Wind sprints have secured a prominent place among today’s vast array of personal training options. Consisting of a series of top-speed running spurts, followed by “recovery” walking, wind sprints offer a multitude of benefits. Changing particular variables of the exercise can help tailor it to any athletic discipline. Learn how and when to incorporate wind sprints into your clients’ workout sessions.
Why Speed Work?
In sports that involve sudden changes in direction and reaction to ever-changing stimuli – or “chaos sports”– you never know what is coming. These sports include tennis, soccer, baseball, football, basketball, volleyball, and any other sport requiring rapid reaction to unpredictable stimuli, including emergency situations in real life.
These sports require what are called “open skills”; you must react in the quickest time possible in any number of ways. A variety of responses may be required. For instance, if you are returning a serve in tennis, you might have to move left or right, forward or back, react to a flat ball or spin, and react to different speeds. Speed, reaction time, and agility can make a significant difference in your performance in open-skill sports.
In contrast, “closed skill” sports are activities like a 100-meter dash that have identical rules and characteristics every time that they are performed. Closed skills are rehearsed skills with an expected response to a cue. The distance is identical every time and everyone tries to achieve the end goal the same way every time (e.g. run as quickly as possible from point A to point B). In closed-skill-dominated sports, speed also makes a significant difference, especially with tasks requiring the athlete to accelerate quickly and efficiently.
Speed is a learnable motor skill that can be improved with proper practice and efficient technique. There are three things about speed that you should know:
1. Speed is a basic bio-motor skill.
2. Speed is highly trainable.
3. Speed is highly improvable.
Everyone can get faster. Can everyone make the Olympics? No. Can everyone take a second or two off their 40-yard time? No. But with proper training, just about everyone can improve their 40-yard time.
Similarly, everyone can become improve their agility—the ability to perform various foot movement rhythms while simultaneously demonstrating balance and body awareness.
Factors Influential in Speed Improvements
There are a few factors that determine how much of an improvement an athlete can make in his speed and agility. First, the younger the chronological age of the athlete, the more improvements can be made. The younger person hopefully hasn’t developed improper or inefficient motor patterns yet.
Also, a number of Eastern European sports scientists have identified specific ages when male and female youngsters have an optimal “window” to develop speed and other motor skills. According to the article “Sensitive Periods in Physical Development” by Loki et al., these windows include:
– Static strength. Ages 13-16 for boys, and 11-13 for girls.
– Leg power. Ages 13-17 for boys and 10-12 for girls.
– Arm power. Ages 13-17 for boys and 10-13 for girls.
– Running speed. Ages 12-17 for boys and 10-13 for girls.
A second factor that influences athletic development is training age. The training age can be thought of as the length of time that an athlete has been training properly in the development of physical skills and basic biomotor quality enhancement. This training age also determines how much improvement an athlete can make in his speed and agility. A 12-year old boy with no prior formal speed training has a great deal of room for improving their speed. His training age may be low, but his chronological age is at an optimum level for speed development. Training age also influences the number and complexity of the types of exercises and drills that can be performed.
A third and related factor that influences an athlete’s ability to improve his speed is her level of proficiency and training/competition history. The higher the level of the athlete, the lower the degree of potential improvement. This is due to the law of diminishing returns. Nevertheless, even a small change in the speed of the high-level athlete can be extremely valuable. If you think that the time difference between a first-place medal and third-place medal in the Olympic 100-meter sprint is often measured in hundredths of seconds, it is easy to see that even small improvements could be the difference between gold and bronze.
Most fitness trainers will find a receptive audience for speed and agility training in youth and children. These individuals have a young chronological age, typically have a young training age, and are not yet high-level athletes. Therefore, you can help them make excellent gains in speed and make a huge difference in the lives of your clients.
That in no way means you should neglect or lose hope on older clients, especially general fitness clients. Anyone who has not trained for speed in the past will most certainly see improvements if you hone in on this skill development.
Speed and agility are also influenced by other physical qualities:
- reaction time
For this reason, any personal trainer working on speed and agility with a client must assess these factors first. By identifying weaknesses or potential muscle imbalances, tightness (shortness), and restriction, or even a lack of structural strength, the speed and agility coach can target his or her training program to improve these qualities and thus prepare the athlete for potential improvement.
We have seen athletes improve their 10-yard dash times and thus their 40 yard times simply by increasing their base strength and stability levels. For instance, if you help an athlete develop the ability to put more force into the ground via enhanced strength and power in the triple joint extension action of hip, knee and ankle, you will potentially help him or her to run faster. Add to this an improved structural base level of core abdominal, low back and glute stability and you will have a more explosive, faster athlete, assuming that his or her running mechanics are sound.
Putting the Wind Sprints to Work
One excellent way to improve speed as well as challenge the overall fitness of your clients is utilizing the versatility of wind sprints.
If we consider the mechanics of a heavy lift (bench press, for example), we know it requires a short burst of powerful energy to enact the concentric portion of the move. Such a dynamic parallels what one experiences during a wind sprint: short bursts of all-out power, followed by a brief respite (the eccentric half of the bench press).
Basic Mechanics of Wind Sprints
A properly executed wind sprint finds the well-conditioned athlete reaching close to 90% of maximum effort, over a set distance or time. The first phase of the wind sprint should reach an aerobic heart rate range (50-80% of max); the runner will reach an anaerobic level by the end of the sprint. During recovery, the heart’s bpm should return to around 50% of max heart rate before engaging in the next sprint.
*It’s important to note that one should not attempt maximum intensity when beginning a sprinting routine, but instead, should step up intensity over the course of the training program.
Sprinting can tax the body significantly more than other modes of training. As such, adequate rest intervals play a key role in the success of this type of workout. For this reason, most athletes choose to perform wind sprints on days planned for resting or strength training, as opposed to cardio days.
By definition, wind sprints do not add significant time to one’s current training. As an example, one can sprint for 15 seconds, then walk for 45 seconds. After four such sets and a rest period, the athlete then sprints for 30 seconds followed by 30 seconds of walking recovery. Once again, after completing four sets and a brief rest, the last two sets in this particular protocol call for a 60-second sprint followed by an equally long recovery. This training amounts to less than 20 minutes.
A study published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy described an experiment where researchers separated 25 recreational runners into four groups. Each group engaged in various stretches prior to sprinting: ballistic, dynamic, static, and a control group that sprinted without any prior stretching.
Data showed a significant and perhaps unanticipated correlation between stretching and sprint times. The control group, who did not stretch at all, demonstrated the greatest sprinting improvement. While stretching post-exercise remains valid and essential, a few minutes of a simple walk or jog should prove sufficient as a warm-up prior to wind sprint training.
Building Muscle and Power
As sprinting puts an athlete temporarily into an anaerobic phase, it facilitates anabolism in much the same way as weight training. However, while weight training hones in on one body part at a time, sprinting requires the combined simultaneous effort of multiple muscles, making it a favorite in terms of complete muscle training exercises.
Studies have proven that sprinting can enhance protein synthesis pathways, particularly those that facilitate protein breakdown, by as much as 230%. With proper nutrition and recovery, sprinting can actually promote lean muscle mass. Sprinting also boosts the body’s production of human growth hormone and improves insulin sensitivity.
The act of wind sprinting increases the proportion of type II “fast twitch” muscle fibers in the legs; these typically align with increased muscle mass and strength in the glutes and hamstrings. For the majority of runners, power hinges on these two muscles.
To HIIT or Not To HIIT?
Nicholas Rizzo, a fitness researcher for RunRepeat, analyzed over 70 scientific studies in an effort to compare the effects of conventional high-intensity interval training (HIIT), sprint interval training (SIT), and moderate-intensity continuous training (MICT). Despite spending 60% less time exercising, SIT participants experienced a 39.6% higher reduction in body fat percentage than participants who performed conventional HIIT. Likewise, in comparison to MICT, SIT resulted in a 91.8% higher reduction in body fat percentage while requiring 71.1% less time exercising. Perhaps this knowledge will enable trainers to safely encourage clients obsessed with HIIT training to try SIT as a complement to their current workout regimen.
Variations on a Theme
To help alleviate the repetitive tedium of regularly performing wind sprints, consider the inclusion of exercises that focus on improving form. In this manner, the trainer can add a modicum of variety to the sprint.
Consider adding the following when designing a sprint-based workout protocol:
- High Knees Sprint: Improves the knee drive component of the leg cycle.
- Straight Leg Striking Sprint: Focuses on key speed mechanics during the pulling/cycling pattern of foot strike.
- Butt Kick Sprint: Improves speed 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: Ideal for foot strike power production, and also forces up to 3x the average extension while accelerating.
- Downhill Sprints: Classified as “overspeed training”, sprinting downhill builds the ability for faster and more expedient leg cycling. Over time, as the athlete experiences a faster turnover/stride frequency, he also cultivates power and speed.
Using Wind Sprints with Clients
Whether a client seeks to improve speed, agility, power, or overall strength, sprint intervals can add a unique dimension to any training program. Requiring a small-to-moderate time commitment, the payoff speaks for itself. With so much variety from which to choose, wind sprints may become a personal trainer’s new favorite tool for taking clients to the next level of athleticism.