Sprinting workouts are often the missing piece in people’s fitness repertoire. Even devoted fitness buffs—the ones who post daily gym selfies, keep detailed workout diaries, and top their Strava leaderboards—may neglect this critical component of well-rounded fitness. Some consider sprinting too risky. They’re haunted by images of an Olympic sprinter pulling up short with a strained hamstring in the middle of a gold-metal race. Others think sprints are too short to make a difference. How much payoff can you really get from a workout where the active sets last three or four minutes max?
Those concerns are understandable but unfounded.
The benefits of sprinting are profound. Upping your sprint game can help you make an assortment of breakthroughs, from fat loss to fitness performance (including in endurance and ultra-endurance events). And while sprinting obviously carries a higher injury risk than low-intensity movements like walking or lap swimming, it’s also quite safe… when done correctly.
That’s what we’re going to talk about today—constructing a safe, effective sprint workout that delivers all the fitness, fat-burning, and longevity-promoting advantages you want with minimal chance of overdoing it and getting hurt.
Sprint Workout Basics: How to Construct a Sprint Workout
A properly done sprint workout comprises the following:
It starts with a thorough warm-up to prepare the body and mind for the efforts ahead.
The main set of sprints are short in duration and explosive in nature with sufficient rest in between repetitions.
It ends with a dedicated cooldown period to return the body to baseline and begin the recovery process where the real gains are made.
It seems pretty simple, but most people get it wrong. The first mistake they make is skipping the warm-up or cooldown (or both). Most of the time involved in a sprint workout should be spent warming up, recovering between sprints, and cooling down. The sprint reps themselves represent only a fraction of the total workout.
The second mistake people make—and this is a big one—is failing to keep their sprints brief, explosive, all-out efforts. As you’ll see, I recommend doing only a handful of sprints, no more than eight or so, each lasting 20 seconds or less for running sprints. This is because nobody can truly sprint for longer than around 30 seconds without slowing down, and the cellular destruction required to sustain maximum effort beyond 10 seconds increases exponentially.
The third mistake people make is not allowing sufficient recovery time between sprints. Each sprint must be delivered with consistent quality and performance. In other words, your first sprint of the day and your last sprint of the day should be more or less equivalent. You should not see a breakdown in form, nor should you need to slow down. Either of those is a sign to stop. In order to achieve consistent quality, you need to recover fully (or nearly so) between sprints so you can commence each effort with 100-percent focus and effort.
First Things First: Preparing for Action
Before even starting, let me reinforce that it’s essential that you feel 100-percent rested and energized every time you conduct a sprint workout. You’re asking your body to deliver a top-end performance. If you have even the slightest sensation of subpar immune function or muscle stiffness or soreness, postpone your workout until you feel great. (This is the better day to do low-level cardio activities instead.)
When you’re ready to go, the first thing you need to do is prime body and mind for what’s ahead. Warming up is important before any workout, but even more so for sprinting due to the increased demand placed on muscles, joints, and connective tissue.
A sprint warm-up consists of 5 to 10 minutes of very comfortably paced cardiovascular exercise—something registering a 1 or 2 on a 10-point exertion scale. For all but the fittest folks, this is a brisk walk, perhaps an easy jog, or an easy spin on a stationary bike.
The goal is to break a light sweat and elevate heart rate and respiration rate so you’re prepared for the next phase of the workout. A gentle warm-up allows blood concentrated in the organs to flow out to the extremities. This minimizes the fight-or-flight impact of transitioning from a sedentary state to an active state.
2. Dynamic Stretches and Preparatory Drills
While an easy cardio warm-up is sufficient for most workouts, the high-intensity nature of sprinting requires more extensive preparations before you launch into the main set.
You’ve probably heard about the drawback associated with static stretching before exercise. Dynamic stretches are different. You’re moving muscles through an exaggerated range of motion but not applying extra force. Here’s a quick rundown of a dynamic stretching sequence:
Knee-to-chest: Walk forward, gently pulling front knee up to chest with each step.
Pull quads: Grab your foot from behind, pull gently (not aggressively!) up to butt, and release.
Open hip circles: Shift your weight to one foot. Lift the opposite knee out to the side and up to hip height. Bring the knee forward so it is directly in front of the body, then return your foot to the ground. Do several circles in this direction, then reverse the circles (bring knee up in front of you, rotate the leg out to the side, then lower foot). This move is especially important to improve hip flexor mobility that is compromised by sitting in a chair all day.
Mini-lunge: Take exaggerated-length steps, getting your front thigh nearly parallel to the ground. Don’t overdo this one, it’s just warm-up!
Aim for 10 to 15 repetitions for each movement on each leg.
I also recommend completing some preparatory drills that are actually quite difficult on their own but help refine excellent technique. They also build flexibility and mobility for sprinting. Again, aim for 15 or so reps on each leg.
High Knees: This one will get your heart rate up and help you focus on achieving correct form during sprints. Run forward with an exaggerated knee lift. Hold your hands flat at hip height and strive to touch your knees to your palms.
Hopping Drill: This looks like an exaggerated skip. Step forward with your left foot and launch straight up in the air while driving your right knee high toward your chest. Land on your left foot, the step forward with your right foot, repeating the movement on the other side. Pump arms vigorously during each sequence.
3. Wind Sprints
You should be feeling loose, fluid and explosive after the dynamic stretches—ready for some wind sprints! Wind sprints are brief accelerations up to nearly full speed, followed by a quick easing off the gas pedal back to easy effort. They are useful for getting the final kinks out, reinforcing proper technique, and honing your focus for the sprints just ahead. Four or five are all you need, each lasting 10 to 15 seconds or so with only one or two seconds at near-top speed.
This is the time for an honest evaluation of how you’re feeling and whether to proceed to the main set of sprints. After the warm-up, dynamic stretches, preparatory drills, and wind sprints, the goal is to feel nothing short of raring to go. If you feel particularly sluggish when you accelerate during the wind sprints, you may want to pull the plug on the workout.
Believe me, I have made the mistake many times of thinking I could man up and get through a sprint workout. Guess what? These are the sessions where I tweak or pull something or experience much more muscle soreness and fatigue in the ensuing days.
Now onto the main event! I strongly prefer running sprints, although I occasionally use a stationary bike or other equipment. If you are concerned about running sprints, find an alternate activity that allows you to deliver a brief burst of all-out effort. There are many options for exercises that fit the bill. Choose one that works for you.
Generally speaking, the main set will comprise between 4 and 10 reps each lasting somewhere from 10 to 20 seconds. Stay on the low end of reps and duration if you’re a novice sprinter, if you’re training for explosive sports, or if you are doing running sprints due to their high impact factor. You can extend to the high end of reps or duration if you’re doing no- or low-impact sprints or training for an endurance event.
In between each sprint, you should take a rest interval that allows your heart and respiratory rate to return to near baseline, however long that takes. I find 50 seconds of rest is plenty for a sprint of short duration, but feel free to extend your recovery time, especially on the last few sprints. You should feel totally ready to go again before commencing another sprint. Replenishing ATP and creatine phosphate (fuel used during explosive efforts of less than 30 seconds) requires around three minutes of rest, so don’t rush this process.1
During the rest intervals, you can either stand still or walk (or pedal leisurely if you’re on the bike), but don’t flop on the ground.
Ending Your Sprint Workout
The revolutionary concept that I want you to embrace here is that you must deliver a consistent quality of effort for the duration of your sprint workout. This means both the measured performance and the perceived exertion are similar. For example, if your first sprint of 50 yards takes 10 seconds and feels like an 8 on a 10-point effort scale, you want your final 50-yard sprint to be of similar time and effort.
A tiny bit of attrition is acceptable, say 11 seconds at an effort level of 9 on your final sprint. However, once you notice that it’s harder to deliver the same performance, end the sprint session, even if that means you only completed three or the planned six reps. Likewise, if you feel your mental focus slipping between reps, or you’re just not “feeling it,” today’s not the day to squeeze out extra reps.
But also don’t overdo it if you’re feeling great. I contend that 4 to 10 sprints are all you ever need to perform. If “more is better” thinking starts to creep in as you get fitter, you must strive to improve performance rather than add reps or increase duration.
Once the main set is over, cool down simply by engaging in 5 to 10 minutes of easy cardio—a light jog, brisk walk, or moderate pedal on the bike with light resistance.
Where You Can Go Wrong with Sprinting
The fundamental safeguards to keep in mind are:
Sprint only when you feel 100-percent rested and energized to deliver a peak performance effort.
One sprint workout every 7 to 10 days is all you need to derive the benefits. More than that, you risk overtraining and injury.
In each workout, sprints are brief and minimal (not too many) with extensive rest periods. This ensures you enjoy maximum hormonal and fitness benefits with low risk of cellular breakdown and exhaustion.
The other piece I want to emphasize here is that many protocols advertised as “sprint workouts” are really HIIT workouts (high-intensity interval training). If you’re really going all-out, you can only deliver a small number of reps before you’re no longer able to tap into that high-end speed and power. Hour-long “Tabata classes” or AMRAP “sprints” where you deliver 10-second “max” efforts with 20 seconds of rest continuously for 20 minutes (or until you drop) are oxymoronic. That doesn’t mean there isn’t value to the occasional HIIT workout, simply that HIIT is HIIT and sprints are sprints.
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.