If you do a workout often enough, it will lead to diminishing returns over time. Either your body adapts, you get bored, or you just don’t put in full effort. When this happens, it’s time for some tricks to fine tune your training so you get everything you can out of your workouts.
That’s where these three upgrade strategies come in: They are research-based methods for making your sprint workouts more effective.
#1: Use A Fast-Start Strategy
You may be tempted to ease into a killer sprint workout with a slow start, but research suggests that going hard from the beginning will produce better results.
A 2013 study found that using a “fast-start” strategy resulted in a larger work capacity and a greater conditioning effect. The study tested the effect of three protocols on the amount of time spent training above the aerobic threshold, which is the speed at which maximal oxygen uptake is achieved.
The study compared the following protocols:
- Intervals at 125 percent of max for 30 seconds with 15-seconds-rest repeated until exhaustion,
- Intervals at 105 percent of max for 30 seconds with 15-seconds-rest repeated until exhaustion, or
- Fast-start intervals in which the first 15 seconds were at 125 percent of max and the remaining 15 seconds were at an easier pace of 105 percent of max with 15-seconds-rest repeated until exhaustion.
The fast-start intervals allowed trainees to spend more than double the time training above the aerobic threshold. Additional benefits of a mixed-interval protocol include the following:
- Improved waste clearance from the muscles
- Increased endurance of type II muscle fibers
- Greater neuromuscular strength
- Better energy metabolism and greater work capacity
- Longer time to exhaustion
Perhaps best of all, reducing the intensity over the course of the workout has been shown to provide mental relief so that training “feels” easier. By giving yourself a mental break, you’ll be able to finish workouts with just as much effort as you started.
#2: Sprint Against Resistance
Track sprints can provide a killer workout, but sprinting against resistance appears to provide some unique body composition benefits because it triggers protein synthesis and builds muscle.
For example, two recent studies done using women showed that when subjects sprinted against resistance they increased lean mass and significantly reduced body fat. In the first study, overweight women did 15 weeks of resisted cycle sprints for 20 minutes and lost an average 2.5 kg of body fat and gained 0.6 kg of lean muscle.
A second study found that when normal-weight, college-age women did 6 weeks of 4 X 30-second running intervals on a self-propelled treadmill—a motion that mimics sprinting with a weighted sled—they lost an average 1.2 kg of body fat and gained 1.3 percent lean muscle (0.6 kg). The women also decreased waist circumference by 3.5 percent and had an 8 percent reduction in body fat.
Running or cycling without resistance might not produce as dramatic an increase because the time under tension, which stimulates muscle growth, is inadequate.
The take away is that if you’re not regularly lifting heavy weights, do your sprints against resistance. Running intervals can be done on a Woodway treadmill or try weighted sled sprints. Hill sprints, modified strongman exercises (try pushing your car 20 meters), or cycle ergometer sprints on an Airdyne bike are additional options.
#3: Do Decreasing-Distance Sprints
Decreasing-distance sprints allow you to target specific training adaptations, while providing psychological relief. For example, a study compared the effect of doing four sprints in decreasing-distance order (400, 300, 200, 100 meters) or the reverse order (100, 200, 300, 400 meters) on hormone response in elite power athletes.
Results showed that the decreasing order produced the following benefits:
* Greater increase in growth hormone (GH) and blood lactate, indicating this protocol was more metabolically taxing and could lead to fat loss over time.
* A significant testosterone response, suggesting the protocol was effective for muscle building.
* Greater stimulation of the GH-IGF-1 axis, highlighting that more time spent training anaerobically will produce a greater metabolic effect and more body fat loss.
Most interesting—although the decreasing-distance protocol produced greater physiological overload, the athletes found it easier. They rated it 11 on an RPE scale compared to 13 for the increasing distance order. The athletes reported that having to increase the running distance so that the hardest sprints of 300 and 400 meters were at the end of the workout was very difficult to tolerate.
This is important since the primary drawback to sprint training is the mental challenge of pushing through physical pain. The take away is that doing a descending sprint protocol provides you a big bang for your buck AND it won’t feel as painful: Training smart yields better results than just training hard.