“I wish I looked less like a sprinter.” – Nobody, ever
Most of us will never be graced with the physiques of Usain Bolt or Jessica Ennis, but we can all benefit from a little sprinting. In fact, moving really quickly for short periods of time is one of the easiest and fastest ways to improve health.
As we continue to work our way down the Great Upside-Down Movement Pyramid, we’re now approaching the pointy end. If you’ve made it this far, you should be sitting less, walking more, and lifting stuff.
As we’re constructing a sustainable movement plan for long-term health, this is also a good time to recap the “rules” of the pyramid:
- Make movement a habit rather than a chore.
- If you’re not managing to do the level above, don’t move to the level below.
- As you use more levels of the pyramid, it becomes increasingly unstable. This means you need more time to recover – eat, sleep, rest.
- If you can’t recover better, don’t add more.
- Don’t obsess over the details. Do what comes naturally and what you enjoy.
Tired and stressed? Just hang out exactly where you are on the pyramid. Do some high-quality recovery (like putting delicious food in your mouth and getting enough sleep), and enjoy the fact that you’re making movement part of your daily routine.
On the other hand, if you’re feeling pumped from lifting things and all that walking, and you’re ready to up the ante a little, it’s time to move…really quickly.
Maximum Bang for Minimum Buck
Strength and cardiovascular fitness are simple and reliable indicators of longevity and quality of life.3 More importantly, improving these areas does not require superhuman effort. It’s never too late to improve your fitness for increased quality of life, not to mention a longer lifetime.4
In order to improve cardiovascular fitness, we often focus on obvious cardio, such as jogging. This has started to change in the last ten years, and you’ve probably heard talk about interval training. It might be referred to as HIIT (high-intensity interval training), SIT (sprint interval training), HIIE (high-intensity intermittent exercise), or HIET (high-intensity exercise training).6-9 As there’s no real consistency in the terminology, and everything in science needs a good acronym, I’ll use my own – MRQ (moving really quickly).*
“MRQ (moving really quickly) has been shown to be better than cardio, particularly for people who already have some kind of health problem, such as heart disease or obesity.”
Almost every study comparing MRQ to cardio has shown that, for less or the same total effort, and much less total time, MRQ gives as much, and often a greater, improvement in cardiovascular fitness.10,11 MRQ has been shown to be better than cardio, particularly for people who already have some kind of health problem, such as heart disease or obesity.6,12,13
If that’s not enough to get you excited about sprinting, MRQ has also been shown to:
- Reduce body fat, particularly visceral fat (that fat around the midsection that’s associated with heart disease and type 2 diabetes).6,7,14,15
- Improve metabolic health.6**
- Increase muscle mass.14,15
**I wanted to use MRQWANRBS (moving really quickly with a nice rest between sets), but it’s a bit of a mouthful.
Pick Your Poison
A number of different MRQ protocols are proven to improve cardiovascular fitness, but not many of these have been directly compared. This leaves you, dear reader, with a number of options. If sprinting is completely new to you, try this:
- Start with a 5-10 minute warm-up on your chosen exercise
- Sprint for 10-60 seconds
- Rest for 2-4 times as long as you sprinted
- Repeat for 10-15 total minutes
- Warm down, and head home
|Interval length||Rest time||Number of sets|
|8 seconds||12 seconds||30 (10 total minutes)|
|10 seconds||4 minutes||6|
|15 seconds||15 seconds||40-50 (20-25 minutes)|
|20 seconds||3 minutes||2|
|20 seconds||10 seconds||8 (aka “Tabata”)|
|30 seconds||4 minutes||4-7|
|60 seconds||3 minutes||8|
|60 seconds||60 seconds||10|
|4 minutes||Single maximum effort||1|
|4 minutes||3-4 minutes||3-5|
Many suggest the best way to improve cardiovascular fitness is with longer intervals, such as 4 or 5 sets of 4-minute sprints with 3-4 minutes rest in between each. Though it sounds daunting, this protocol has also been used in overweight subjects and in patients after cardiac surgery.10,11 You just need to pick a pace that you can repeat in 4-minute bursts. Doing 5 sets of 4 minute sprints just once every two weeks is enough to maintain your fitness over a period of detraining.16 Remember, shorter intervals allow for greater intensity, which is what we need to maximise cardiovascular fitness.17
Each protocol has a slightly different biochemical effect, but there’s little evidence that one is better than any other in terms of longevity. Consistency is most important. Many studies have found varied MRQ to be more enjoyable than traditional cardio, so pick a protocol you can do regularly. Have fun, and think about rotating every few weeks.18,19
Exercise selection is also pretty simple. MRQ doesn’t have to be about running. Pick an exercise where the legs predominate and the body works as a whole. Most studies use either a treadmill or a stationary bike, but outdoor (hill) sprints or a rowing machine also work well, as does swinging a kettlebell.9 One study even used burpees.20
- Pick a whole-body movement you enjoy or have easy access to
- Move really quickly
- The harder you go, the earlier you can finish***
- Repeat a few times
- Walk home
- Be (more) awesome
***Not necessarily the best approach in other situations.
More From Coach Tommy’s Fitness Pyramid:
- A Simple System for Staying Healthy and Active to the Very End
- Sit Less and Prioritize Movement for Long Term Fitness
- Lift Stuff: Add Mass to Your Body and Years to Your Life
- New on Breaking Muscle
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2. Tommy Wood, “Lifting Stuff, Being Harder to Kill, and Why Burpees Save Lives.”
3. Kodama et al.. Cardiorespiratory fitness as a quantitative predictor of all-cause mortality and cardiovascular events in healthy men and women: a meta-analysis. JAMA. 2009 May 20;301(19):2024-35.
4. Blair et al.. Changes in physical fitness and all-cause mortality. A prospective study of healthy and unhealthy men. JAMA. 1995 Apr 12;273(14):1093-8.
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9. Williams and Kraemer. Comparison of cardiorespiratory and metabolic responses in kettlebell high-intensity interval training versus sprint interval cycling. J Strength Cond Res. 2015 Sep 8. [Epub ahead of print]
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11. Helgerud et al.. Aerobic high-intensity intervals improve VO2max more than moderate training. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2007 Apr;39(4):665-71.
12 Weston et al.. High-intensity interval training in patients with lifestyle-induced cardiometabolic disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med. 2014 Aug;48(16):1227-34.
13. Elliott et al.. Interval training versus continuous exercise in patients with coronary artery disease: a meta-analysis. Heart Lung Circ. 2015 Feb;24(2):149-57.
14. Irving et al.. Effect of exercise training intensity on abdominal visceral fat and body composition. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2008 Nov;40(11):1863-72.
15. Hazell et al.. Running sprint interval training induces fat loss in women. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2014 Aug;39(8):944-50.
16. Slettaløkken and Rønnestad. High-intensity interval training every second week maintains VO2max in soccer players during off-season. J Strength Cond Res. 2014 Jul;28(7):1946-51.
17. Moholdt et al.. The higher the better? Interval training intensity in coronary heart disease. J Sci Med Sport. 2014 Sep;17(5):506-10.
18. Bartlett et al.. High-intensity interval running is perceived to be more enjoyable than moderate-intensity continuous exercise: implications for exercise adherence. J Sports Sci. 2011 Mar;29(6):547-53.
19. Tjønna et al.. Aerobic interval training versus continuous moderate exercise as a treatment for the metabolic syndrome: a pilot study. Circulation. 2008 Jul 22;118(4):346-54.
20. Gist et al.. Comparison of responses to two high-intensity intermittent exercise protocols. J Strength Cond Res. 2014 Nov;28(11):3033-40.
21. Tabata et al.. Metabolic profile of high intensity intermittent exercises. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1997 Mar;29(3):390-5.
22. Hood. Contractile activity-induced mitochondrial biogenesis in skeletal muscle. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2001 Mar;90(3):1137-57.
23. Aschenbach et al.. 5′ adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase, metabolism and exercise. Sports Med. 2004;34(2):91-103.
24. Burgomaster et al.. Similar metabolic adaptations during exercise after low volume sprint interval and traditional endurance training in humans. J Physiol. 2008 Jan 1;586(1):151-60.
Photo courtesy of Jorge Huerta Photography.