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. welp, tried my first set of sprints the morning. Only got two sets in before my asthma kicked my ass :( It was disappointing but I will keep at it.

    Andrea wrote on May 20th, 2012
  2. Just did my first sprints this morning. 5 sets of 40yd. slight slope into steeper hill. walked back down. Did not go all out so as not to be blown out for days. You learn after years of working out to ease into stuff like this. Later.

    Dave wrote on June 20th, 2012
  3. hi. thanks for such an awesome pro-sprint blog. i myself have been training with intervals for two years now, on and off, but only recently took to every other day sprinting for 30 minutes straight on the treadmill in my gym.i feel amazing. i love that feeling. i crank up my speed and totally let go of control over my feet. they just go nuts.i forget where i am what’s around me, what my name is. i just do it. it’s a painful 40 seconds but i feel like a rockstar when i complete my workout. and yes, soaking wet. personal trainers at the gym line up and stare at me as i rock that treadmill (literally).i used to be an elliptical junkie. i’ll tell you, nothing ticks me off as much as steady state cardio now. i know you can’t sprint every day you’ll overtrain, so i have to take it easy the next day, but every time i feel like i’m about to embark on steady state boredom, i go back to my high intensity.

    JerkmeetsClean wrote on June 25th, 2012
  4. I’ve been eating primally for three months, feeling better every week and have a very active livestyle, though sprinting wasn’t part of it. Yesterday I finally felt ready to do it and – wow – it turned out great. I didn’t know I could be that fast, at some point I felt I was taking off :-) After every sprint I felt completely exhausted, had to lean forward to catch my breath. Afterwards I felt so highly awake and adrenalized like I haven’t felt before. I thought my muscles would be completetly sore, but today they aren’t, just a little stiff. Pre-Paleo I wouldn’t be able to move anymore, but this eating style makes my muscles recover much faster, I noticed this before from long hiking tours with my horse (me walking, not riding). I’ll surely continue doing this. Thank you Mark for all the advice and insights!

    Margit wrote on February 25th, 2013
  5. Excellent article.

    At the kettlebell gym I went to, before it closed, we ran sprints alot.
    I hadnt ran hard literally in 35 or more years. So I pulled 4 hamstrings.
    It took about 6 months of half speed runs and really stretching the hip
    flexors and hamstrings before I could run all out.

    Now I work out at home. Its kind of a crossfit workout with kettlebells
    every day, one day a week heavy lifing and one day very hard sprints.
    Its easy to mix up the sprints to make them interesting. There is a steep
    hill behind my house that I run perhaps once a month and a track at a
    school nearby. I often super set sprints with pullups, snatches or
    pushups. Oh and I always run barefoot even on concrete. My best 100 yd
    dash was 11 sec. No world record but felt good about it. I run any combo
    of 50 to 200 yd runs. The varaiations are infinate. Tabata sprints are
    killers. One i do occasionally is max 50 yd sprints in 5 minutes. Both
    short and sweet.

    I never ever see anyone else running sprints in town. Lots of joggers.
    Some stop and ask me what or why. Most joggers are way over weight
    and usually dont even break a sweat. Looks boring.

    I am sold on sprints. If on a vacation and away from any equipment, I
    can always find somewhere to run sprints for 15 to 20 minutes and have
    a pretty good workout.

    By the way I am 62 years old. 6 ft tall, 180 lbs, 10% body fat, can do
    45 pullups, 10 hspu and still do the 5 minute kettlebell snatch test
    (on a good day).


    john altman wrote on April 12th, 2013
  6. Let’s see… 2 children x 2 visits to the park = Dozens of “Catch me Daddy!”
    Yep, did my sprints.

    Joe Kenow wrote on May 6th, 2013
  7. I have a eleven year old son that boxes.. Apart from his long runs which equal 12 miles a week what type of sprinting program would you suggest for him?

    kevin wrote on July 15th, 2013
  8. I enjoyed reading this article. I sprint very often. I have been a 100-400 meter run all of my life and now I solely play football. So sometimes after practice is over I find myself feeling like I need more. And so I will stay after and either perform 8 10 12 ; or 10 12 16 of 60’s, 50’s , and 40’s. I dont know about requirements that other peoples’ body’s have, but my engine stays running so I have to do quite a bit of running to maintain my sanity! I will even perform this on my days off, just because if I don’t I do not feel my best! I appreciated the article

    C.J. wrote on October 1st, 2013

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