Running and sprinting are both excellent ways to improve your fitness levels and are great forms of exercise that result in weight loss, an increase in metabolism, and overall well-being. But running and sprinting are considered two different disciplines and require the use and strength of different muscle groups.
If you want to add some explosive pace and speed to your running, it pays to ask: what are the most important muscles for sprinting? The areas that we are going to be looking at, in particular, include the quadriceps, hamstrings, hip flexors and calves.
If you would like to know more about the muscles used for sprinting, which are the most important muscles, and how to build those muscles to improve your pace and power… let’s take a closer look!
- The Difference Between Sprinting and Running
- The Muscle Groups Necessary for Sprinting
- The Most Important Muscles for Power, Speed, and Acceleration
- Training Programs for Sprinters
- Types of Running For Sprinters
- How Does This Compare to Long-Distance Running?
- The Dos and Don’ts of Sprinting
- Our Verdict on Sprint Workouts
The Difference Between Sprinting and Running
While it may not seem like it, there is, in fact, a difference between sprinting and running.
Sprinting requires speed and pace over a short distance. Running involves less speed and is done over longer distances. Both use different muscles and require varying training methods to increase pace, power, and endurance.
The original sprinting event at the Olympic Games was 180 meters. Today, sprint distances are anything from 60 to 400 meters. Running is typically seen as anything longer than a mile, but opinions vary.
While runners focus on cardio or strength training to work on their endurance on a long run, a sprinter needs a training method that increases the most important muscles used when running.
The Muscle Groups Necessary for Sprinting
Contrary to popular belief, sprinting is not considered an endurance sport. Focusing on the muscles that will increase both power and pace is necessary to develop your skill as a sprinter. This involves a specialist area of focus, beyond the general muscles worked everyday by runners.
It is important to remember that muscles work in pairs, so developing one will directly influence the other.
These are the vital muscles that should be developed to improve your sprinting (and running in general):
The quadriceps are the large muscles found on the front of the thighs. More commonly referred to as quads, these muscles work with the hamstrings to help lift and power the leg in a forward motion. Sprinting requires speed and power (strength), so strengthening your quadriceps will increase your speed through your strength.
Your hamstrings are those muscles located at the back of the thigh. They work with the quads to pull the leg back to launch your leg off the ground while sprinting. Your hammies should be toned to increase the power behind each step, keeping the hamstrings elastic.
Hip Muscles (Flexors)
Hip muscles or hip flexors are the muscles surrounding the hip joints. These work with your quads and hamstrings to help the legs move faster. Think of the tin man from The Wizard of Oz needing to oil his joints to move – this is exactly what keeping your hip flexors nimble and strong does to your hips and legs.
The calf muscles, located in the lower leg, are often referred to by the scientific name triceps surae. But wait, aren’t your triceps in your arms? Yes, but in the same way that your triceps in your arm (triceps brachii) support the bending of your elbow joint, your calves support the bending of your ankle joint.
These muscles control the flex of your foot when you’re running or sprinting. Stronger calves result in more speed and power when sprinting and should be developed properly to reduce the risk of injury.
The Most Important Muscles for Power, Speed, and Acceleration
Working and developing the right muscles can help improve your power, speed, and acceleration. As we have mentioned above, the quads, hamstrings, hip muscles, and calves are the most important muscles used when sprinting, but so too are the gluteus maximus muscles – better known as the glutes… or your butt!
While the hamstrings are important to propel you forward, the glutes are responsible for speed and stability while your foot is on the ground.
As we said, muscles work in pairs. Developing one set of muscles will increase the strength in another, so choose an exercise routine or training program to develop both.
Training Programs for Sprinters
Choosing a training program to suit your running type can be tricky. Sprinters’ bodies are more muscular than long-distance runners’ and for a good reason. The strength of their muscles does more than just help set pace and power and support the sprinter’s lower back and sacroiliac joints in the legs. This, in turn, allows for improved power and force behind each stride.
As with most training programs, starting slowly and gradually increasing your training efforts is key. If you’re a beginner sprinter or have just taken an interest in sprinting, focus on building and toning muscle rather than increasing pace and power.
Strength training is ideal for increasing body and muscle strength in sprinters, as do anaerobic exercises that help burn fat without using your oxygen stores.
The best anaerobic exercises for sprinters are as follows:
- Sprinting (obviously!)
- Stationery or regular bicycle riding
- Skipping with a jump rope
- Weight training
- Swimming sprints
These exercises are ideal for fuelling quick bursts of energy to help increase speed and strength while sprinting. Scientists have repeatedly proven that high-intensity workouts (such as those above) for a short period have the same, if not more, impact than a long-winded workout that leaves you feeling exhausted and uses more oxygen than necessary.
Remember to stretch your muscles well before participating in any exercise or training routine and before you sprint. Warm muscles work better than cold muscles, so add some stretching time to your warm-up session.
Let’s look at the best types of exercise to develop each of the most important muscles.
#1: Quads Workout
Squats are great for working those quads and hamstrings and will quickly help tone the most important muscles we identified above. If squats seem a bit daunting, you can start with lunges or step-ups to get your muscles used to working harder. Work your way up to squats, and alternate between the different types of squats for maximum results.
#2: Hamstrings Workout
Developing your hamstrings requires the same types of exercises that you would do to strengthen your quads. As muscles work in pairs, choosing an exercise that will work both the quads and hamstrings will produce excellent results and save you the time and effort of working them separately. Squats are ideal for hamstrings, and so too are lunges, step-ups, and deadlifts.
#3: Hip Muscles Workout
The hip muscles are crucial for flexibility. Choose exercises that will keep your hip muscles elastic and limber. These include donkey kicks, reverse lunges, side leg raises, lateral step-ups, and banded lateral walks.
#4: Calves Workout
It’s no secret that strong calves help increase your speed while sprinting. While long-distance running focuses on endurance, sprinting is all about power and pace. Jump rope, calf raises, elevated calf raises, and farmer’s walk lunges will help you build and strengthen calf muscles.
A few easier ways to build calf muscles is to take the stairs as often as possible. Stairs are a convenient way to get in a quick workout, so skip the daily elevator trip to your office or apartment and step your way to strong calves.
Types of Running For Sprinters
Sprinting is more than just about running as fast as you can. It entails running a short distance at high speed in a short amount of time. Watch any sprint race, and you will see that the distances are usually set at 100m, 200, and 400m. This is, of course, only the case when sprinting in an official event or meet.
Sprinting for fitness and health benefits is another factor and can be customized according to how far you want to run and how much time you have to run or sprint.
We all know how busy life can get, so finding a running style that fits your busy schedule is a must. It is much easier to go for a 10-minute high-intensity sprint than an hour run, so set a running schedule with varying runs and workouts to build your fitness and strength, and try to beat your time once a week.
Let’s now look at a few of the most popular types of running a sprinter would choose and how it differs from that of a long-distance runner.
The main aim of any sprint is to run a short distance at top speed and within a prescribed time. Speed workouts are great for sprinters. They focus on increasing speed and setting time goals for yourself.
There are many speed workout options available. Our favorites include:
You may have heard of strides before, and that’s because they are probably the most common type of speed workout runners do. They involve short bursts of hard, high-intensity running, which train your body and mind to move faster without putting too much stress on the muscles.
Strides are done in the middle of a regular easy run (RPE of 6, comfortably hard). You will increase your pace to an RPE of 8 (hard, can only say 1 or 2 words) for about 30 seconds, then back off to a 6 RPE for 90 seconds to recover. Repeat this 6 to 10 times. The more reps you do, the springier your strides should feel.
Sprinting up a hill isn’t as fast or “easy” as on a track, but they are so vital to making you a faster sprinter and runner. Running hills builds muscles without as much impact on the joints while developing your cardiovascular endurance.
There’s not much to hill sprints – it’s really in the name. Find a hill with an 8 to 12% gradient (it should look hard), run up the hill for around 20 to 30 seconds at an 8 RPE, then turn around and slowly jog or walk back to the start point. Repeat this 6 to 10 times.
Aaaah, the good old tempo run. Some call it a lactate threshold run, but whatever you call it, it should be a staple in your training plan, no matter your running goals. The purpose of tempo runs is to push your threshold so your metabolic fitness increases. What does that mean? Well, it means you train your body to handle fatigue better to run more efficiently and faster for longer.
The ideal tempo sweet spot is between an RPE of 6 and 8 and should feel comfortably hard and sustainable for about an hour of running. No matter how experienced you are at running, your tempo runs should start off being shorter, then build on them as your threshold improves.
Start the run with a gentle warm-up jog (around 10 or 15 minutes), then ease into 3 or 4 tempo sets (if you aren’t ready for a longer one yet) that are 2 to 3 minutes long (with a 1:1 recovery jog between each) or a single 10-minute effort. Slowly increase this effort each week by around 10%.
For 5k and 10k runners, the goal is to build up to 20 to 30 minutes, a half marathoner to around 60 minutes, and a marathon runner to 90 minutes.
Interval workouts are ideal for sprinters who want to improve their speed without risking injury. This run involves alternating short bursts of intense running with slow jogging for recovery in between.
There are so many interval options available, and you can make up your own, too – that’s the best part! Here are a few options to get you started:
- 10 x 400m @ 5K pace with 2-minute recovery
- 4 x 800m @ 10K pace with 2-minute recovery
- 5 x 1k @ 10K pace with 2-minute recovery
- 6 x 400m @ 5K pace with 2-minute recovery
- 2 x 1 mile @ 10K pace with 4-minute recovery
We recommend always starting your interval workout with a 10 to 15-minute warm-up jog and finishing each with a 10-minute warm-down jog.
Getting enough rest between sprinting sessions is both important and necessary. Schedule a recovery run between sessions, and give your muscles a rest from the more intense running schedule. Recovery runs should be about 20 to 45 minutes at an RPE of 4 – easy and conversational.
How Does This Compare to Long-Distance Running?
The above exercises are not recommended for long-distance running (anything past 10k or so) as they focus more on power, pace, and building muscle than increasing endurance. Speed workouts, sprints, and interval workouts are all muscle-based exercises that work your muscles hard.
Sprinters are more physically fit than long-distance runners and usually focus on exercises and running routines that help develop muscle to increase pace and power. Long-distance runners normally prioritize cardiovascular endurance and muscular stamina rather than explosive power over short distances.
The Dos and Don’ts of Sprinting
We all know the great benefits associated with running. But you should be aware of a few simple yet important dos and don’ts before sprinting.
- Start slow. Increase your pace as you build your muscle strength.
- Try out different types of running before you settle on one type.
- Schedule rest days into your sprinting program.
- Warm-up and stretch before you embark on a run or sprint.
- Eat a massive meal before you run. Eat a balanced diet and include a small protein-rich snack for after.
- Forget to wear the proper running gear.
These are all really simple rules to follow but have a significant impact on your sprinting and running.
Our Verdict on Sprint Workouts
Any exercise is better than no exercise. But, and this is a big but, the type of running you choose should align with your fitness goals.
Remember that long-distance running is more about endurance than speed. A series of cardio and strength workouts are necessary to sustain a long-distance runner who uses more energy and oxygen while running.
Sprinting is strength-based, and exercises should be chosen to increase speed and power. Strength workouts, interval workouts, and anaerobic exercises are key for sprinters who want to improve their speed or power rather than endurance.