I know that will improve…it already has!

    Michelle wrote on May 8th, 2012
  21. How about 10 three minute rounds of boxing? (sparring with head gear of course) That feels pretty primal.

    I don’t think it counts quite as a sprint (so I’ll have to go find a hill to run) but it sure feels like it.

    spayne wrote on May 8th, 2012
  22. when i get caught in the rain while walking the dog, i sprint home. sometimes fido cooperates…sometimes i have to slow it down for him. is it enough? i dunno….

    Karen wrote on May 8th, 2012
  23. I sprint every Monday morning. I think it is a great way to start off the week while I am fresh off a great weekend of rest. The hardest thing I have found to use for sprint interval training is the VersaClimber. Absolutely insane!! Love it though

    Bryan wrote on May 8th, 2012
  24. If I am playing squash twice a week, should I still do a sprint workout, or would I end up possibly overtraining?

    Ramona wrote on May 8th, 2012
  25. I’d love to incorporate sprints into my clients’ Pilates sessions. Any ideas, anyone?? I have a Bosu ball and a fully equipped studio….

    LDub wrote on May 8th, 2012
  26. jumping rope is a good sprint – i can only do a few seconds at a time! catch breath, jump some more. after 10 minutes of that, i’ve had enough!

    HopelessDreamer wrote on May 8th, 2012
    • I’m using jumprope as my sprint time also – go at full speed, rest, go again TABATA style. Duration under 5 minutes. Works for me.

      HillsideGina wrote on May 9th, 2012
  27. haha along the lines of ‘does this count’.. I really don’t like running, especially since something unknown happened to my back when I was in grade 7 (2003) and everytime I ran I would end up with a migraine.. So I haven’t even jogged for years, for fear of migraines (yes they are that bad).. This year I went to a physio and got some excercises to fix my back, PLUS since going primal I have had NO migraines except this weekend when I went away and ate bad stuff.. Never happening again.. So the question, if I get my rollerblades on and do all out sprints in them instead of running, that’s similar right?

    Kate wrote on May 8th, 2012
  28. I sprint on my spin bike ( at home in garage) and do jump rope sprints. I do consider sprinting up a small hill down the street, but, the others are fun…. do I need to do the running, to fill gaps?

    dave wrote on May 8th, 2012
  29. I live in Ohio so because of the weather I haven’t been able to walk like I should, and since I haven’t done that like I should I haven’t attempted to try the running part of the plan. I think you have people like me that wish to run, but can’t at the moment due to lousy weather and not having all the ducks in the row. And while some may suggest treed mills, i myself messed up a ligament in my knee so I won’t be going back on that thing ever.

    Wally wrote on May 8th, 2012
  30. Anyone who plays a sport sprints on a regular basis. I’m 39 and have never given up softball, so I absolutely sprint on a regular basis, and will continue to do so until they pry the ball out of my cold dead hands. This is exactly why athletics should be introduced to everyone at a young age, and not be CUT out of the school curriculum.

    Jennifer wrote on May 8th, 2012
  31. Yeah, I need to add in some sprints. The one fitness class I take does plyometric intervals, which I love, but I really should dedicate one day per week to classic running sprints. They always kick my butt, and yet I never feel burned out afterward.

    Deanna wrote on May 8th, 2012
  32. A very timely post, because …

    Just today, I wore out my spin bike.

    I bought it about 5 years ago and I’ve ridden it A LOT since then – doing all different kinds of work outs – sprinting included.

    Just today, after all that time, something made a loud snap and the pedals went limp, losing all their tension. What an accomplishment, you know – to wear out a spin bike :-)

    Anyway … a typical bike sprint work out for me is 10 one minute sprints in a 30 minute period, recovering in between. With Led Zeppelin loaded and playing LOUD on my iPod, of course.

    I highly recommend the investment for those who, like me, want/need to go easy on their joints and/or want a fast way to get a work out in without having to go outside.

    Susan Alexander wrote on May 8th, 2012
  33. What about sprinting during pregnancy?

    LisaCazz wrote on May 8th, 2012
  34. I have been doing workouts with a local personal training franchise called The Exercise Coach… the whole reason I signed up with them was reading their website and realizing that they line up 90% with what the Primal Blueprint talks about- short, high-intensity, high-weight lifting twice a week, followed by a very brief HIIT session at the end (5 minutes, with 50 seconds total of extremely intense “sprints.”) Plus, they completely sign on to a diet extremely similar to Primal, with other elements of the Sugar Detox as well. I love going in to work out with these guys and talk healthy food. The only thing that’s not quite primal is the fact that these are machines rather than free weight/functional training… but since I have some bad back problems that prevent me from using free weights to my max ability, these machines enable me to push myself really far within my range of motion without injury.

    Michelle wrote on May 8th, 2012
  35. Once upon a time, I worked at an oil refinery. During startup, a spark ignited the gas. I, and the about 40 others, ran to escape the pending explosions. Then we continued to run to escape the debris thrown out of it. THAT was a Sprint. These days my dog and I charge up and down short, steep hills. It’s not the same, but its the best I can do at the time.

    TruckerLady wrote on May 8th, 2012
  36. How many times do we need to sprint a week? I thought Mark says one per 7 – 10 days. There are people who do more than 5 in the past month. Should I sprint two times instead of one per week?

    Roy Ku wrote on May 8th, 2012
    • Sprinting more than once a week would highly depend on your fitness level. Spriting is hard on the body and if you’re not a regular runner or sprinter, than sprinting more than once a week is inviting injury.

      mars wrote on May 10th, 2012
  37. I find it odd that for some reason I can only get my HR up really high sprining on a treadmill (up to 98%). If I do sprints outdoors, or even on the spinning bike, I usually get stuck at around the 90% mark before my legs feel like they can’t move any faster. Does anyone have any idea why that is?

    foxygodzi wrote on May 9th, 2012
  38. You can’t …mull over the TPS reports you’ve been lagging on at work.

    Yeah… I’m going to need you to come in Sunday…

    MikeD wrote on May 9th, 2012
  39. I voted 5+, but to be totally honest all occured this last weekend. 2minutes swordfighting max effort 4 times.
    Run away from short barbarian horde (children)(about a minute) then avoid injury as you play dead when they catch up) 7 times. various throwing of javelins and axes and finally dodge four charging horses four times.
    What can I say? Roman re-enacting is hard work!

    Ian wrote on May 9th, 2012
  40. I wouldn’t regard my uphill struggle on the pushy ‘sprinting’ as I am possibly only going as fast as a jogger, but with a fully laden rucksack, I go as fast as I can and my heart is pounding by the time I get to the top and I can barely breath. The term ‘sprinting’ is relative :)

    Abigail wrote on May 9th, 2012

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