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How to Become a Faster More Efficient Distance Runner

Think sprint training is just for sprinters? Think again.

If you’re a distance runner looking for a time effective and research proven training method, it’s time to consider adding in some sprint training.

Not only will it improve your maximum running speed, strength, power and neuromuscular coordination; it will make you a faster and more efficient distance runner.

Unfortunately, there tends to be a misunderstanding of the benefits of sprint training. As well as a lack of understanding of the difference between sprint and high intensity interval-based training. 

In this article we’ll take a look at the science behind sprint training and how it can benefit endurance runners:

  • You will learn the difference between sprint and traditional interval training
  • Take a look at the science and the proven benefits for endurance runners
  • Look at how to introduce speed training into a distance running program.

Sprint training vs high intensity aerobic intervals – what’s the difference?…

Before taking a look at the benefits of sprint training, it’s important to understand the difference between sprint and high intensity aerobic interval workouts. 

Sprint training involves maximal, or near maximal efforts, run over short distances or durations.

While there are several types of sprint training, at the most basic level we can split it into two basic types:

  • Speed, or maximum velocity training: involving short-duration (normally less than 10 seconds) “all-out” sprints, with a recovery that’s typically >10x the work interval.
  • Speed endurance training: involving slightly longer efforts (typically 10-40seconds – sometimes slightly longer), which are completed at, or close to, the maximal “sustainable” intensity for that distance or duration, with a recovery that’s >5x the work interval.

While it’s now common for endurance runners to include interval training, hill repeats and strides, the intensity of these workouts tends to fall significantly below what would be classed as “sprint” intensity using the definitions above. So, in comparison with sprint intervals, high intensity aerobic intervals involve training at intensities that are significantly below your maximum running speed.

  • Speed/sprint Intervals = maximal or close to maximal effort
  • High Intensity Aerobic intervals = submaximal intensity

There also tends to be some confusion around the term speed endurance – often, this is used to describe 1500m, 3k, 5k or even 10k pace running intervals. 

The truth is: these are not speed endurance workouts, instead they develop “race specific endurance”, such as 3k, or 5k, race specific endurance. 

To summarise: 

  • The aim of sprint training is to improve your maximum running speed, or ability to sustain a near maximal effort. 
  • In contrast, the aim of high intensity aerobic intervals is to increase your ability to sustain a “submaximal” intensity, or to run more efficiently at that pace.  

Sprint training benefits for endurance runners

So, how beneficial is sprint training for distance runners? It’s actually more beneficial than most runners realise. In fact, a number of studies have demonstrated improved endurance running performance, efficiency and velocity at vo2 max, following speed endurance and sprint training.

Let’s take a look at the research…

Speed Endurance Training Research

One study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology (Bangsbo et al., 2009), demonstrated how speed endurance training improved 3km (3.3%) and 10km (3.1%) running performance. Interestingly, these improvements occurred despite a 25% reduction in training volume. This led researchers to comment that “speed endurance training is a powerful stimulus to improve performance even in an event lasting >30mins”.

This study is not alone…

Research published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (Koral et al., 2018), demonstrated a 5.7% improvement in 3km run time following repeated 30 second sprint intervals (4-7 x 30s, 4min recoveries). In this case, completed using a shuttle run protocol. The researchers also observed improvements (2.8%) in maximal aerobic speed (vVO2max), time to exhaustion, as well as peak and mean power. And these improvements occurred after just 2-weeks of sprint interval training.

In a study published in Physiological Reports (Skovgaard et al., 2018), researchers observed a 3.2% improvement in 10km run time, and 2.1% improvement in running economy, following a 40-day training period, involving 10 sessions of speed endurance training (5-10 x 30 sec maximal efforts, 3.5min recovery). Again, this occurred following a significant training volume reduction (36% reduction).

Improvements occurred without changes in VO2max

Interestingly, there was no change in VO2max, however, the velocity at VO2 max (vVO2max) increased by 2.0km/h. The researchers suggested that the improved 10km run performance appeared to be related to improved running economy. This seems likely since vVO2 max represents an interplay between VO2max and running economy.

Another feature of this research involved an investigation into the effects of speed endurance training on running performance in a “slow twitch glycogen depleted state”. Without going into detail, the researchers commented that because running economy was unaltered in the glycogen depleted state, this suggests the improved running economy (observed under normal conditions) was due to adaptations within the slow twitch muscle fibers. Indicating, that speed endurance training is beneficial for slow twitch muscle fibers – this is something that I’ve touched on previously in the article looking at high intensity interval training.

Short Sprint Intervals Research

An investigation into the benefits of short sprint intervals (<10s) found similar results. Research (Lum et al., 2019) looking at the benefits of short sprint intervals (12-16 x 30-50m sprints) and plyometric training, found that short sprint intervals were as effective as plyometric training for improving 10km running performance (~4% improvement). In this case, training volume was decreased by approximately 10% and 20% in the sprint and plyometric training respectively.

Important considerations with sprint workouts

Two factors that appear to be important when introducing sprint training are:

1. Don’t reduce training volume too much

Sprint training appears to be most beneficial for distance runners, when weekly training volume is only decreased in the range of ~10-35%. 

When researchers (Iaia et al., 2009) used a similar speed endurance training program (8-12 x 30s) but reduced training volume by 2/3 there was no improvement in 10km performance despite a 6% improvement in running economy. 

It appears that the improved running economy was offset by a reduction in the percent VO2max sustained. In simple terms: the athletes were unable to maintain such a high percentage of VO2max during the 10k. The researchers suggest this was most likely due to the large decrease in training volume.

2. Include some high intensity aerobic intervals

Research suggests that endurance runners looking to get the most from speed endurance and sprint training, should continue to include some low/moderate intensity run sessions as well as some high intensity aerobic intervals (Bangsbo et al., 2009 & 2015).

Summary of research

  • Speed endurance and sprint training significantly improve endurance running performance: 3km and 10km performance improve by ~3-6% and ~3-4% respectively.
  • The improvements appear to be linked to improved running economy (typically 2-6% improvement) and improved velocity at VO2max (~2-3% improvement).
  • Changes in running economy appear to be linked to adaptations within slow twitch muscle fibers, rather than improved oxidative capacity of fast twitch fibers.
  • VO2 max is generally unchanged (in trained and well-trained runners) by sprint interval training.
  • Current research has used ~2-3 weekly sessions of sprint endurance training, with each workout consisting of 4-10 x 30sec sprints, separated by 3-4mins recovery (rest or walking). 
  • Shorter sprints can also be effective e.g. 30-50m sprint x 3-4 (sets) x 4 (reps)
  • Significant improvements can occur after just 6-10 speed endurance sessions. And may occur after just two weeks of training.
  • Training volume should not be reduced too much (ideally not more than a 30% reduction) and it’s important to include low/moderate intensity training as well as high intensity aerobic intervals.

How does sprint training improve running speed and efficiency?

Current research suggests that the major benefit for distance runners comes through improved running economy, increased vVO2max and peak power, and possibly improved fatigue resistance. 

Sprint training is likely to cause these improvements on a number of levels:

Firstly, it leads to specific adaptations that improve neuromuscular coordination, by increasing the coordination between groups of muscles as well as increasing the recruitment of groups of muscle fibers. Effectively, this increases the pool of muscle fibers, that are available for an athlete to use when running – this is important for both efficiency and fatigue resistance.

Secondly, it can increase a muscles ability to generate force rapidly through the stretch shortening cycle (SSC). One factor here, is improved elastic properties of muscles and tendons. In fact, it’s known that sprint training can result in similar neuromuscular adaptations as plyometric training (Lum et al., 2019).

Thirdly, sprint training teaches good running technique. As we run faster, we naturally shift to more of a forefoot strike. We also run with a faster cadence and longer stride length. In this way, training at faster speeds can help to reinforce better running technique.

Another factor is that sprint training increases muscle power. When peak power increases this reduces the relative intensity of submaximal workloads. As a consequence, this makes lower intensity exercise easier and reduces the rate of fatigue at submaximal intensities.

Finally, by increasing your maximum running velocity and speed endurance, you increase your potential to maintain faster speeds over longer distances. Think of it this way: if one athlete has a 400m best of 60seconds and another athletes 400m best is 70seconds – which athlete will find it easier to maintain 75second lap pace during a 5k?


How to add sprint workouts into your running plan

So, how can you add in some speed training? The first thing to note is the research used approximately 2-3/weekly speed training sessions. Now, for most runners this is quite a significant amount of speed sessions to squeeze in, especially when you also have to factor in high intensity aerobic intervals, tempo/threshold and low/moderate intensity training. 

It’s worth noting that one of these studies demonstrated significant improvements after 10 sessions spread over 40 days (2 sessions every 8 days or 1.75x/week). And it’s likely that most runners will see benefits from including 1-2weekly sessions.

It’s also worth noting that both “maximal” sprint (<10s) and speed endurance training (~30s) are beneficial for distance runners. With this in mind a good approach is to include both within a training plan. However, it’s important to follow a progressive approach. For example, a good approach is to develop specific strength and conditioning with hill sprints. Then add in some maximal speed training. And build on this with some speed endurance training.

Sprint training examples:

Examples of good sprint training workouts include: 

  • Hill sprints
  • Flying 30s
  • Short sprints

Hill Sprints

Hill sprints are very effective for developing speed, strength and power. One great thing with hill sprints is they can be used consistently all year round, which is a particularly important approach for long term development.

Hill sprints can also be progressed from short 10s hills, and extended to around 20-25s which brings in a speed endurance component. >> Read more about hill sprints.

After hill sprints you can then progress to some flying 30s. However, it’s beneficial to continue to include some hill sprints within your training.

Flying 30s and short sprints

Flying 30s involve running 90m split into 3 x 30m sections:

  • Acceleration zone (30m) – accelerate so you reach “maximum” speed by the end of the 30m 
  • “Maximal” velocity zone (30m) – maintain your “maximum” running speed 
  • Deceleration zone (30m) – gradually decelerate across the 30m

An example session would be 4 x flying 30s, separated by 2-3minutes recovery. 

Another approach is to include some short (40-60m) sprints, separated by 2-3minutes of rest.

One important point here: both the flying 30s and short sprints can be used in combination with an aerobic interval workout. To do this, add these – following an appropriate warm up! – directly before the aerobic intervals. Not only will this ensure you’re primed for your intervals, but it helps maximise your training time.

These can then be progressed towards speed endurance workouts.

Speed endurance workouts

As we’ve seen speed endurance training involves near maximal efforts, run over 10-40s duration. In most cases this involves 20-40s efforts, however they may sometimes be extended beyond this. Examples include: 120m, 150m, 200m, or even 250, or 300m repeats. In each case, the recovery would be approximately 5x longer than the work interval – or longer if required to maintain the interval intensity.

Sprint workout basic program

Below is an example progression, where the focus is on building towards 2 weekly speed/speed endurance workouts. 

As mentioned earlier, research in this area suggests that you should continue to include low/moderate intensity training sessions as well as high intensity aerobic intervals. This appears to be important for maximising the benefits of improved running economy and maintaining the ability to sustain a high percentage of VO2 max.

WEEK No: INTERVAL SESSION 1  INTERVAL SESSION 2
WEEK 1 AEROBIC INTERVALS  Hill Sprints 6 x 8s
WEEK 2 AEROBIC INTERVALS  Hill Sprints 8 x 8s
WEEK 3 AEROBIC INTERVALS  SE Hill Sprints 6 x 20s
WEEK 4 AEROBIC INTERVALS  Hill Sprints 8 x 10s
WEEK 5 4 X FLYING 30s +AEROBIC INTERVALS SE Hill Sprints 8 x 20s
WEEK 6 AEROBIC INTERVALS  Hill Sprints 10 x 10s
WEEK 7 4 X FLYING 30s +AEROBIC INTERVALS SE INTERVALS 2 x 4 x 120m
WEEK 8 5 x 50m Sprints +AEROBIC INTERVALS SE Hill Sprints 8 x 25s
WEEK 9 5 X FLYING 30s +AEROBIC INTERVALS SE INTERVALS 2 x 4 x 150m
WEEK 10 5 x 50m Sprints +AEROBIC INTERVALS Hill Sprints 10 x 12s
WEEK 11 6 X FLYING 30s +AEROBIC INTERVALS SE INTERVALS 2 x 3 x 200m
WEEK 12 6 x 50m Sprints +AEROBIC INTERVALS SE INTERVALS 2 x 4 x 200m
  • Hill Sprints – maximal effort, ~2-3mins recovery
  • SE (Speed Endurance) Hill Sprints – ~90-95% max effort, ~3mins recovery
  • Flying 30s – 30m accelerate, 30m maximal velocity, 30m decelerate – 2-3min rest.
  • 50m sprints – maximal effort, 2-3min rest.
  • SE (Speed Endurance) Intervals – 90-95% max effort, ~3-4mins recovery between reps, ~5-8mins between sets

Final thoughts

Hopefully, this article has given you some insights into the benefits of sprint training for distance runners. 

Not only can sprint training provide very quick results, but if your consistent and stick with this as part of a long-term approach, you’ll begin to see improvements in your maximum speed. 

While this is important for all athletes, it’s particularly important for speed development in younger athletes, and speed maintenance in master athletes. And if like me, you may find you can use this to actually improve your maximum running speed as a master athlete.


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References:

Bangsbo J, Gunnarsson TP, Wendell J, Nybo L, Thomassen M. Reduced volume and increased training intensity elevate muscle Na+-K+ pump alpha2-subunit expression as well as short- and long-term work capacity in humans. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2009 Dec;107(6):1771-80. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00358.2009. Epub 2009 Oct 1. PMID: 19797693.

Bangsbo J. Performance in sports–With specific emphasis on the effect of intensified training. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2015 Dec;25 Suppl 4:88-99. doi: 10.1111/sms.12605. PMID: 26589122.

Iaia FM, Hellsten Y, Nielsen JJ, Fernström M, Sahlin K, Bangsbo J. Four weeks of speed endurance training reduces energy expenditure during exercise and maintains muscle oxidative capacity despite a reduction in training volume. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2009 Jan;106(1):73-80. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.90676.2008. Epub 2008 Oct 9. PMID: 18845781.

Koral J, Oranchuk DJ, Herrera R, Millet GY. Six Sessions of Sprint Interval Training Improves Running Performance in Trained Athletes. J Strength Cond Res. 2018 Mar;32(3):617-623. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000002286. PMID: 29076961; PMCID: PMC5839711.

Lum D, Tan F, Pang J, Barbosa TM. Effects of intermittent sprint and plyometric training on endurance running performance. J Sport Health Sci. 2019 Sep;8(5):471-477. doi: 10.1016/j.jshs.2016.08.005. Epub 2016 Aug 17. PMID: 31534822; PMCID: PMC6742614.

Skovgaard C, Christiansen D, Christensen PM, Almquist NW, Thomassen M, Bangsbo J. Effect of speed endurance training and reduced training volume on running economy and single muscle fiber adaptations in trained runners. Physiol Rep. 2018 Feb;6(3):e13601. doi: 10.14814/phy2.13601. PMID: 29417745; PMCID: PMC5803184.