Top Three Sprint Workouts for Distance Runners

Looking for effective sprint workouts to take your training to the next level? Experienced marathoner and speed guru Jason Fitzgerald shares his training tips on how to race faster and improve your PR.

Most runners training for a 5k or a marathon are missing a crucial ingredient in their training program and they don’t even know it. Following an introductory training plan like the Couch to 5k plan is common among new runners, but it’s far from ideal.

Runners need to sprint on a regular basis - even distance runners! If you’re a new runner or a veteran master’s runner, sprinting is crucial to preventing injury, getting stronger, and making you a more efficient runner. Every runner that I know is looking for these benefits, but few of them sprint. When you learn how to start running, be sure to include short and intense sprint workouts to help you develop into a faster runner.

Why Sprint?

Sprint Workouts Tips

Sprinting can help prevent injury. As opposed to running at a slow, easy pace, a quick sprint will recruit nearly all of your leg’s muscle fibers. When you use more of your muscles, they adapt and get stronger and are more readily available for when you get fatigued. Instead of using a fraction of your quadriceps muscle, for example, your body can now utilize more of it to help you avoid overuse injuries.

Sprinting increases your efficiency. Running at your top speed makes other paces seem a lot slower (and easier!). It’s also difficult to run with inefficient form when you’re sprinting, so this will reinforce a better running form that your body will “remember” the next time you’re running. This neuromuscular efficiency can help you run faster, longer, and prevent injuries.

Sprinting helps you lose weight faster. Many new runners struggle with those last stubborn five pounds. Low-intensity cardio exercise, like slow jogging, is great for general health but it’s not the best way to reach your ideal weight. Sprinting can dramatically increase your metabolism and calorie burn so you burn calories during the workout, but also for several hours afterward. In fact, a recent study showed that your metabolism can increase for 14 hours after hard exercise! Convinced yet?

There are a lot of simple sprint workouts that you can implement in your weekly training program. The important thing to differentiate when we talk about one of these “sprint workouts” is fast vs. hard. Just because you are sprinting does not mean the effort of the workout will be very high. In fact, these sprint workouts should be fairly easy for most people because they’re very short.

Your First Three Sprint Workouts

The first sprint workout you should attempt is a set of simple 75-100m strides at the end of an easy run. These should last anywhere from 15-25 seconds and have you starting at a jog, building to a sprint, and then slowly decelerating to a stop. Take about one minute of walking recovery in between each stride and start with four repetitions. After 1-2 weeks you can increase this number to 6 strides.

Speed Workouts Race Day

When standard strides are comfortable, transition to running surges during the end of an easy distance run. These last the same amount of time and distance, but are done during your run with a jogging recovery of about a minute. Start the same way by slowly accelerating to a top sprint, holding it for 3-4 seconds and then slow down to your normal running pace. Fun, huh?!

When both strides and surges are comfortable, you’re ready for hill sprints. These are maximum intensity sprints of 8-12 seconds that you run up a steep hill. To get as much benefit as possible from this workout, follow these steps:

  • Start with 2 repetitions and run the first one at only 95% effort. Don’t go all out.
  • Take a long walk break in between each sprint of at least a minute, but you can go up to 2-3 minutes. This isn’t an aerobic workout so don’t worry about getting too much rest. Your goal is to sprint fast!
  • Build up to 8-10 sprints over the course of 1-2 months, doing this workout 1-2 times every week.
  • You can increase the length of the sprint from 8 seconds to 10 and finally move to a steeper hill.

Marathon Finish Line

Hill sprints are like lifting weights for your legs in a running-specific way. They are one of my favorite injury prevention strategies.

After 4-6 weeks of consistent strides, surges, and hill sprints you’ll feel much more comfortable running your normal pace. Workouts will seem easier. Who knows? You may even run that PR you’ve been reaching for!

Jason Fitzgerald, aka "Fitz", is the founder of Strength Running, a 2:44 marathoner, and online running coach. Strength Running unleashes Fitz’s passion for helping runners achieve their best and prevent running injuries.