Should Athletes Run Wind Sprints for Conditioning?

It's time to wise up about Wind Sprints and figure out where they fit into our training for the results we really want.

I'm tired. Not because I've been running intervals all day, but because reading article after article of recycled babble making bold claims about the benefits of wind sprints can be exhausting. If you search the web for "Wind Sprints," you will be presented with a deluge of articles from the most popular fitness sites, all pushing you to drop what you're doing and perform these interval runs to improve your speed, conditioning and body composition.

This sprinting method consists of periods of top-speed running followed by periods of walking, jogging or rest. Although wind sprints confer plenty of benefits, they are not the one-size-fits-all method that many sites claim them to be. It's time to wise up about Wind Sprints and figure out exactly where they fit into our training for the results we really want.

Let's clear up the claims. Since speed, fat loss and conditioning are the most common reasons why people jump on the Wind Sprints bandwagon, we'll take a look at the true benefits and potential alternatives for better results in these areas.

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Speed

Hill Sprint

Unless you have an epiphany mid-sprint and unlock perfect running mechanics for a faster leg cycle, simply performing a series of sprints won't significantly improve your running speed.

If I told you to run faster than you can, you would probably ditch me as a coach and suggest I turn myself in to the white coats. The fact is, your muscles are accustomed to firing at a certain rate and must essentially be tricked into contracting faster. Sprint intervals would simply be practicing improper mechanics until they are permanently ingrained in your muscle firing pattern, helping you run at the same speed for a longer period of time before your muscles and cardiovascular system are fatigued.

If speed development is what you're searching for, work with a coach to find areas of improvement in your running mechanics or introduce exercises that improve either the force production or firing rate of your muscles using resistance-based exercises and overspeed training.

RELATED: How to Run Faster and Longer

With that said, altering certain training variables of a Wind Sprint routine can address these goals and lead to increased speed. See the Speed Modified Wind Sprint program below:

Fly-Ins: Emphasize and improve running mechanics during your sprints by performing fly-ins—i.e., exercises that encourage better form during your approach to the sprint. Perform 3-4 sets of each variation with a jog or shuffle for recovery on the way back to the start position.

  • High Knees—>Sprint: Improves the knee drive "knee up, toe up" component of the leg cycle.
  • Straight Leg Striking—>Sprint: Emphasizes a pulling and cycling pattern of the foot strike during top speed mechanics.
  • Buttkicks—>Sprint: Encourages a faster leg cycle by shortening the lever arm of the leg.
  • Power Skips—>Sprint: Focuses on the pre-loading and unloading phases of the knee drive.
  • Forward Bounding—>Sprint: Optimizes power production for each foot strike while encouraging triple extension for the acceleration phase.
  • Uphill Sprints: Sprinting uphill forces you to bound for power while keeping your stride frequency high, similar to that of a sprint. To cover ground both upward and forward, your muscles have to fire with greater force, improving one side of the power equation. Perform up to 10 sets in combination with downhill sprints and 60 to 90 seconds of recovery, depending on hill length and degree of incline.
  • Downhill Sprints: Running downhill is a form of overspeed training that forces your legs to cycle quickly for a faster turnover and stride frequency, improving the speed component of the power equation. Perform up to 10 sets in combination with Uphill Sprints and 60 to 90 seconds of recovery depending on hill length and degree of incline.

Fat Loss

Resistance Running Drills

We've come a long way from thinking the best way to shed fat is to perform slow, steady-state cardio, where you spend four hours watching your favorite movie while moving your limbs on a treadmill just enough to consider yourself non-sedentary.

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The original claim was that this level of exertion burned a higher percentage of fat (as opposed to carbs and protein) as an energy source, whereas keeping your heart rate pinned in high cardio training zones relied on more carbohydrate sources of energy. Although the ratios weren't far off, the total calories burned during slow, steady cardio was insignificant in the big picture of fat loss, while intense cardio sessions didn't burn a high enough percentage of fat, despite high caloric output.

Enter high intensity interval training (HIIT). Allowing your heart rate to elevate to a "cardio zone," then dip back down into a "fat-burning zone" allowed for a high caloric expenditure while tricking the body into pulling from fat as an energy source. In addition, HIIT sessions produced a long-lasting EPOC (exercise post-oxygen consumption), keeping the calorie burn elevated for hours after the routine was completed.

This sounds like a win-win, but interval training via Wind Sprints falls third on the "Hierarchy of Fat Loss" as depicted by Alwyn Cosgrove in 2007. If fat loss is your goal, the number 1 factor that must be addressed is nutrition, followed by resistance training targeted on lean muscle growth and increased metabolism. Once these two areas are addressed, an interval routine that focuses more on heart rate than distance or speed can be a beneficial component of a fat-loss training programs.

Wind Sprints are a good way to train these heart-rate zones without overly taxing your muscles as they recover from resistance training. Try the routine below for high-calorie burn and additional fat loss to accompany your healthy nutrition and metabolic resistance program:

If you don't know your maximum heart rate, use an online max heart rate calculator or estimate by subtracting your age from 220. (e.g., 220 - 25 = 195 MHR). Find your two primary heart rate zones for better results by multiplying this by 80-85% for the High Zone and 60-65% for the Recovery Zone .

Conditioning

Wind Sprints

As one of the most broadly defined words in fitness, conditioning has been applied to everything from delaying cardio and muscle fatigue to mental endurance training. Either way, conditioning must be done with a purpose or goal in mind. For athletes, all types of conditioning should be designed to help them longer endure the various stresses associated with their sports.

The good news is that Wind Sprints are an effective form of conditioning for many sports. The problem lies in the cookie-cutter approach that is all-too-frequently prescribed. Every sport can be analyzed and broken down into specific periods of work followed by periods of rest. For both of these periods, heart rate zones can be measured and trained upon.

Although people in the general population can benefit from simply moving and exercising more, sometimes it pays to sweat the small stuff (literally) and add a method to your madness. This can be as specific as looking up the work-to-rest ratios for your specific sport (and even your position) and planning your workouts around these intervals. Think about the speed at which you move in your sport, the rate your heart elevates to and how long you stay at this heart rate.

To condition your legs and lungs for more longevity in the game and a quick attack from start to finish, plan your Wind Sprints around distances and intensities that reach similar heart rate zones and distance traveled during intense periods of work in your sport.

Sample Work/Rest Sprint Training for MMA

Marcus Mariota Sprinting

Work Time: 3-5 minutes

Rest Time: 1 minute

Work/Rest Ratio: 3:1-5:1)

Work periods are not max effort for the full duration. They should consist of varying intensities with short explosive bursts and sub-maximal running.

Sets/Duration: 3-5 sets depending on level of competition. 3 minutes (alternating 25-yard sprints with 50-yard jogs); 1 minute (active mobility work, breathing exercises or muscle activation, provided heart rate can be lowered)

A thorough dynamic warm-up should precede each Wind Sprint workout, and each workout should be followed by a complete stretching routine addressing the quads, hamstrings, glutes, calves, adductors (groin), abductors and rotation-based stretching patterns.


Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

Topics: CARDIO | SPEED TRAINING | ASICS GENERAL