Improving Anaerobic Ability: Sprints

Track spikes in their box, ready for the track.

Usain Bolt is famous for his ability to dash and smash through records with top-speed. Sprinting is his forte, and he knows it. Unlike distance events, sprinting is all about holding and maintaining an exceptionally high speed. Pacing is not as important, but form and power is. The top sprinters all have incredible inhuman leg power, and athletes such as Andre De Grasse certainly focus their training around improving their short bursts of speed through strenuous exercise and sprints.


Sprinting is a sport focused almost entirely on fast-twitch muscles, or type IIb muscle fibers. As the distance lengthens, your intermediate muscle fibers (type IIa) come into play. One of the struggles athletes have when it comes to improving their running ability is the strength of these fibers. Often times, a distance runner will neglect their fast-twitch muscles, and a sprinter will neglect their slow-twitch muscles. This can become a problem when having to recruit these fibers during a race.

Distance runners have to tackle hills, which recruit fast-twitch muscle fibers. Track athletes striving to lose that second will empty their gas on the final stretch, recruiting all of their muscle fibers. Training each muscle fiber is a must. Incorporating sprint training can help balance the deficits and fine-tune you as a running machine.

40m-60m Sprints

Short sprints of only 40-60m are primarily used to build strong, hard-kicking starts in runners. These are often ran as medium-distance strides, to help warm-up the body pre-workout. One of the main problems runners have with track events is a poor start. They either pour out too hard for too long, or are slow to start and have to spend more energy catching up. Using this short distance to practice allows you to develop the power and strength you need to have a great start.

Strength is synonymous with speed. Relaxation is the key element in good 200m running.

Clyde Hart

In essence, to sprint well you have to relax. The start, middle, and finish all have to be relaxed. Technique drills of 50m help you improve running form to start strong, powerful, but relaxed. Form and technique are key factors to a good race vs. a great race. It doesn’t matter the distance – whether you are running a track event or a marathon, your running form will make you comfortable, fast, and perform above what you expect.

Continuing along the lines of the 200m event, let’s go into a bit more detail: the 200m is split into three sections – 0m-50m, 50m-150m, and the last 50m. The first 50m have a huge impact on who will win the race. This first section is used to accelerate to your top speed, with the middle section to maintain the speed attained. The point of picking this out is because almost all events run along the same pattern:

  • Start strong and build up speed.
  • Maintain that speed for the majority of the event.
  • Empty the gas in the last stretch to finish even stronger.

Running technique drills with these short distances can help you get the edge. Practicing your start by paying attention to running form and fast leg-turnover rate will improve you tremendously as a track athlete. For example:

Run 5x60m Strides, followed by 8x40m Start Drills.

100m Dashes

This is the general distance used for long strides. A lot of form and power can be developed just from adding these dashes to your practices. Even though they are incredibly short, they can be split into two direct halves in training. The first half is all about accelerating to top speed, and the second half is for maintaining. This can really develop speed and form for all runners.

It’s not always seen as important by longer distance runners to do sprints, but they develop power in your calves and quads which help greatly – by having more power in your muscles, it’s easier to push off from the ground with every step because you simply are stronger. So even though you may not be running anywhere near the pace you were running during your sprints, you can still use the power gained to make holding form easier. It’s as simple as that.

To improve form through 100m dashes, you have to run what are known as “technique drills”. These are simply intervals where the goal is to have top-notch form. Asking a coach or friend to critique your form with these drills can help you advance your form to higher levels.

Form is essential.

200m Dashes

This is the magic number for sprinters – 200m. They are half of the distance of a full size track, and are long enough to make sprinters have to work very hard with each interval. Many coaches hail by this length, even for training runners who aren’t aiming to compete in short-distance races. This is because the length allows the runner to be able to recruit all of their muscle fibers by the time they reach the end of the interval.

Because of this, it also is a very good distance to run VO2 max workouts. VO2 max is simply the maximum volume of oxygen you can take it with each breath, so improving this number allows you to pack more endurance for aerobic workouts.

VO2 max workouts are where you push hard, over and over, until exhaustion. As it also improves endurance, it brings more than speed to the table. So sprints do not only improve anaerobic ability, you can fine-tune them to push all energy systems. This is very important when running events such as the 800m and 1500m where aerobic energy systems start to come into play. VO2 max is absolutely vital to runners competing in events of 5k and up, it can be the difference needed to push past an otherwise-equal runner.

Sprinkling interval and VO2 max workouts at this distance is recommended, everyone recognizes this length and it has exceptional value.

400m Sprint

A full-size track encompasses a distance of 400m. Being able to run a 200m sprint and holding it for another 200m after that is a good indicator of how fast you should be able to handle even longer distances. The length of this makes it tough to hold the pace, but by practicing this distance over and over you can improve your running form.

One of the hardest parts of maintaining good form is when you’re exhausted as you near the end of the race, and you begin to let up and allow your body to slump. This is a problem for runners from the beginner level all the way to the elite level. 400m intervals can tackle this problem. I can’t promise they will be fun or easy, but the will be beneficial. Here’s an example of how to implement these sprints:

Take your mile PB and divide it by four, or find your average 400m pace from your 1500m PB. Then, run 8-10 reps of 400m at this pace. Not only will this help with running form, you can target your VO2 max as well if you give yourself a short recovery time. You will be both physically and mentally exhausted at the end of this workout, but you will come out as a better athlete.

Another use of the 400m is for practicing running at goal 5k pace. By running at or slightly faster than goal pace, you prepare your body and muscles for that pace. If you can reach and maintain the pace in 400m, it will be easier to maintain and hold the pace for the rest of the distance as well. For example:

Your goal pace is 4:00/k. That is equal to 96 seconds per 400m. Running 8-10 reps at that pace with equal rest will push you and help you  improve VO2 max, as well as endurance.

Run and realize the benefits:

You may have noticed that sprint training is a very broad term. There are many, many ways to train using sprints. Only the very basics have been brushed in this article. They can be fun, they can be torture. However, they all are excellent at improving you as a runner. Here are the benefits:

  • Strengthens the fast-twitch and intermediate leg muscles.
  • Increases willpower and mental strength.
  • Improves anaerobic and aerobic efficiency.
  • Increases the heart’s stroke volume.
  • Burns through fat.
  • Increases metabolism.
  • Increases VO2 max.

Sprinting is excellent. I’ll leave you with this quote:

Form and technique are key factors to a good race vs. a great race. It doesn’t matter the distance – whether you are running a track event or a marathon, your running form will make you comfortable, fast, and perform above what you expect.

Image of track spikes courtesy of Mark Bonica under the Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Resized.

Caleb Thompson is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to,, and other Amazon stores worldwide.

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