Is Long-Distance or Sprint Training More Effective?

That 5K you signed up for in December as motivation to hit the gym is now just a month away, and although you’ve been faithful to your favorite dance cardio and Pilates classes, that two-mile run you pushed through yesterday left your muscles more sore than expected. With just a few weeks before the big day, it’s time to get serious about training. While sprinting takes less time and builds muscle, isn’t long-distance training the best option to build the endurance you’ll need to work through those miles? This race might just end with a tie.

Sprint training

While you may be training for a long-distance run, don’t forget about the benefits of sprinting, which will help build muscle and increase your metabolism so you can push through those final miles of a race. When jogging, it’s easy to fall into a sloppy form if your muscles are tired and you’re out of breath. Speeding up to a sprint automatically makes your body sway less from side to side and encourages your legs to push off more powerfully with each stride. Over time, your muscles will remember this form and replicate it into your slower-paced runs.

Working in sprints also allows your body to use a full range of muscle fibers that might otherwise get neglected during a typical long-distance jog. One study looked at how muscles adapted to six sessions of sprint training spread out over two weeks. During this time, the participants completed four to seven 30-second sprints with four minutes of recovery. After the training, the runners showed an increase in their muscles’ ability to store and process fuel during exercise and to work longer before exhaustion. However, the participants showed no improvement in their VO2 max, the amount of oxygen used during exercise. This indicates that fitness improvement from sprint training comes in the form of muscular gain and energy production rather than cardiovascular improvements.

But don’t let this discourage you from working sprints into your long distance routine. To avoid injury, start gradually and practice on tired legs at the end of a run with 15- to 30-second high-speed intervals. After a couple of weeks, you’ll be able to work in a few more sprints, and your usual race pace will seem slow by comparison.

Long-distance training

Of course, if you’re planning to run a race, you can’t neglect long-distance training. Despite myths that running causes muscle loss or joint damage, jogging multiple miles can lead to a variety of health benefits. In fact, running will only help your muscles and joints adapt and gain endurance for longer running intervals. Unlike sprint training, the longer period of long-distance training will strengthen the cardiovascular system, enhance your heart and increase your muscles’ blood flow, which eases your body’s ability to deliver oxygen to your muscles.

In addition, working on building your stamina for multiple minutes, rather than seconds, teaches your body how to store and release energy as needed. A study from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden found that aerobic exercise like jogging sheds kynurenine, a substance in our blood that accumulates when we’re stressed and is linked to depression. So, yes, that “runner’s high” is real. Plus, running can even help us live longer. In another study, scientists found that men who ran for 30 minutes a day were 50 percent less likely to die prematurely from cancer.

Unlike sprinting, long distance running will increase your VO2 max. Not only will your blood flow improve, but training will increase the amount of mitochondria in your cells, the powerhouses that provide you with energy you need throughout a race.

The winner

Whether you’re doing a full-on sprint or a steady jog, running at any pace will improve your cardiovascular health and increase your heart rate. In turn, this activity circulates oxygen throughout your body and strengthens your overall heart health, lung capacity and bone density. Plus, running releases endorphins that make you feel happier.

What’s important here is to not ignore either exercise. Work in sprints at the end of a run to build endurance and muscle, and to make your normal pace start to feel slow. Even if you’re not quite up to running that 5K, just 30 minutes of aerobic exercise a day will increase your chance of living longer. Over time, your muscles, joints and energy levels will adjust to allow you to run longer and faster. Hello, finish line!

Emily is a recent graduate and proud Midwesterner who just moved to the big city to start her career in magazine journalism. When she isn't commuting between Brooklyn and Manhattan, she enjoys browsing bookstores for her next read, sipping chai tea lattes at local coffee shops, and playing tourist in the city she always dreamed of living in.