Sprinting, cardio, and enhancing explosive strength
Why all-out running is the perfect cardio complement for hardcore strength training
No serious athlete debates the need for cardiovascular fitness. We all need stamina and endurance and these critical athletic attributes just don’t magically appear. You need to train your cardio capacity to improve your cardio capacity. My bailiwick is strength and power; however in and of itself, strength and power is not enough. We need muscle and we need strength, but we also need stamina and endurance. We need both: strong and fit, not one or the other - both.
The goal of any and all aerobic modes and methods is to improve performance in any and all measurable aerobic categories or benchmarks. In addition to improving endurance, aerobic exercise will strengthen internal organs as surely as lifting barbells, dumbbells or kettlebells strengthens external muscles. If consistent cardio training is coordinated with precision nutrition, body fat is mobilized and oxidized. Cardio training not only makes the athlete fitter and more resilient, cardio makes the athlete leaner.
There is one cardio mode, one method that if done properly actually compliments, enhances and amplifies ongoing strength training efforts. All out sprinting done for short, repeated bursts, work the same muscular and neurological pathways as progressive resistance training. “Burst” or “interval” cardio is ideal for combining with strength training. Sprinting can be done running outside or on a treadmill, sitting in a rowing machine, in a pool swimming, sitting on a exercise bike or using a stairclimber, the tool is secondary to the methodology.
Most individuals that engage in regular cardiovascular exercise will use a cardio machine or device and use a “steady-state” pace. Steady-state cardio seeks to establish a pace that expends energy evenly and is sustainable for the length of the exercise session. Over time, and with repeated practice, the athlete systematically seeks to elevate the steady-state pace. That the steady-state aerobic strategy works is beyond dispute, however it is not the only proven effective cardio strategy.
“Sprint, recover, sprint again” – so simple, so effective, so eloquent
No cardio mode is more simpicato to hardcore progressive resistance training than sprinting. You can sprint on dry land, you can sprint in the water, and you can sprint while using a cardio machine or device – regardless the tool used, the idea is to generate an all-out physical effort on each successive sprint. Many sprints are done within the cardio training session. Highly specific protocols and highly specific sprint techniques are used, regardless the mode or tool. In order to stay safe and minimize the potential for injury, three “gears” are used on every sprint…
- Run the first 50% of the sprint distance working up to 75% of all out max speed
- Run the next 30% of the sprint distance accelerating upward to 95% of all out max speed
- Run the final 20% of the sprint 100% or more, all out, as fast as your legs will carry you
If any hint of discomfort or pain occurs at any time during any sprint, the sprinter is to instantly pull up and stop running. Injury lurks anytime you are exerting 100% (or more!)
- Hardcore resistance training is a series of all-out efforts interspersed with periods of rest
- Sprinting is a series of all-out efforts interspersed with periods of rest
Real world sprinting
I run in the woods on an idyllic pathway covered by a tree canopy. The wooded trail is circular and the path is covered with wood chips. To run on this surface is like running on marshmallows or a trampoline. The surface is springy and takes all the impact out of running. This stunningly beautiful chunk of Nature is always deserted and the perfect place to sprint hard, impact free and in complete isolation. I can work on my speed craft in pristine privacy.
I start with an easy jog. The circle is roughly 400-yards in length and I run a lap to warm up the legs and raise core muscle temperatures. I concentrate on relaxing and sinking while opening my stride. I lean forward and remember to power my stride with my arms. This is not natural to me as I am a leg runner. By consciously pumping my arms, I go faster. My eternal goal is to become a better sprinter (in a technical sense) and I work hard at improving my speed by improving my technique.
Midway into my second lap I begin my short sprints. On my first few sprints I top out at 90% and only run 30 yards. At the conclusion of each sprint, I slow to a fast jog to recover my breath. I allow my legs to clear lactic acid. On every 400-yard lap I include two sprints. I start off with short 30 yard sprints, exerting 90% effort and extend the distance and crank up the top end speed as I get warm and loose.
My current template has me run 12 laps and perform 24 sprints. As I get deeper into the session, the sprints get longer and faster. I start exerting 100% + on every sprint by the third lap and I seek to minimalize the rest periods between sprints.
Once the entire session is done, I am gassed beyond belief. My internal plumbing, the heart, lungs and all my arterial pathways are taxed maximally and flushed by torrents of blood. Organs are worked past capacity for a protracted period. At sessions end, I drip sweat and my legs shake. All out running done repeatedly creates intense muscular stress in the thighs, hips, abs, calves, hamstrings and even the deltoids, due to the intense arm pumping.
Sprinting burns fat, triggers hypertrophy and creates new mitochondria, tiny cellular blast furnaces that inhabit every muscle. A paucity of mitochondria is a bad thing. Mitochondria are constructed when muscular effort is injected into a cardio format. The repeated 100% sprint efforts are perfect for constructing new mitochondria. Sprinting infuses legs with explosive power.
Customize your own sprint template
Our sprint strategy is quite simple, sprint, recover, sprint again and repeat over and over for the length of the session. All sprints are done while staying anaerobic. ATP is hormonal nitrous oxide and when presented with a herculean task, ATP turns on and lasts for perhaps ten seconds. Then it is exhausted. If we keep our sprints short and maximally intense the athlete stays in the “ATP zone.”
Think of your sprinting as having three gears: 1st gear is used for the first half of the sprint and takes you to about 75% of max capacity. Shift into 2nd gear midway and goose the speed upward from 75% to 95% of max capacity. Power shift into 3rd gear for the last 20% of the sprint distance and floor it: go all out, run 100% or more at the end of each sprint. Never go from a standing start to all-out. While good for winning races, is the most likely way to pull or tear a muscle, likely the hamstrings.
If during any sprint at any point there is the slightest discomfort, shut the sprint down immediately. Continuing an all-out effort when something is coming unglued is how injuries occur. When you are running and have a blow out the injuries tend to be serious. The speed and degree of sheer physical effort being exerted puts body parts right on the outer edge of safety and sanity – but that is where the gains reside.
By purposefully repeating 100% all-out efforts, boundaries and capacities are pushed back and improved upon. The resistance trainer new to sprinting needs to drill basic run techniques over and over. Seek to open the stride, learn to relax and sink, propel with grace, power and fluidity. Learn the mechanics of relaxed, powerful running. Start off with short sprints using the ‘three gears’ run strategy. Sprint 2-3 times weekly. Over time seek to increase the sprint distance (but no more than 50 yards) and seek to decrease the recovery time needed between sprints.
All out sprinting is primal and exhilarating. There is nothing in all of cardio to compare to running, flat out: it is maximally taxing as you are moving your arms and legs as fast as humanly possible. This type of sheer physical effort unleashes a hormonal cocktail that generates ‘the runner’s high.’ Endorphins, growth hormone, adrenaline and cortisol flood into the bloodstream in response to the all out physical effort.
Sprinting is the ideal cardio compliment for the hardcore resistance trainer. Mix and meld hardcore weight training with hardcore sprinting and remold yourself into an extremely athletic, fit, powerful, muscular, quick, lean and herculean god-like human. Joe Weider could not have said it any better!
About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of numerous books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.