The fitness industry has fully embraced Georges Hebert’s adage: Be strong to be useful. CrossFitters celebrate the life preparation component of their adaptable approach and, more than ever, women are beginning to embrace strength training as essential to living well. Yet, we rarely ask our body to bridge the gap between that strength and real-world activity.
Strength and endurance are the essential foundation, but occasionally these need to be ramped up, lest we lose essential capacities. Sprinting, max-effort jumps and three-dimensional agility are very human skills that enhance our life—and which we should be ready to call upon if the moment requires.
Today, I’ll focus on regaining the confidence to sprint at max effort. In childhood, this capacity was constantly called upon without a moment’s notice. We were like the wild lion who never has occasion to warm-up. But sometime between then and now we fell away from the joys of running as fast as we could. Contrary to popular norms, there is no reason that humans should not be able to sprint hard throughout their adult years.
We spend a lot of time talking about how essential squatting is, but sprinting is truly the most fundamental high-intensity lower body movement. The body synchronizes all efforts into one beautiful max intensity concert. Still, it might not be as simple as just adding sprints back into your workouts.
For most adults, the trademarks of youth experience are the first casualties of a life away from sport. As effortless and natural as sprinting to get open for a hail-mary once was, now might sideline you for weeks, or longer. If there is anything we want to avoid it is an injury that precludes essential training and invites further decay.
As with all training, there is a need for progression. Max effort sprinting is far more intense than any general run. In fact, even our most conditioned Olympic 100 meter sprinters are starting to decelerate before the end of 100 meters. The human body simply cannot maintain absolute max speed for long.
Prior to any sprinting, or the jumping and agility, I’ll discuss in my next piece, you’ll want to make sure that you have a strong, balanced foundation in resistance training and that you can jog reasonable distances. You have to jog before you sprint.
I recommend taking this outside and focusing on a mid-foot to forefoot strike. The longer it has been since you trained, the longer this basic preparation phase will be. If you are just returning to fitness, plan on at least eight weeks of training on a progressive strength program prior to adding sprints or jumps.
Sprint Specific Preparation
Even if you have trained for years, there is still sprint specific preparation you may want to do prior to signing up for the Olympic trials. If this seems like a lot of work, take heart, you’ll only have to do it once and you’ll pick up a lot of neat exercises along the way.
Sprinting is just a series of single leg jumps, so start with basic jumping and ground reaction drills. Try inserting these into your warm-up or weekly routine:
- Toe Hops – x50
- Stride Hops – x25/side
- Feet Together Hops – 2×10 yards
- Single Leg Hops – 10 yards right; 10 yards left
- Lateral Straight Leg Hops – 10 yards right; 10 yards left
- Power Skips for Height – 2×10 yards
Additionally, you’ll want to do some hamstring eccentric work, but never prior to your sprint specific training. Try:
- RDL – 3×5 with a 5 second negative
- Towel/slider/foam roller hamstring curls – 3×5 with a 5 second negative
- 1-leg towel hamstring curls – 3×5/side with a 5 second negative
I also recommend sprinting with modalities that moderately insulate your body from the full force of free-sprinting. Try any or all of the following:
- Airdyne or bike sprints: Circuit 5-10 seconds max sprint with 50 seconds of easy pedaling for 10 rounds.
- Sled pushes: Push a weighted sled 10 to 15 yards as fast as possible. Recover fully and repeat for 4 to 10 total rounds.
- Sled pulls: Pull a weighted sled 10 to 15 yards as fast as possible. Recover fully and repeat for 4 to 10 total rounds.
Sprinting against the weight of a sled is a great transition because it forces your body into proper acceleration mechanics while requiring no eccentric breaking from the hamstrings. Therefore, sleds will never make you sore, but they are still one heck of a workout.
Lastly, I recommend all people sprint against a vertical slope. Like the sleds, this is safer because there is less eccentric breaking. There is probably no better workout for lower body power, so even after reincorporating sprints, I would prioritize these:
- Sprinting stairs. It might be bleachers or a flight of stairs at work. Sprint to the top. Walk down. Recover fully and repeat.
- Sprinting hills. You were made for this. Sprint to the top. Walk down. Recover fully and repeat.
Finally, you are ready to sprint—but don’t rush out to test your 40 time. Start with distances of 15 yards where the first five yards are a very gradual build-up and the last ten are max effort sprints before a long deceleration. I recommend doing these a couple of days per week, probably prior to high-intensity resistance training.
After three weeks, take the 5-yard build up off and just do ten-yard sprints. From there you can begin to add 5 yards total every few weeks, gradually building up to a greater total distance. Before sprinting in any work-out make sure you are very warm. I usually do a short jog, a full warm-up, and a couple of heavy 10-yard sled pushes or stair sprints first.
While it may be fun to test your 40 again, I would caution against frequently sprinting such a long distance (again note the difference between a normal run and a max effort sprint). In planning your future work-outs I’d prioritize sprint distances of 20 yards or less. The important thing is to keep them in the program. This may require you to rethink some of your training to get outside the gym. You’ll love it!
Consider the following, carry prevalent workout requiring one kettlebell or dumbbell:
- Power Skips – 3×10 yards
- DB Row – 3×10/side
- Bear Crawl – 3×10 yards
- Max Effort 10-Yard Sprints – x6
- Push-Ups – 6×10
- KB OH Waiters Walk – 1x max distance/each hand
- KB Rack Walk – 3x max distance/each hand
- Suitcase Carry – 3x max distance/each hand
Regardless of how you work it in, just remember some variation of sprinting is really the most important lower body exercise.