National Council on Strength & Fitness
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Benefits of Sprint Training vs. Traditional Aerobic Training

A common issue facing many personal trainers on a day-to-day basis relates to program management and limited client contact time. The majority of personal trainers will typically train a client two or three times per week for approximately 60 minutes per session. In order for the results that most clients are looking for to be achieved, trainers must employ specific training strategies to maximize the training time. Two common requests made by clients are weight loss and increased muscle mass. The difficulty of programming for successful attainment of these goals lies in the fact that they require concurrent training for aerobic and anaerobic adaptations. This suggests resistance training for improvements in lean mass and cardiovascular training to enhance caloric expenditure. The conflict between these systems presents a conundrum. Aerobic training is time consuming and negatively affects muscle mass and resistance training does not burn many calories.


The question lies in how to create a negative caloric balance using exercise while emphasizing mass gains. From an adaptation standpoint, the human body cannot maximally adapt both aerobically and anaerobically due to the internal battle within the muscle between aerobic and anaerobic adaptations. While aerobic training has long been the primary training modality for increasing VO2max and increasing caloric expenditure, it reduces maximal strength, power output, and lean mass gained from resistance training. The improvements in VO2max occur in response to elevations in stroke volume, resulting in more blood being pumped out of the heart per beat, and by increasing the oxygen extraction capabilities at the muscular level through increased capillary and mitochondrial density, and higher concentrations of aerobic enzymes in the mitochondria. In addition, neural efficiency changes cause preferential recruitment patterns to improve aerobic performance and the muscle fiber types adjust to the oxygen demands to become more efficient in the aerobic pathways.


While beneficial from an aerobic capacity standpoint, these changes can be detrimental for an individual who wants to maximize lean mass. Even when heavy resistance training is used with aerobic training, the predominant adaptations favor improved oxidative capacity. This is the reason why bodybuilders do not engage in endurance training, as it is detrimental to their goal. Secondary to this conflict is time management within the training session. Resistance training for hypertrophy requires high volume and therefore requires a significant time contribution, particularly when theses adaptations are to occur with a three day a week training schedule.


Sprint training may provide some solution to both of these problems. Analysis of an Olympic sprinter identifies the effect the activity has on the active tissue. The muscle mass of the sprinter’s lower body does not suggest atrophy from training. Endurance training leads to increase adrenal hormone release which catabolizes tissue. Anaerobic sprint training, due to the intensity and duration of time the stress is applied, does not cause the same ill-effects on muscle mass and power. It causes significant caloric expenditure, yields positively for excess post exercise oxygen consumption and provide some enhancement to the cardiovascular system.


During sprint training, the heart works very hard to meet the energy demands necessary for the success of the exercise bout. The heart, like any muscle, responds to the stress with an appropriate adaptation response, namely an increase of left ventricular contractility. The ability of the left ventricle to contract directly relates to the amount of blood that gets pumped out of the heart per beat to the working muscles of the body – stroke volume. By utilizing short duration, sprint-type activities, the strength of the heart will improve. However, at the muscular level, the individual will not experience the same adaptations normally associated with aerobic training, specifically an in fiber migration, mitochondrial density, and the increased presence of aerobic enzymes. In this way, an individual can improve their VO2 by way of an increased stroke volume without sacrificing lean mass.


When examining caloric expenditure, sprint training has two benefits. The training is calorically demanding and the physiological disruption leads to greater increased oxygen uptake after exercise, when compared to steady-state aerobic training. Excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) is one of the primary ways in which high intensity, sprint training will lead to an increase amount of calories being utilized by the body.


The physical demand and oxygen deficits from surpassing VO2max using the anaerobic system cause an endocrine response that increases fat utilization after the workout is completed. Programming training sessions that utilize a high intensity, anaerobic protocol will lead to a greater EPOC, and thus a greater caloric expenditure than traditional aerobic training.


Sprint training is, in fact, difficult to perform. It is physiologically more demanding than riding an exercise bike and therefore is only appropriate for fit clients. Sprint training does not necessitate the long durations required of aerobic training. In most cases 10-12 minutes of sprint training is more than adequate for sufficient training stress. To initiate a client in sprint training, running form should be properly instructed and practiced before any training takes place. As with any new stress acclimation is necessary for safe participation. Start off slow and gradually progress at the client’s pace. Specific warm-ups should be used to prevent muscle strains. Individuals with known quadriceps/hamstring imbalances should not perform sprint training due to susceptibility to hamstring strain. Several sprints at gradually increasing pace should be used before the training. Once the client is neuromuscularly prepared for the exercise segment they can perform repeated work sets at ability-specific pace and distance. It cannot be emphasized enough that too much too fast is detrimental. Likewise sprint training requires better exercise tolerance due to the demands on the anaerobic system. A 1:4-1:5 work to rest ratio (or as needed) should be used at the beginning with progressions leading to a 1:3 work to rest ratio once the acclimation period has been completed.

Form run 3x 30 yds
Sprint 50% speed 3x 30 yds
Sprint 50% to 75% to 50% speed3 x 30 yds
Sprint 50% to 75% speed3x 30 yds
Sprint 75% to 100% speed4x 30 yds
Sprint 100%4x 30 yds
Distance shuttles controlled pace4 x 30, 30, 30 yds
Cool down slow pace3 minutes slow shuttles any distance non stop

It should be clear that sprint-type, anaerobic training can be extremely beneficial for a client who is looking to lose weight, improve VO2, and maintain lean mass. In addition, due to the time constraints often experienced within personal training, this type of program can eliminate the pitfalls traditionally associated with concurrent training of both the aerobic and anaerobic systems. Changing running distances, directions and adding cone drills can all help to keep this type of training interesting, challenging and fun.