As Primal enthusiasts know, sprinting is an essential element to leading an optimally fit life. After all, it’s one of the 10 Primal Blueprint Laws and perhaps the quintessential anti-aging activity. If you ask me, brief, explosive, all-out sprints are the single best activity to reduce excess body fat, achieve fitness breakthroughs, flood the bloodstream with anti-aging hormones, and boost neuron function in the brain. Even a very brief sprint session has a profound effect on your metabolic and hormonal function for hours and days afterward.
Sprinting is a powerful hormetic stressor—a brief, natural fight-or-flight stimulation that makes you more resilient not just for your next sprint workout but for all other forms of life stress. Humans evolved amidst brief life-or-death threats calling for superhuman physical efforts. Kill or be killed. Accordingly, our genes expect us to deliver occasional all-out physical efforts. When we sprint, we signal our bodies to stay youthful, powerful, vibrant, and self-confident. Conversely, when we indulge in endless comforts and conveniences and avoid hormetic stressors like sprinting, we atrophy and become less resilient to all forms of life stress.
Sprinting rocks, but sadly, most people never take full advantage of it. Perhaps you’ve struggled to make sprinting part of your Primal workout routine. Or maybe you’ve been reluctant to do so, thinking it’s too difficult or only for hard-core athletes? Well today, I’m going to try to convince you that sprinting offers tremendous benefits for everyone. Yes, everyone. Then I’ll tell you how to lay the foundation you need to get started.
Benefits of Sprinting
The Primal Blueprint Fitness approach calls for one all-out sprint session every seven to ten days. The vast majority of each session is spent warming up and cooling down. You’ll spend around five minutes total on the actual sprints. Maybe less.
It might be hard to imagine how a few minutes of all-out effort once a week can have a measurable impact on your metabolic health and body composition. Or how someone training for a 26.2-mile marathon can benefit tremendously from running back and forth on a football field once a week. The secret is the accelerated level of genetic signaling, hormone optimization, and central nervous system programming that happens when you sprint.
When you conduct an all-out sprint, you’re asking your body to perform at a level of metabolic function some 30 times greater than your resting output. This is a concept known as metabolic equivalent of task (MET). When you are sitting idly, you are at 1 MET. By comparison, a brisk walk, casual bike ride, or easy swim is 6 to 10 MET, while running at a steady “tempo” pace is around 13.5 MET. A 30-MET sprint sends a powerful adaptive signal to your genes to turbocharge fat burning and boost hormone levels for a muscle-building and anti-aging effect.
Here are eight specific benefits to convince you to sprint:
1. Sprinting builds new mitochondria.
The basic function of our mitochondria is to extract energy from nutrients to produce ATP, the standard energy currency of our body. More mitochondria, more power available for our brain and body. Crucially, beta-oxidation (the scientific term for fat metabolism) takes place in the mitochondria. If you want to be an efficient fat-burner, you need healthy, numerous mitochondria.
Well, sprinting is one way to make more. A single session of four 30-second all-out cycling sprints activated mitochondrial biogenesis in the skeletal muscle of human subjects in one study.1 Shorter sprints work, too. In fact, a program consisting of three sets of five 4-second treadmill sprints with 20 seconds of rest in between each sprint, done three times per week for four weeks up-regulated molecular signaling associated with mitochondrial biogenesis.2
Having more and better-functioning mitochondria is probably a big reason for many of the other benefits on this list.
2. Sprinting can increase muscle mass and strength.
In one study, men and women did three 30-second all-out sprint intervals on the stationary bike with 20 minutes of rest in between.3 Muscle biopsies were taken from their quads and analyzed for markers of protein synthesis—how muscle gets laid down. Females’ protein synthesis was up by 222 percent after sprinting, males’ by 43 percent.
That’s pretty good, especially considering that bike sprints involve far less impact (and so less demand) than running sprints. Other researchers took young men and had them do either sprint training, plyometric training, or nothing. Only the sprinting group improved isometric squat strength over the 10-week study.4
3. It improves aerobic fitness.
Numerous meta-analyses confirm that sprint training improves VO2max, which is a measure of how much oxygen your body can use during exercise. Higher VO2max is not just a marker of your aerobic fitness today, it is an important predictor of your cardiovascular health risk in the future. All types of exercise can improve VO2max, but sprinting can do it quickly.
In fact, a 2017 meta-analysis concluded that sessions involving fewer repetitions could be more effective than longer sessions involving more sprints.5 Unfortunately, the researchers didn’t identify an optimum number, but this just reinforces the fact that it’s not necessary to destroy yourself at the gym in the name of fitness gains. A short bout comprising perhaps three or four perfectly executed sprints could be more beneficial than a 60-minute HIIT class that leaves you exhausted and depleted.
4. It preferentially burns body fat.
Weight loss isn’t just about eliminating any old kind of body mass. It’s about losing body fat while preserving or even gaining muscle and bone. Sprinting appears to be excellent at eliminating body fat without the negative impact on muscle mass commonly seen withexcessive endurance training. As one example, one study had participants do a single sprint session comprising four 30-second sprints on a stationary bike with 4.5 minutes of recovery between sprints. Results showed that post-exercise fat oxidation increased by 75 percent.6
This is why I love to say nothing cuts you up more than sprinting. If you’re looking to get lean and stay strong, sprinting is where it’s at.
5. It improves glucose control and insulin sensitivity.
Diabetics, take heed. Sprint training improves insulin sensitivity, improves hyperglycemia in type 2 diabetes, and lowers the postprandial glucose response in diabetics. 78910 You gotta start doing it if you’re not already.
6. It lowers high blood pressure.
Okay, while you’re sprinting, you’ll probably have sky-high blood pressure. That’s okay, that’s just an acute spike. It happens with any type of exercise. Overall, sprint training appears to have the most potential of any exercise modality for the long term resolution of hypertension.11
7. It has psychological benefits.
Sprinting delivers huge psychological benefits by reducing your perceived exertion at lesser intensity levels. When you train your heart, lungs, and muscles to perform at maximum capacity, your cellular energy production becomes more efficient, and lower-intensity efforts seem easier. That’s not just because you’re physically stronger (although that’s part of it). By pushing yourself to do hard things, even for 30 seconds at a time or less, you’re shifting your concept of what “hard” actually means and proving to yourself that you can endure.
Beyond the mental toughness aspects, research suggests that sprinting alleviates depressive symptoms,12 improves general well-being,13 and offers other cognitive benefits.14 This is because sprinting elevates levels of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), a potent neurochemical involved in many aspects of healthy brain function.
8. It’s a good excuse to get to the beach.
Doing your sprints on sand makes them more effective (and harder). A recentstudy found that sprint interval training sessions performed on sand resulted in better performances in subsequent training bouts, beating out grass as a training surface.15 I’ve also found that beach sprints enable post-training cold water plunges, regardless of water temperature.
Of course, don’t let your lack of access to a beach—or even to warm weather—be a deterrent. Do whatever you need to get your sprints done, even if that means doing them inside at the gym. (In that case, I’d recommend a stationary bike, elliptical machine, Versaclimber, or other equipment over a treadmill.)
Getting Started with Sprinting
The first step toward becoming a sprinter is adopting an empowering new mindset that you are capable of sprinting and that it’s an extremely important element of your fitness program.
Next, establish a movement and exercise routine that will prepare your body for the rigors of sprinting. If you are already active and generally fit, you can easily and quickly integrate some top-end efforts into your workout routine. However, if your fitness regimen is currently lacking due to overly sedentary patterns, it’s best to focus on increasing all forms of general everyday movement before pursuing ambitious fitness goals like sprinting. Start by walking more.
From there, you can establish an aerobic conditioning base by adding comfortably paced cardio sessions, keeping your heart rate below 180 minus age in beats per minute. Also, integrate some regular strength-training efforts to make your muscles, joints, and connective tissue more resilient and ready for high-intensity work. Strength training can be anything that puts a resistance load on your muscles, including the Primal Essential Movements (push-ups, pull-ups, squats, and planks), resistance bands or cords, home gym equipment, a machine circuit at the gym, or free weights.
After a few months of moving frequently, conducting comfortable aerobic workouts, and lifting heavy things, it’s time to integrate some brief, all-out efforts, and enjoy rapid fitness breakthroughs!
Always respect the fact that sprinting is a high-intensity activity, and that comes with some risk. The Primal Blueprint Law is to “Sprint Once In A While” because this aligns with our ancestral experience and our genetic expectations for health. If you attempt to sprint too frequently, you will not have time to recover sufficiently, you won’t reap the promised rewards, and you’ll increase your chances of injury and burnout. But sprint correctly, with good technique and optimal frequency, and watch the benefits roll in!
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.