[Hayden Giuliani recently finished her Master’s degree at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, where she now works as a research coordinator. She is currently in the Coaching Mentorship Program at Athletic Lab.]
It seems like the best way to improve running long distances would be to run long distances. Endurance breeds endurance. Just like the best way to get better at a particular sport would be to play that sport. Over the years, coaches and researchers alike have begun to take a different perspective on that thought. Can doing a seemingly contradictory form of training actually improve endurance performance? If we sort through the research, it seems the answer is yes. In the article, I will break down the characteristics of endurance athletes, the types and descriptions of sprint training, and the implementation of sprint work into endurance training.
Endurance athletes are well-conditioned individuals that perform long events, such as running, cycling, or triathlons. Endurance-trained persons typically exhibit certain characteristics, including, but not limited to, high maximal oxygen intake (VO2 max), efficient running economy, a high proportion of type I fibers, and leaner body composition. This simply means they can perform at a high capacity for a long period of time, yet they also tend to be less proficient at strength and power tasks. The typical training program for endurance athletes, which includes runners, cyclists, or triathletes to name a few, would include multiple longer bouts throughout a week’s time. When individuals think of aerobic training, it tends to be very compartmentalized. For instance, there is the immediate energy resource of creatine phosphate, in contrast to lipids which are used over prolonged periods of time. This compartmentalization isn’t necessary; the systems are always working and they work together. Therefore, while focusing on one, the others are also enhanced. This is why I want to introduce sprinting as a form of training for endurance athletes.
I will preface the rest of this article by saying that interval training has grown much more popular within endurance training and has been shown to be very beneficial. I will be particularly be discussing traditional sprint training as an additional form. The difference is typically the duration of the work, the intensity of the bout, and the length of rest time. Interval training can be anything you want to make it really, 4 minutes of running with 1 minute of walking or 30 seconds of cycling with a high resistance then 30 seconds at a low resistance with a high cadence. It is a very adaptable form of exercise and can improve different elements of your aerobic capacity, which is likely why it has become so popular. Traditional sprint training differs in that the work duration is shorter to focus on immediate muscular energy sources, with longer rest periods to replenish the energy used. This allows for a faster speed or greater force/ power output during the bout. It may seem like not as much work is being done (volume-wise) because most of the training bout is resting, but recent research has found some interesting results.
Traditional sprint training’s main focus has been to increase maximal speed. Endurance athletes may not think this is too critical for them since they will obviously work at a submaximal speed for the duration of the bout. But the greater the ceiling, the greater the capacity underneath. It has been shown that the time spent at or above 100% of maximal aerobic speed (MAS), or the highest speed which can be maintained for a single prolonged effort, is a critical factor for improving aerobic power. (Baker) It has also shown to be more effective than long slow distance running (LSD). Some of the protocols that were used in these research studies may seem bizarre, but they worked. For instance, 4 30-second sprints with 4 minutes of rest (increasing throughout the program to 10 sprints with 2.5 minutes of rest) improved maximal enzymatic activity, power, total work, and most importantly, VO2 max. (MacDougall) Another study, which compared shorter sprinting bouts to long-distance running, found that in just 2 weeks, the sprint group showed greater muscle buffering capacity and glycogen content than the long distance. (Gibala) Muscle buffering capacity is the ability to neutralize the acid that builds up by using the anaerobic systems. Another side benefit of this type of training is the much lesser volume of the training bout (e.g. 2.5 v 10.5 hours over two weeks).
Repeated sprint ability is being able to maintain a high power output over subsequent bouts. This type of training will likely have a little less rest time between sprints. Maintaining a high average sprint performance is not only good for court or field athletes, but it can correlate to endurance athletes as well. Even sprinting uses the aerobic system, and because endurance athletes have a good aerobic base already, their recovery between sprints is better and can allow for greater work to be done. A study by Barnett and colleagues showed that 3-6 30” sprints for 8 weeks improved mean power output and VO2 max, in addition to a significant increase in enzyme activity and intramuscular energy reserve. The interesting finding was that oxidative capacity enhanced more than glycolytic capacity, though the time of work isn’t deemed “aerobic” – good news for the endurance athlete! With a decrease in the weekly mileage and the inclusion of sprints, there has been shown to be a decrease in 10k time trial time to completion and increase in both peak and relative power. (Lum)
Increasing power may not be high on the priority list, but think about making that last kick to the finish or climbing that hill halfway through the race – there are times when that extra strength and power, that higher load capacity, plays a major role. Just to show that this truly is a validated method of not only improving sprint and power ability but also aerobic capacity, here are some more examples – Burgomaster et al showed that there was an increase in lipid oxidation with sprint training; Edge et al showed greater VO2 peak, lactate threshold, and muscular buffering capacity; and Rodas et al found increased anaerobic and aerobic enzyme activity, greater wattage output, and higher VO2 max.
So how can this style of training be implemented appropriately? Of course, there is never one right answer to that question for everyone. Each person’s training can be adapted according to how well their body responds to different types of training. These studies have shown that traditional sprint training can be done in the place of a regular training day – more bang for your buck. You don’t have to add more workouts to fit it in, but instead, replace a steady-state run day, or change up one of the longer interval days. It may seem like you aren’t doing as much work, and to be honest, you aren’t by typical terms. But in the end, the profit is more than you realize. The studies mentioned above ranged in frequency of training from 2 times per week to 5 times per week, so I would say it depends on the overall goal. Lastly, not only can sprint work be beneficial, but studies have also implemented plyometric training and seen similar results. This may seem way off the mark, but plyometric work is similar to sprinting and the body would adapt accordingly. It enhances power and strength characteristics and has been shown to improve running time as well.
Baker, D. (2011) Recent trends in high-intensity aerobic training for field sports. UK Strength and Conditioning Association, 22:3-8.
MacDougall JD, Hicks AL, MacDonald JR, McKelvie RS, Green HJ, & Smith KH. (1998) Muscle performance and enzymatic adaptations to sprint interval training. J Appl Physiol, 84(6): 2138-2142.
Gibala MJ, Little JP, van Essen M, Wilkin GP, Burgomaster KA, Safdar A, Raha S, & Tarnopolsky MA. (2006) Short-term sprint interval versus traditional endurance training: similar initial adaptations in human skeletal muscle and exercise performance. J Physiol, 575(3): 901-911.
Barnett C, Carey M, Proletto J, Cerin E, Febbraio MA, & Jenkins D. (2004) Muscle metabolism during sprint exercise in man: influence of sprint training. J Sci Med Sport, 7(3): 314-322.
Lum D, Tan F, Pang J, & Barbosa TM. (2016) Effects of intermittent sprint and plyometric training on endurance running performance. Journal of Sport and Health Science, 1-7.
Burgomaster KA, Howarth KR, Phillips SM, Rakobowchuk M, MacDonald MJ, McGee SL, & Gibala MJ. (2008) Similar metabolic adaptations during exercise after low volume sprint interval and traditional endurance training in humans. J Physiol, 586(1): 151-160.
Edge J, Bishop D, & Goodman C. (2005) The effects of training intensity on muscle buffer capacity in females. Eur J Appl Physiol, 96(1): 97-105.
Rodas G, Ventura JL, Cadefau JA, Cusso R, & Parra J. (2000) A short training programme for the rapid improvement of both aerobic and anaerobic metabolism. Eur J Appl Physiol, 82: 480-486.