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Life in the Fast Lane Pt 3 : "The differences between running and sprinting"

When one runs an endurance event, such as a Parkrun or Chilly 10k, you may increase your pace at the end to outsprint another runner! Are you really sprinting or just running faster?

There two factors that really affect how fast you can run:

· Strength

· Energy

Strength is what determines how long your stride is and how fast you can turn your legs over (cadence). Energy systems determine how long you keep up running fast (that could be called “fitness”). NB Typically, a good endurance runner will have a cadence of 180, a sprinter 250+, but their stride lengths are very similar.


Endurance runners rely far more on aerobic fitness (and so the aerobic energy system) than sprinters, but not exclusively so. Where does the energy come from for your sprint finish – probably the alactic system. If you have been “digging in” for a couple of minutes during, or at the end of the race, you are probably relying on the anaerobic system. Using these feels like being “in the red”, a phenomenon, we all understand. The rest of the “steady” running done in a race is using predominantly the aerobic system.

It’s very similar for sprinters, but they are using the predominantly the “without oxygen systems” : alactic and anaerobic; but sprinters do breathe when running!

In addition to the metabolic energy systems, above, there is the energy that comes from biokinetics, otherwise known as the “stretch reflex”. This is where the ‘bounce’ comes from, and is why carbon “spring’ plates have been included in the design of running shoes to enable runners to go faster. It’s important for all runners but is critical to sprinters who slam their feet onto the ground, as a “hammer”, when running, to maximise the force transferred into the ground to propel themselves forward. It might be such shoe technology that enables sprinters to go faster than Usain Bolt has.


There are differences in sprinting and running forces due to speed and forces involved but all runners need to exert enough force into the ground to overcome gravity and wind resistance to move forwards. The former is dominated by one’s weight and the latter by the speed, as the force required to overcome the wind resistance is proportional to the square of the velocity, so doubling the speed increases wind resistance by 4 times. More on this next time.


Track runners have competitive seasons and this shapes their training over the year. It’s possible to run a 5k or 10k road race every week of the year, so many endurance runners have lost the seasonal nature to training. Sprinters’ seasons are effectively the summer where focus is on speed and race meetings, and then a break to recover, followed by strength building focus, turning into more speed related work as spring approaches. Some run indoors during the winter, but I am not going to do that, so I cannot share any experience of the implications of that on training, but I suspect it results in halving the time on the activities one focuses on.

So currently, the focus is on strength building, not speed. There are still three sessions a week, although I only do two, as I need more time to recover, due to my age. I am still doing the underpinning strength training at the gym and some two-legged plyo’s. I will reintroduce the one-legged plyo’s when the Achilles is feeling better.

Warm ups

Due to the higher forces exerted by sprinters ensuring the muscles are properly warmed up is critical for injury prevention. I, typically, spend 30 to 45 minutes doing a warm up – which is as long as the session, and so far that has prevented me hurting myself in training. My sore Achilles is a consequence of chronic overload (two sprint races and a speed session only days apart), which is more typical of endurance runners! The warm-up includes getting warm(!), and then doing dynamic stretches, e.g. lunges, or moving drills, e.g. A-skips. I usually finish with some crouch and standing starts and some fast sets of strides or bounds. The key aspect is to use the muscles over the full range required for sprinting and to get them warm. Even so, I will usually find the second or third rep of the session is quicker than the first one.


Previously, I have described the similarities in sessions between sprint and endurance training sessions. However, there are obviously differences, driven by the need to focus on the anaerobic energy systems. So 30m turnarounds (30m effort, slow to stop, walk back to finish and sprint back) and flying 30’s (30m acceleration, 30m flat out, 30m slow down, walk back slowly) are for testing the alactic energy system. Longer efforts, e.g. anywhere from 120m to 200m test the anaerobic system predominantly. Even when running longer efforts, e.g. 300m+, there are still big differences in the session design and “feel” compared to an endurance session. A good endurance session on the Deer Park grass track (DPGT) might be 300m effort, jog 100m, and then go again for 10 plus reps. The intensity would be about 5k pace, or a bit quicker, if only doing ten reps. I would probably take 75 seconds for 300m in such a session. For a short sprinter (100m & 200m, not less than 1.8m tall, although I am!) on the track, a similar session might be 6 to 8 reps of 300m, with a whopping 3-4 minutes recovery. Consequently, the pace would be nearly flat out (9.5+ RPE). I would do that 300m in just under a minute, so 30% faster and each rep would “really hurt”! But, to put that into perspective some of our Fast Group, run that fast for the DPGT session!

The critical difference is the recovery. A great piece of research work by Gary Winckler, in the 1980’s, described the different sessions to develop speed and speed endurance, and is still used today by most sprint coaches. The greater the focus on speed, the longer the recovery; the endurance focused sessions would have less recovery, e.g. rolling 200m efforts off 75s. Mathias Hove Johansen, a young Norwegian sprinter and vlogger, shares his training sessions and he did a speed session of 2x 200m with 20 minutes recovery, both under 21 seconds, but then he was the Scandinavian 200m champion. With the intensity of the sessions being so hard, even 3 minutes doesn’t seem enough recovery, but then I felt that way about 1-minute recovery when doing 400m on the DPGT, previously.

Race meetings

This is where there is a big difference between running at a track meeting and a one-off endurance race, whether road or off-road. Many athletes participate in more than one event at track meets, sometimes because there are not enough athletes specialising in all the events, so a hurdler might ‘put the shot’ or do the high jump! I have avoided that to date, although doing something like the long jump might be fun! I have competed in three meetings: two open meetings at the Prince of Wales stadium and one Vets’ meeting at Horspath.

A bit like the XC races, there’s a great supportive atmosphere at the league meetings, whether you are winning or coming further down the field like me and there’s always an event going on throughout the meeting, where a fellow team member will be competing. The vets meeting finished with a mixed age 400m relay, so I was our V60, there was one V50 and the other two were V40’s. So, one can be running against someone 20 years your junior, and did he go past me quickly!

Next time I will describe my strength training, races performances and goals for the future.


Gary Winckler, "An examination of speed endurance", part of IAAF book, 6:1; 27-33. 1991

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Dec 09, 2021

thanks Dorian, very interesting

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