Running coaches explain how to become faster, leaner, and stronger with sprints and long-distance running
- Sprinting builds muscle mass and strength, can increase your speed, and help tone muscles.
- Long-distance running may improve your cardiovascular endurance and respiratory system.
Long-distance running and sprinting are both effective cardio exercises that can build muscles, increase respiratory endurance, and burn calories. But the two differ enough that doing one over the other may be beneficial to certain runners.
"Sprinting involves running shorter distances and relies on differences in stride length," says Melissa Kendter, an ACE-certified trainer and running coach. "Long-distance running typically occurs over distances of 3 km, 5 km, 10 km, or marathons (26.2 miles), and anyone running those distances should be able to maintain their pace during a relatively long-lasting race."
To find out which form of running is ultimately better, I spoke to a number of trainers and running coaches about the benefits of both, including which is best for building strength, improving speed, and losing weight.
Best for increasing muscle mass and strength
"The key difference between a sprinter and a marathon runner is that a sprinter's body is prepared for shorter speed and power, relying on fast-twitch muscles," says Kendter. "Alternatively, a long-distance runner's body is trained for long, maintained endurance, relying on slow-twitch muscle fibers during training."
You work your fast-twitch muscles when you have explosive movements and need that quick burst of power, like sprinting off from a starting block.
Because of that short burst of energy, sprinting increases muscle mass and strength more readily and quickly than longer distances, which is better if you're looking to build and tone your leg muscles.
Best for endurance
While both sprinting and long-distance running strengthen your cardiovascular endurance and respiratory system, the longer time commitment and slower pace of a long-distance run are better for increasing your overall exercise endurance.
"Your body adapts to the increased workload [of a long-distance run] as the heart starts to pump more blood around the body, while lung volume increases and helps you take in more oxygen," says Kendter.
According to Ian Scarrott, a personal trainer and running coach at PureGym, distance runners should focus on a steady pace to start to conserve as much energy as possible for a longer period of time.
If you're training for a long-distance race, aim for a plan that mainly includes slower, longer runs with some speed work and strength training interspersed, once or twice a week.
Best for avoiding injury?
Starting any new training plan too quickly can put you at risk for injury, so it's smart to start slow, even when running. Kendter recommends building up your strength, power, and miles gradually so as not to get injured.
"Doing too much, going too fast, or going too far too soon can lead to injury," she says. "You need to properly build up your body's strength, speed, power, and endurance."
For both sprinting and long-distance running, consider adding strength work and cross-training to support your joints and muscles. This includes routines like weight training, plyometrics, and technique work.
Best for toning muscles and losing weight?
Overall, sprinting is better for weight loss because the body works harder during the exercise. Plus, your body continues to work hard after you've finished sprinting as it starts to recover.
This post-workout burn is called excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). Either exercise burns calories, but the high-intensity nature of sprinting allows your body to keep burning after the fact.
Best for increasing speed?
Even if you're training for a long-distance race, adding speed and cadence work can ultimately help you run faster. This is because you're able to build those fast-twitch muscles while also increasing your cadence (i.e. the number of steps you take per minute) and stride length.
Studies show that athletes who focus on cadence work increase their steps per minute, as well as their overall running efficiency.
If you intend to focus mainly on long-distance runs, add a few stride-outs after your runs, aiming for one to two stride-out sessions per week. These are workouts where you start at a jogging pace and increase to just shy of a full-out sprint before decreasing back to a walking pace.
To do them, find a length of track or road that's roughly 100 meters. Then, start at a jog and begin to increase your speed so that by the end, you are at about 95% of your max speed. This should take you about 20 to 30 seconds. Rest for roughly two minutes and repeat three to five times.
Unless you're training for something specific, it's beneficial to include sprinting and long-distance running into your workout routine. Both require limited equipment outside of a pair of running shoes and workout clothing and can be done almost anywhere.
As Kendter says, think of sprinting as a short race, but at full speed; sprint for anywhere from 20 to 30 seconds, walk or rest for a minute, and sprint again.
For longer runs, slowly work your way to longer mileage, and remember to pace yourself at slower speeds as you start to run further.
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