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What Distance Runners Can Learn from Elite Sprinters

Elements of sprint training can be beneficial to recreational distance runners, too.

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There’s a reason why the world loves to watch the 100 meter dash: It’s an enthralling display of elite speed and power and muscles working efficiently at maximum effort to cross the finish line in first place. It may be too late for most of us to dream of winning Olympic gold, but there’s actually plenty for the recreational distance runner to gain from the foundations of general sprint training.

Stuart McMillan, the co-owner and CEO of Altis, an elite sprint training group and coaching center based in Atlanta, Georgia, says that there’s two main principles that distance runners can draw from sprint training fundamentals.

“It’s the importance of mechanics—not the actual mechanics of how athletes move, but that mechanics are important in the first place—and number two, it’s the importance of speed. It’s obviously a very different type of speed, but… by definition, the faster athlete at every single distance (up to and including the marathon) will win.”

These principles are already adopted by elite middle and long-distance athletes, but many recreational or later in life runners may not realize how much there is to gain by looking at movement from a fast-twitch perspective.

Don’t skip the warm-up

Generally, most distance runners can get away with tying their laces and heading straight out the door for an easy jog without too much time dedicated to a pre-run routine. Usually, a comfortable first mile or two is enough to ease into a longer run.

But if you’re incorporating higher intensity workouts and especially interval training into your program, you need to make sure you properly warm up before getting into the fast stuff on the track.

McMillan, who trains athletes who compete in everything from the 400-meter hurdles down to the 100-meter dash, says a typical sprint warm-up will take about 10 minutes and include drills, dynamic stretching, and strides.

A distance runner should start with a 10 to 20-minute jog, depending on typical mileage, then go into the dynamic warm-up, including sprint drills like carioca, A- and B-skips. Some dynamic stretching exercises that McMillan recommends include variations on leg swings: standing leg swings, eagles (“go onto your back and rotate from side to side and kick your leg up past your shoulder”) and scorpions (“lie on your belly and kick your heel toward your [opposite] hand”).

Finish off with a set of three to five 100-meter acceleration strides and you’re properly warmed up for your workout.

RELATED: Try This Quick and Simple Warm-Up Before Your Next Easy Run

Add strides to your run routine

“Strength is speed,” says Brooks Beasts head coach Danny Mackey. “Usually what you mean when you say ‘strength’ is, your endurance is high. When you’re not fatigued when you need to sprint, you’ll be able to sprint faster.”

Mackey has coached athletes who specialize in everything from the 800 meters to the marathon, including Josh Kerr of Great Britain, who had an incredible kick to claim bronze in the Olympic 1,500 meter final in Tokyo this summer. Mackey’s athletes work on improving that critical closing speed by incorporating strides into their running multiple times a week.

“Strides” can be a catch-all term for faster, shorter spurts of speed, usually between 50 and 150 meters. Strides can be accelerations, starting relaxed and comfortable and gradually picking up speed as you go, or they can be a more intense, all-out effort—either style will produce benefits to distance training.

Depending on the time of year, Mackey’s athletes will have an easy six mile run or a tempo run followed by six 150-meter strides with full recovery in between. The pros might take as much as six minutes recovery between each stride, but Mackey says that about two to three minutes is usually enough for the average runner.

“Is your breathing down? How are your muscles feeling?” Mackey says to take stock of your checkpoints before starting the next stride. “The cumulative load is going to happen muscular-wise anyway because you’re running so fast, but you don’t want this to turn into an anaerobic session where you’re not recovered and producing lactate.”

Strides might be the single most effective way to introduce variability into a distance runner’s routine without adding too much extra time, or having to purchase a gym membership.

“If you don’t have time to go to the weight room and you want to get stronger or more muscularly powerful, go sprint,” Mackey says. “It’s incredible.”

RELATED: Everything You Need to Know About How to Run Strides

Embrace the weight room

If you can make it to the weight room, make the most of your time there. While the weight room is often thought of as the sprint and field athletes’ domain on the track team, there’s no reason for distance runners not to take full advantage of weight training.

Mackey’s group hits the weight room after hard workouts twice per week, for anywhere from 40 to 70 minutes—and, yes, that includes marathoners alongside the 800-meter specialists, too.

“The demands of the [race] events are slightly different, but in general, you’re trying to get more powerful, hoping to be more biomechanically efficient and, if you’re biomechanically efficient, that should prevent some injuries,” he says.

Runners should consult with a certified personal trainer or strength and conditioning coach to create a training program around their individual needs, but Mackey’s recommendations for go-to distance runner exercises include single leg squat box step-ups (while holding weight), a row exercise (like a seated dumbbell row), deadlifts, box jumps, and a shoulder press exercise.

If you don’t have access to weights, pull-ups and push-ups are great bodyweight alternatives.

RELATED: A Runner’s Guide to Strength Training

Rethink your easy days

The sprinters training at Altis take hard days hard, typically doubling up tough track sessions with significant weight-lifting workouts, but it’s just as important to take the easy days easy.

Sundays are typically completely off and Mondays are a “potentiation and preparation” day to get ready for Tuesday’s workout. Monday can look a little bit different depending on the athlete, but the “systems check,” as McMillan calls it, typically includes a 45-60 minute dynamic warmup, easy strides, mobility work, stretching and treatment on the massage table.

Wednesdays and Fridays are typically easy days for the Altis crew. While hard workout days might include workouts like 3 x 90 meters at 95% of maximum velocity with 10 to 12 minutes rest, recovery days for a sprinter include much longer repetitions (1000 to 2000 meters worth of work) at about 70% of maximum output. Typical recovery day workouts, according to McMillan, could look like 10 x 100 meters at 70% with 90 seconds recovery and 8 x 300 meters at 70% with two minutes recovery.

In addition to slower running, key to the recovery days is getting general strength work in, including core work, medicine ball tosses, calisthenics, pilates, yoga, and functional mobility exercises that address individual athletes’ structural weaknesses. This type of work not only gives athletes a day of rest from higher-intensity work, but allows the body to actively recover and get ready for the next day.

“All of that, in totality, makes up those regeneration or recovery days in between the high-intensity days,” McMillan says.

RELATED: Recovery Runs 101: Everything You Need to Know About Taking it Easy

Watch YouTube to improve form

A key part of McMillan and Mackey’s jobs as coaches is observing their athletes go through their warm-up, drills, and workout. That, combined with feedback from the athletes themselves, is how coaches can identify improper form, areas of weakness, and even early signs of injury.

“We feel the most accurate movement screen is doing the sport,” McMillan says. “It’s an iterative process where we watch athletes move and try to identify when an athlete is moving atypically, or different than they usually move.”

Even runners without a specialized professional running coach can benefit from the powers of observation. Mackey recommends recording a video of yourself on your phone the next time you hit the track. Watch the video back a few times, then go on YouTube and watch videos of elite sprinters. See how they get out of the blocks, watch the angles of their feet and arms, and try to emulate those movements during your next stride session. Mackey recommends focusing on one aspect of elite sprint form at a time.

“Our body is pretty in sync and so, rarely are you able to have really good upper body mechanics and your leg mechanics are not good because of the rhythm of how we walk and run,” he says. “If you fix one of those things, there will be a little bit of a carryover that will help other parts of your mechanics. I say one because we can really only work on one thing at a time.”

This isn’t a one-and-done process, however. Mackey recommends watching your form evolve over weeks, with reference back to YouTube videos like the Olympic 100-meter final for a reminder of what good form looks like.

Sure, you may not need to know how to do a block start in order to improve your marathon time. (And if it’s not clear: you do not need to use blocks for strides!). But as Mackey points out, the faster a distance runner gets, the easier slower paces feel.

“I think it can have a benefit when you start doing slower paces—even a 5K pace—because your awareness is higher,” Mackey says.