It’s fairly common that when training for long distance running, people only ever really run… long distances. Whether through a misunderstanding of the benefits of shorter interval runs, or a lack of knowledge on how and when to implement them, if you don’t use sprint training and short intervals you are missing out on performance enhancing gains.
To better understand part of why short sprints of as little as 50m can improve long distance runs of 10km and beyond, we need to look at our energy systems.
The way our body works is to use energy created from different pathways for different needs. We can produce lots of effort very quickly but not for very long, or a little effort for a very long time and all the variations in-between. Think in terms of short, medium and long term energy production. Jump, sprint, run.
These systems are near enough always overlapping and helping each other out. We can train all or just one of them through changing how fast and how long we run. The benefits of short term runs (intervals/sprints) come from developing our ability to both produce energy quickly and also from improving the way our body deals with the fallout from doing so.
Fatigue affects us in several ways but most of which we can accustom ourselves to. The chemicals we build up in our working muscles (not just lactate!) make us feel discomfort and tell our bodies to stop. By doing training that improves our ability to remove and re-use these compounds, we can improve our performance across all durations and distances.
What some of the recent research has found:
Just 2 weeks of performing ~5 x 30 second maximum effort sprints with 4 minutes recovery 3 times a week can improve our running speed and 3km performance. (Koral et al., 2017)
5000m running performance can be significantly improved in well-trained runners using a 4 week training programme consisting of 2 high intensity sessions per week (performed at 95% or 100% of the individual’s VO2 max). (Denadai et al,. 2006)
Interval training on the bike can maintain and improve performance while also reducing training time. Especially useful if you don’t have the hours to train long distance at certain times of the year. (Mallot et al., 2018)
Important things to remember:
Use intervals of 20-120 seconds. If you’ve not done maximum effort sprints in a while, we suggest starting at the longer duration intervals and building up tolerance to higher speeds.
Use rest periods that really allow you to recover. If you don’t rest long enough you won’t perform the right intensity on subsequent efforts. 1-4 minutes depending on your current fitness and the length of the sprint.
Don’t ONLY perform short intervals if you’re a long distance runner. Intervals are a great adjunct to, not a replacement for your actual sport!
Koral, J., Oranchuk, D. J., Herrera, R., & Millet, G. Y. (2018). Six sessions of sprint interval training improves running performance in trained athletes. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 32(3), 617.
Denadai, B. S., Ortiz, M. J., Greco, C. C., & de Mello, M. T. (2006). Interval training at 95% and 100% of the velocity at V O2 max: effects on aerobic physiological indexes and running performance. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 31(6), 737-743.
Mallol, M., Bentley, D. J., Norton, L., Norton, K., Mejuto, G., & Yanci, J. (2019). Comparison of Reduced-Volume High-Intensity Interval Training and High-Volume Training on Endurance Performance in Triathletes. International journal of sports physiology and performance, 14(2), 239-245.