Sprint Training for distance runners:
After going over the why’s on sprint training for distance runners, it’s time to address the practical part, how to implement it. The most important part is probably to actually teach someone how to sprint. Correcting mistakes early and establishing a good foundation on sprinting mechanics early on will save a lot of trouble later, not to mention make for a quicker progression. I’ve talked about running mechanics on this blog a couple times, so if you need a refresher on my views, search the blog.
It goes beyond just correcting mistakes though. Distance runners need to learn how to truly sprint. It is our nature to try and push harder or increase the effort when we want to run faster. However, this does not work for sprinting. There’s a point where trying to increase the effort does more harm than good.
When you see most distance runners sprint, they really try and bear down and force it. Compare this to the relatively relaxed sprinting of someone like Usain Bolt. Teaching the concept of relaxed sprinting is key. To do this, I suggest having runners do their initial sprint training at sub-maximum speeds. A good speed is usually around 400m pace. It is still fast, yet since it is only 100m, the athletes can still get the concept of relaxation while moving fast. As they grasp the concept, increase the speed while trying to get them to keep the same relaxation.
Ideally, this step of teaching relaxed sprinting or relaxed fast running is the first step. However, in many cases, such as when working with a large group of HS runners, this can’t be done. It is not the end of the world if you skip this first step. Why? Because, with the progression I’ve outlined below, it is very easy for runners to kind of discover how to sprint with only minor coaching cues.
Progression of Sprint Training
The first step is Hill Sprints. These are becoming exceedingly popular for distance runners, thanks in large part to Renato Canova and later Brad Hudson. They are becoming popular because they work. It’s funny how it almost seems like a trend or a fad to do hill sprints now. In reality distance runners, and even more so, sprinters have been doing short hill sprints for a long time, it’s just never been popularized as a key to training.
Hill Sprints work as a great introduction to sprinting because it is almost impossible to get hurt doing them. In addition, it’s almost impossible to sprint wrong while doing them too. They really emphasize hip extension and it’s very hard to land on your heel while sprinting up a hill.
The slope of the hill depends on the purpose. A steeper slope for more strength and a more gradual slope for speed. Since these are acting as an introductory for pure speed work, I tend to suggest a moderate hill initially and progressing to a more gradual one as time goes by. For the above reasons, I tend to suggest a more gradual hill than the one that most people have seen in some of Brad Hudson’s group training videos. Why? Once again, because I’m trying to use this as a transition for pure speed (in this context) and not necessarily as a stand alone workout in itself.
Start out with only a handful (4-5) of sprints that take 8sec or so. FULL RECOVERY in between is essentially. That means at least 2min, probably more. To keep myself and athletes I’ve worked with from doing these with too little recovery, we used to play a rousing game of throw the rock at a pole to see who could hit the pole the most times during the entire hill sprint session. It seems kind of stupid, but it served it’s purpose of keeping recovery long enough. The sprints are initially so short that most runners don’t feel fatigued after the first couple, so they rush the recovery. So, to keep them from doing this, throwing rocks at a pole served it’s purpose.
These hill sprints start during the base period and (for HS kids) are done once a week. Each week, the number of hill sprints is increased until I get to about 10. Sometimes the length is also slightly increased (from 8 sec to 10 sec).
After several weeks of hill sprints, the transition then shifts to flat sprints.
The Hill sprints serve to prepare athletes for flat sprints. These are, preferably, done on the track. For HS kids, I generally tell them to keep these at just below 100%. This prevents kids from “forcing” the speed and overstraining to run fast.
To start with, the length of these sprints are generally 60m. Once again, full rest is needed, even more than with hill sprints. After building up to 8-10 hill sprints, I normally start off athletes with 4 or so flat sprints.
Like with everything I recommend, there is a gradual progression. To begin with, athletes will alternate between doing hill sprints and flat sprints. After a period of time, I might shift to where one is more emphasized, but it depends on the season and the athlete. For example, before track season if we are really focusing on improving pure speed, we might do flat sprints every week for a short period and drop the hill sprints all together.
Similarly, there is progression within the sprints themselves. The number increases from 4 up to 6 or so, and then the distance increases from 60m to 80m and finally 100m.
Putting it together: Speed Endurance
After several weeks (once again, depending on the season and the emphasis) we start a transition to speed endurance. What this means is that we add one or two speed endurance reps at the end of a pure speed session.
These speed endurance reps can be done after both hill sprints and flat sprints. It depends on the training emphasis, goal, and time of the year to which kind of sprints we will use. The general principles in adding speed endurance is the same for both types of sprints. I cut back on the pure sprints and initially add one rep of speed endurance at the end. For HS, I generally cut back from 10 to 5 or 6, and add in one 15-20sec sprint uphill at the end. For flat sprints, we cut back from maybe 5x100m to 3×60-80m with one 150m full sprint at the end.
The progression for speed endurance is similar to the other sprints. I will add one or maybe two more reps (seldom beyond that, unless speed endurance is the emphasis), and will slightly increase the length of the reps (from 150m to 200m, and maybe 250m).
What does this all look like?
I’ve mentioned many times that what you do in terms of speed and speed endurance training is dependent on other factors, so it is impossible to give a generic answer to how it should look for every athlete. The real answer is that it depends on the athlete and what you are trying to accomplish with that athlete. That determines how much you do, how long you do it, and when you do it.
Below is a generalized progression for an athlete before track season. This is done to show how things kind of blend together and progress. These are done once a week (in my training schedules, there done as the midweek, wed., workout most of the time, and done either following most of a distance run, or with a long warm-up/cool down.). Also note, this is a LONG build up, for HS kids, I use a shorter build up most of the time.
4x60m flat sprints
5x80m flat sprints
2x60m, 2x80m, 2x100m
8x10sec HS + 1x20sec
8x10sec HS +2x25sec
2×60, 2x80m,100m, 150m, 200m
4x100m, 150m, 200m
Maintenance- Every 2-5wks (depends on athlete/season)- depends on if it’s more speed or speed endurance, but an example: 3-5×60-80m sprints, 2x150m OR 2x60m, 100m, 150m, 200m.
Lastly, I’ll be posting a retrospective analysis on the training for the HS kids I coach sometime in the future. It’s something I like to do following each season to see if the athletes progressed as expected, how their races correlated with training, etc. It’ll be good to look back and see how every aspect was developed and to see how an actual plan comes to fruition. Also, in terms of sprint training, it will give a glimpse of several of the concepts I’ve discussed above and how having a particular emphasis on speed training changes how much is done and when it is done.