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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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May 04 2016

13 Worthy Alternatives to Traditional Sprinting You Should Try

By Mark Sisson
60 Comments

13 Worthy Sprint Alternatives FinalSprinting is great. For my money, it’s the best bang-for-your-buck exercise. If you have only fifteen minutes to spare, you can sprint. If you’re on the road without access to a gym, you can usually find a place to sprint. It’s the missing piece in the quest for optimal leanness; incorporating weekly sprints can really help the fat just melt off. There’s just something about the raw, maximal expression of absolute effort that makes a person feel good, feel alive, and feel, well, Primal.

But not everyone wants or has the capacity to run as fast as they possibly can on a flat surface. Whether because of old/current injuries, the general state of the body, or simple personal preference, a significant portion of the population isn’t going to be running sprints on a track. Maybe you hate it. Maybe it hurts too much, or you’re worried about throwing something out. Whatever the reason for your sprint abstinence, there are worthy alternatives to traditional sprinting.

And here are a few of my favorites:

1. Barbell complexes

Pick 3-4 compound movements you can do and rattle 3-5 reps of each in succession without dropping the weights. I like “power clean, overhead press, front squat, barbell row” for a brutal session. You can try PaleoFX founder Keith Norris’ rendition of a classic barbell complex. You can do whatever you want. Just don’t drop the weight!

Barbells aren’t necessary, they’re just the best tool for the job. Kettlebell complexes, dumbbell complexes, even bodyweight complexes all work. Just adjust the weight and reps accordingly.

Barbell complex are great for people who are highly proficient in the movements. But, since any movement works, anyone who uses a barbell regularly can probably cook something up. You don’t need to do behind the neck presses to overhead squats to snatches. You can do simple movements just as effectively.

2. Sprinting uphill

Hill sprints are totally different from flat sprints.

They’re harder. Gravity pulls harder when you go uphill.

They’re easier on the joints. Your foot doesn’t travel as far and the impact of each footfall is lessened.

They’ll blast the hell out of your hamstrings without opening them up to muscle pulls. On flat sprints, your hamstrings stretch to the limit. On hill sprints, not so much.

I find giving a little hop to begin gives me an explosive start.

Hill sprints are great for people whose knees hurt when they run normally or suffer hamstring pulls. Tread lightly, though.

3. Sprinting on sand

If you recall from the recent post on walking and running surfaces, sprinting on sand produces awesome results with minimal loading and impact. The sand makes it hard to go really fast, so even people who don’t think they can sprint often can on sand. But since you’re trying to go really fast, you get a great training effect with reduced speed and impact shocks. Win win.

And for the easiest-hardest sprint ever, sprint up a sand dune. You’ll be going as hard as you can yet only hit a few miles per hour. It’s a strange feeling. You’ll collapse like a sack of rocks after each sprint. Try it carrying a yellow lab!

4. Cycling

Sprint while watching TV (although if you’re able to follow the storyline perfectly, you’re not doing it right). Sprint from the comfort of your own home. Sprint while your newborn hangs out on the couch. Sprint despite jogging killing your knees.

The infamous Wingate test uses stationary bikes. 30 seconds on (and I mean on), 4 minuts off. Four rounds. People doing a Wingate test usually get puke buckets. Yeah.

Micro sprints are great on a bike. 5 seconds on, 10 seconds off for 2 minutes. Rest 2 minutes. Repeat several times.

For even better results, get a Schwinn Airdyne off Craigslist and destroy yourself (without hurting yourself).

5. Versaclimber

I’ve professed my love/hate for the Versaclimber before, and I stand by my original assessment:

It uses every muscle in the body. Upper body, lower body, the trunk to stabilize, the heart to pump much-needed blood and nutrients around, and all the little muscles in between.

It’s low-impact. You’re not slamming or banging around. You’re pulling and pushing and, well, climbing.

I typically do 1 minute on, 2 minute off sprints. But I’ve been Versaclimbing for a long time, so I’ve worked to that level. I also like doing “sprint snacks” of 5 seconds on, 5 seconds off; that might be more accessible for the uninitiated.

And no, it’s not a stair master. Stair master steps move on their own and you keep up. On the Versaclimber, you move the steps yourself.

6. Swimming

Swimming requires the most skill to do true sprints. You can splash around like a shark attack victim and tire yourself out, but you won’t get much of a training effect. You want to move crisply and smoothly through the water. So take some lessons if you need them.

Learn freestyle. Butterfly is probably the most taxing stroke, but it takes real skill to get anything out of it.

Keep your fingers together to recreate webbing. Splaying out your fingers slows your speed and the amount of resistance you face. We aren’t amphibians or Kevin Costner in Waterworld.

Use long strokes. Really reach out and pull yourself through the water. The arms are king.

For an alternate leg-centric swim sprint, flip over onto your back, cross your arms across your chest, keep your head out of the water, and dolphin kick your way across the pool. This really kills your hamstrings and abs.

Swimming is the lowest impact sprint around. Great for the injured or trepidatious.

7. Jumping jacks

I’m not talking about the half-hearted limp-wristed garbage you remember doing in PE class. Go for quantity and quality. Do as many jumping jacks in 10-15 second bursts as you can. Rest for twice as long as the active interval lasts. Don’t try to jump high. Jump quickly. Whip those arms. Slide those feet out.

I like these as an alternate to burpees. You can do them anywhere and they’re a bit safer.

8. Jump rope

Jumping rope is hellish. There’s a reason fighters of all stripes use the jump rope to condition: it gets you fit quick.

It’ll also give you monster calves.

For some great jump rope sprint ideas, check out this Ross Training article. He’s pretty much the go-to guy for jump rope.

9. Sit to stand

I got these from Darryl Edwards, who used to have PrimalCon attendees perform them as warmups for his play sessions. And it’s exactly what it sounds like:

You sit down on the ground with legs straight and torso upright.

Now stand up as quick as you can, gathering your feet underneath (think squat position) you and standing.

Return to the sitting position as quickly as you can. You’ll have to stabilize yourself, which makes it harder.

10. Stand up again

Repeat about 30 times.

It’s simple (almost anyone can do it) and if you really push the speed, you’ll be breathless. Keep the movements crisp and clean. Don’t get sloppy. Don’t flop around.

11. Burpees

If I only have 15 minutes to train and there’s really no where to sprint, I’ll do burpees. A pushup, a squat, a plank, a squat jump. There’s so much motion packed into a short frame of time that you’re bound to get a strong adaptive response.

I like 20 rep sets with a couple minutes of rest. That’s a “true” sprint, where you allow yourself to become composed before doing the next one. You can also do tabata burpees, where it’s 20 seconds of activity with 10 seconds of rest, done eight times.

I would caution against anyone with shoulder issues doing burpee sprints. These are for folks without any known infirmities, save lack of time. As you get tired (and you will get tired, as that’s the whole point), your form will suffer. Throwing your body down to do pushups with bad technique will mess you up.

12. Kettlebell swings

Real simple solution. Just get a decently-weighted kettlebell—32 pounds for women, 54 for men is a good starter weight—and do sets of 20 swings on the minute, every minute, for 10 minutes. You’re done in 10 minutes. And you’ll be done, if you know what I mean.

KB swings are usually good options for folks with knee issues, as—done correctly—swings place little to no pressure on the knee (all the pressure goes on the hamstrings and glutes).

13. Prowler/sled/car pushes/pulls

These are simple and brutal. Push a heavy object across the ground. Dedicated weight sleds (AKA prowlers) allow you to load it up with weight plates, but are incredibly loud (metal scraping against pavement tends to do that) and usually require a gym. Cars in neutral (my personal favorite method) are easily accessible, but you do need a partner to steer.

Alternate pushing and pulling. Try flat ground (for speed) and slight inclines (for added resistance).

Oddly, these are perfect for people with a general inability to subject their bodies to top speeds. If you’re pushing a small SUV up a slight incline, you won’t be going fast enough to impact your joints. It’s going to be primarily muscle and cardiovascular work.

That’s about it, folks.

If you’re not convinced about the benefits of sprinting, read this post.

If you want to avoid injuries while sprinting, read this post.

Now, go move really, really fast!

I’d love to hear from you, too. I know we have a knowledgeable readership, so let’s hear how you guys like to sprint!

Prefer listening to reading? Get an audio recording of this blog post, and subscribe to the Primal Blueprint Podcast on iTunes for instant access to all past, present and future episodes here.

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60 thoughts on “13 Worthy Alternatives to Traditional Sprinting You Should Try”

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  1. I love my spinner bike. Put it in my office/home gym. Bought it used. When people are done with their spinner bikes, they dump them for cheap just to get them out of the house.

    I put some duct tape across the inside bars to make a platform to hold my phone. Put in some earbuds, set the clock, put on my Megadeth Pandora channel and I’m ready to beat myself down with a 12-15 minute HIT session.

    If you can ride your spinner bike for more than 25 minutes, you’re doing it wrong.

  2. I think you missed the rowing machine. I love the concept 2 rowing machine. There are any number of interval/ sprint workouts one can do. It’s a great way to get your heart rate high, tax virtually every muscle in your body and do so very efficiently. My personal favorite is a series of 500 meter sprints with one minute active rest; then a series of 30 second sprints with seconds active rest until exhausted. When I wrestled this helped me stay in great shape with almost no injuries. I do also love the jump rope and incorporate it into my workouts when I can.

    1. I second the rowing machine. I do at 1000 meter warmup followed by six sets of 250 meter sprints with 90 second rests between each piece and end with an easy 500 meter warmdown. The best part it is low impact and works multiple muscle groups.

    2. Ha! I was just going to add on about the rowing machine!

      BTW I really only do one 100 meter sprint on the rower during a 500 meter stint, or one during my short, slow, nature jog.

      CALLING ALL SPRINT-HATERS: I know repetitive sprints is what is recommended, but I have noticed is I will do a sprint if I only have to do ONE, *and* I also have noticed it really gets me in shape…just that one! And with running, it doesn’t have to be very long!

  3. I LOVE prowler/sled pushes! Sand sprints are great for vacations!

  4. I really couldn’t do any of those because of heart trouble, back trouble and weak legs. I do sprints on a stationary bike but not anywhere near that level.

    1. The rowing machine enabled me to fully recover from a back injury that left me partially paralyzed in my right leg. The group I rowed with during my recovery consisted of a former olympic rowing medalist and an 82 year old ex-smoker recovering from triple bypass surgery. The device lets you go at your own pace and ability level. The former olympian did a 500 meters in about 90 seconds and the bypass guy took about 5-6 minutes to do the same 500 meters. If you can sit down, hold a handle, and extend your legs its a great place to start. The computer and a logcard records your progress and improvements. I used to do chronic cardio on it like 10,000 meters or 45 minutes at a time. Now I just do the sprint sessions and have reduced my 500 meter time within 10 seconds of the olympians.

      1. Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I apparently misunderstood the term “sprints.” 5-6 minutes isn’t what I thought a sprint was. Maybe not the same as intervals. I used to do aqua intervals. Moving like a bat out of **** for 15-30 seconds, recovering and repeating.

        1. Correct! The 5-6 minute 500 meter interval was a reference to the point that the machine is suitable for an elderly ex smoker recovering from triple bypass surgery. That was a sprint to him. A suitable C2 sprint workout for and elderly person beginning a fitness program would be something like row at a pace of 20 strokes(walking pace) for the first minute and gradually increase the stroke rate each minute until you reach 75% of your max heart rate. Then rest at least one minute until your heart rate drops and you catch your breath. Then the sprints would just be ten hard strokes followed by a recovery rest, and repeat several times. The benefit is a full body isotonic movement. The digital monitoring device provides feedback and records progress that can be shared with a physician.

  5. I sprint on my bike ride home from work. Easy first 5 minutes, followed by a hill (sprint!), another easy 5, another hill (sprint!), then easy 5 minute cool down and I’m right where I want to be – in front of a fridge full of steaks!

    1. Yep, I know Mark’s books says sprinting on a real bike is unsafe, but since I live in Denver and most of my routes involve serious hills, I simply do my sprints uphill, which keeps the speed to a safe level even with all-out effort. (Also, often I have the trailer holding my son and the week’s groceries in tow, which seems to double the uphill effort as far as I can tell.)

  6. Try roller skating all out for a few minutes. If you can last through a whole song you’re doing pretty good. I usually skate one song and sit one out then do it again. As a 53 yo I occasionally get comments from the sidelines,(get it old man!).

  7. When I spent time in hotels for business, there was nothing more demotivating than the 10X10 ft box with a treadmill labeled “Fitness Center”. When I was feeling motivated, I would sprint up three floors of the staircase and walk back down to catch my breath. Way better than a treadmill.

  8. I’ve developed metatarsalgia from impact sports. I now do the elliptical trainer in short burst both backward and forward. Hopefully this counts. Or I’ll do squats really fast. Hoping the condition will go away if I don’t do any impact stuff for a while.

  9. A friend told me about a gym that’s opened up over the hill from me that uses Versaclimbers in lieu of bikes. Kind of like SoulCycle with Versaclimbers. I think I’m going to join her for a class to give it a shot. I hear it’s brutal though! So it wouldn’t be an all-the-time thing.

  10. I love that jump rope is one here. It’s a lot of fun–and no joke!

  11. Sand sprints. Now THOSE are a challenge. After just a few moments, I’m already pooped. But they definitely create less of an impact, which is a huge bonus.

  12. O this is great! But how does it work exactly? I read the fitness e-book, but for example when I choose to do jumping jacks, should I do them until I can’t do no more and then rest for 1 minute and then do it again? Or should I hold on to a time frame like 15 seconds jumping jacks and then rest and then again. Sorry if the answer is really obvious, I’m a Primal noob and English is not my language :p

    1. A good battlerope session will definitely leave your arms wobbly. It’s surprising how intense you can make it.

  13. The air dyne bike is a beast as like the versa climber and rowing machine.

  14. Great post. I just can’t bring myself to sprint. But could totally do the sit to stand thing, or jumping jacks, or even kettle bell swings. Thanks for the reminder!

  15. I like to so box jump tabata. As many box jumps as possible in 20 seconds, rest 10 seconds, repeat 8 times. I feel like I’m gonna die so I think it’s working.

  16. I would like to start doing stationary bike sprints. However, I keep putting it off due to trying to figure out what setting (resistance) to place the wheel at. Any recommendations?

    Thanks!

    1. The settings is relative to your fitness level. On a spinner bike there’s just a crank. I’ve found that after a while you get pretty good at cranking it up and back down with great accuracy and speed. I start of with a decent amount of tension, then around minute five I crank up the resistance and standup for about two more minutes. That gets me ready to really hit it and I alternate between full out bursts and “resting”. I put that in quotes because resting just means taking the tension down a bit, you never stop peddling.

      The bursts are generally 20 seconds or less. The resting is anywhere from 15 seconds to a minute or two depending on what type of HIT I’m doing.

      A good rule of thumb is if you can sprint longer than 30 seconds then you are not sprinting, just working hard. Sprinting is considered staying above 80% of your absolute maximum output. The best Olympic sprinters in the world have trouble maintaining a 30 second sprint.

      So if you don’t feel like you heart is going to explode after 20 seconds, you’re holding back. So you’ll figure that out pretty quickly when you play with the tension settings.

      But start slow so you don’t blow a knee or pull a hamstring. Build up to sprinting.

      And the most important part is that it’s relative to your fitness level. Your sprint rate is different than someone else’s. One person’s sprint is another person’s run. So for maximum benefit, you only have to work against your own metrics, not the dude next to you.

  17. Along with sprints swimming, you can Aqua ” jog”… But make it an Aqua “sprint”

    1. I take an Aqua HIIT class, which really gets my heart pumping. I use that as my sprint session.

  18. Barbell complexes better than kettlebell? I snort in derision. Double kettlebell complexes require the incorporation of far more stabilizing muscles or you will have them drop out of the rack, and you simply can not overhead press the amount of weight that you can squat, which means you are getting more out of the squat by having to stabilize the kettlebells. Or try snatching a single 24 kilo KB (53 lbs) for 10 straight minutes with only a single hand switch. You can’t do that with Olympic lifts. Try just 5 minutes and see if you can finish without putting it down..

  19. What about the various forms of crawling…..bear, leopard, spiderman etc. with the pace of a sprint (fast gallop)! Would suggest these be done on a soft surface.

  20. I love sprinting, but have been a little more concerned about feet and joints lately. I’ll definitely try some of these as alternatives! I WISH I had sand nearby!

  21. Ooh wait!!1 I just remembered!! I have sand in little washes and dry riverbeds (I live in the Sonoran desert, after all)!!

  22. I definitely second the Concept II Rowing Ergometer. Fabulous piece of gear. Set it on ten and do a series of sprints until your heart rate is well up. Done. Can get wobbly legged in under five minutes if you really attack it.

    1. Thats a great idea BeckyD. Throw in a few chest to floor jump ups and turkish get ups (on your back) and you are wasted in no time. Do this with my pooch and boy they love it and they keep going whilst you are dying!

  23. What about running up a flight of stairs? I do that all the time at home…run up walk down, run up, walk down, etc. After about 10 minutes of that, you’re done for..

  24. I do jumping jack Tabata sprints. And I almost die every time.

  25. 1. Here in the south of Israel, there are no lack of dunes. Sprinting up the dunes really works every part of your body and is probably the safest alternative to sprints. Bravo, Mark, for mentioning this.
    2. Nevertheless, at age 66, I still find windsprints exhilarating, 20 seconds on and a minute off, 6-10 rounds, depending on my energy level.
    3. A good HIIT kettlebell alternative is 1/3 of your bodyweight (for men) and 1/5 (for women), 30 sec KB swings, 30 sec KB Sumo Squats, 30 sec rest = 3 to 4 rounds, recommended doing it barefoot.
    In conclusion, thank you and every blessing to you, Mark, for all that you do.

  26. I play competitive badminton.
    Give it a try, it’s a very fast sport when played competitively.
    Endless mini-sprints, some rallies can last for a minute.
    Check out the pros on Youtube, singles is relentless work.
    It’s great fun too, a good all-round stretch.

  27. Love this list! After 2 years of primal eating I have starting looking for ways to exercise but am still way too heavy for sprinting or running, I’ve only lost 50 lbs so far but it’s probably not too bad without any exercise at all. I recently starting with some gentle kettlebell training and bought a 16lbs one (I thought that one was a good weight – lol!) and will get myself a heavier one now. There is no way I can manage 10 minutes of 20 reps on the minute yet – I am exhausted after 5 sets and need more breaks in between to catch my breath again – but I’ll be working towards this goal 🙂

    1. Kettlebells are my favorite because it’s a lot of whole body compound movements. and it just feels like fun, not work. Like yoga, it asks you to pay attention to your body and breath, to function as a whole and not a bunch of parts, especially important when doing all out intervals.

    2. If you have access to a gym with a rowing machine, try that. They are pretty gentle on your knees and be a great workout. Go fast for and hard for intense work outs. Slow it down to settle in something a bit harder than a slow jog. Both are awesome.

    3. Try a rowing machine. They are pretty gentle on your joints. I started using one when I weighed 350 pounds. Still using now that I am down an additional 100 pounds.

  28. You’re absolutely right brother, in the quest for optimal leanness sprinting should considered. It’s one of my favorite to lean out and will definitely try the uphill sprinting for variety.

  29. Forget the Jumping Jacks! That is an unnatural movement, do Cross Country Skier or Ski Hops. Same idea but the movement is in line with the way we ambulate.

  30. Great stuff again!

    What do you guys think about doing these with some sort of periodization vs. going to a different methodology each time to invoke muscle confusion?

    So, for instance – doing a couple of months of weekly sprints of Jumping Rope, then a couple months of burpees, followed by a couple of months of sand sprints… vs. doing something different every session?

  31. Tabata sprints running in place on a rebounder (mini-trampoline), 20 seconds run, 10 seconds bounce. If you haven’t exercised, be careful how hard you push yourself. By the end of the 8th rep, your heart rate will be close to or over your maximum heart rate, 220 beats minus your age.

  32. I enjoy hill sprints when I can find a good hill. Just be careful that your warmed up properly. I tore a calf muscle on a hill sprint once and couldn’t walk for days!

  33. This is great, Mark! Thank you!

    How often do you recommend doing sprint activity? 3-4 x per week? I have been doing a combo of WLing (4x/week) and a couple of HIIT wkouts weekly, 2 yoga sessions and lot of walking with strict primal diet for months and haven’t lost a pound OR inches. Thinking I need to incorporate some sprinting, just wondering how often.

    Can you also comment on whether sprints are good for peri-menopausal women? Thanks again!

  34. Love all the ideas, but one I have yet to see you mention (maybe it’s not available where you live?) is mountain biking. Warm up on the 2 mile ride there, uphills then downhill for rest, Extra bursts on the shorter steeper uphills. Run with your bike on the ups you can”t do, I’ve always considered this a good sprint workout.

  35. I’ve done jumping rope. My heart rate can get up fast doing those and my kids will actually stand back while I do it. I also like the sitting to standing one. I’m totally going to do that one soon!
    In the past I used to do hill sprints on my bike. I don’t know how people get their heart rate up with stationary bikes. I just can’t seem to do it. But, there’s a hill nearby that is nice and steep, and cars will sometimes honk at you (extra motivation). The best part is you can fly back down the hill when you’re done.

  36. I’ve got an elliptical trainer and I’ve been using that for sprinting. Put the intensity way up for ~30 seconds, then down again for a minute, and repeat, a few times. Any thoughts on that?

  37. great article 🙂 Very nice alternatives. I swim a lot, this involves a lot of muscles just like running

  38. My favorite method is to join an ice hockey league or regular pick up game Your whole 1:30 shift is essentially a sprint or series of sprints. Time you spend on the bench between shifts seems to be just the perfect amount of time to recover. It is also a huge benefit to those who have knee or hamstring issues because they are essentially not stressed.

  39. Hi Mark,

    Great article with lots of good ideas as always.

    But I do question the advice to keep your fingers together when swimming. I’ve always been taught to keep the fingers spread a little and a quick web search shows there’s some research now to back this up.

    Refer: http://www.livescience.com/21309-fastest-swimmers-physics-hands.html

    “With ideal finger spacing, the forces a swimmer can exert are 53 percent greater than those produced with no finger spacing, Bejan and his colleagues reported online June 9 in the Journal of Theoretical Biology. ”

    “It is a counterintuitive idea, the fact that you should paddle with a fork, not with an oar,” said study researcher Adrian Bejan, a professor of mechanical engineering at Duke University.

  40. Spinner bike is my favorite. I love many of the others presented here. Thanks for sharing. This gives a lot of alternatives.

  41. You forgot Zumba! It’s the perfect HIIT workout, if all-out effort is applied. I get 250 ‘high-intensity minutes’ (per Garmin) in 3 sessions a week, and multiple peaks to my max heart rate (181 has been the highest. My resting HR is 63).
    My question is: is that too much? I don’t want to cause myself to produce cortisol.