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.

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.

6x8sec HS
8x8sec HS
10x8sec HS
4x60m flat sprints
8x10sec HS
5x80m flat sprints
10x10sec HS
2x60m, 2x80m, 2x100m
8x10sec HS + 1x20sec
4x60m, 1x150m
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.


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    1. Craig on May 31, 2009 at 6:07 pm


      You get a lot of shit for your own performance, mostly for factors beyond your control. I hope you get everything you wanted out of running for yourself.

      However, even if you don’t, you’ve already demonstrated yourself to be a fantastic coach- analyzing without obsessing, using science without being controlled by it, and giving equal attention to all the important parts of the fitness puzzle, rather than emphasize one too much.

      All this stuff on sprint mechanics/pure speed/form is really interesting to me- I’ve always approached training from the fitness side of the equation and admittedly neglected the neuromuscular end of things. Your practical outlines for progression is really helping me implement this stuff in my own training.


    2. Anonymous on June 1, 2009 at 5:23 am

      I agree with Craig. Not many athletes have to deal with asthma, allergies to everything you breath, vocal chord dysfunction where your vocal chords close and you cannot breath while running, hamstring etc. Yet you continue to run and help others with all you do. Keep up the good work and good luck to you.

    3. Anonymous on June 1, 2009 at 7:51 am


      Thanks for putting this together. What kind of progression would you use during the summer leading into XC? Would you keep the Hill Sprints on a hard surface?

      Thanks for your reply.

    4. JBrower on June 12, 2009 at 12:44 am

      Out of curiosity over my own program, which is mostly self-written in the summer…

      Your sprint training chunk reminds me of what I had planned on doing on Thursdays. Instead of my normal post run barefoot strides, I was going to do uphill strides, at a controlled/relaxed sprint, to work on leg strength and form and such. This would be done once a week in the summer, but I wasn't planning on transitioning to flat, apart from my normal strides. Should I?


    5. CoachTief on June 29, 2009 at 11:41 pm

      These are great ideas for the track season, but do you suggest this as part of a H. S. Cross Country Program.

      I want to teach the kids the concept of running fast and relaxed, but is there a different way to approach it during the CC season?

    6. stevemagness on July 3, 2009 at 3:07 pm

      Coach Tief,

      The approach is similar for before CC season. The concept is still the same. I want to do some neuromuscular sprint work before we get into the real heavy CC training.

      In fact, I find during the summer that a weekly sprint session does wonders in keeping the legs fresh and responsive when kids are running just mileage.

      I tend to look at things long term instead of season by season, so if we are really trying to work on leg speed/sprint ability, then before CC season we will follow a similar progression as outlined above.

      However, most of the time, it's not neeeded and the demands of CC are different than track, so we stick with mainly hill sprints and don't do as much of a transition to flat sprints.

      Instead we focus on converting some of that pure speed work into strength endurance via lengthening the hills, doing some circuits with sprinting and exercises, etc.

    7. Anonymous on July 27, 2011 at 12:13 am

      Do you believe raw 400 meter speed is a limiting factor in even the longest distances?

    8. Boris Hornbei on September 24, 2011 at 1:38 am

      Sprint training is wonderful fun. I'll be 70 in 5 months and love inserting 10-sec sprints in easy runs when I'll feeling sufficiently recovered. I learned this from Arthur Lydiard via Keith Livingstone's wonderful book Healthy Intelligent Training. Similarly, uphill sprints on the ramp at the Stanford Univ. softball stadium are exhilarating. Point is: whether they improve distance performance or not, they are highly energizing, fun, and add "pop" to running at all speeds (after recovery).

    9. Arsenio Prince on January 29, 2013 at 11:51 am

      Hello, first off all thank you for the great blog content.
      I have a question about running form. On this link you can see bad quality picture of me sprinting, i'm 7.01s 60m, 11.01s 100m, and 49.47s 400m runner. I think i have errors in running form and the way i apply force…

      Run form

      If you would be kind and give me a short comment on my sprinting form from picture above. My observations are that my front arm is too high and too open and my knees are too high (those are probably related).
      The thing i do not understand well is the hip extension. I'm not able to figure out if i have proper hip extension or not.

      Thanks in advance,

      Dino Kraljević, Rijeka Croatia (Little country in Europe)

    10. Anonymous on February 27, 2013 at 6:55 am

      I recently discovered your blog. What a treasure trove of information, thanks ! I have planned an updated training program for myself around your concepts (I am a masters runner and usually do 2 marathons and a few halfs during a year). One question, the 8 sec hill sprints seem really short and really finish before you can even build enough speed. Why are they so short? Would slightly longer ones of 12-15secs be as beneficial or would they be worse off?

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