May 07, 2021 10 min read

Sprinting is a high-intensity cardio activity that builds functional strength and lean muscle all over the body.

If you’re looking for a running activity that won’t eat into your gains like long-distance running does, sprinting is just the substitute you’re looking for. Since sprinting is so intense and involves coordinated movement of the entire body, using the right form is essential.

Learning how to sprint will help avoid injury and ensure all the muscle groups in your body get the maximum possible workout. Use the form and warm-up tips in this guide to sprint effectively and reduce your risk of injury. When done correctly, the tough cardio builds lean muscle mass and boosts your overall health.

Biomechanics of Sprinting

When you sprint, many things are going on in your body simultaneously. Many muscle groups are working in tandem to move your body through the stages of sprinting, which are:

  • Acceleration
  • Constant Velocity
  • Deceleration

Force production is critical in the acceleration phase. Your body has to produce tons of energy to pick up speed. Once it gets up to its top speed, the human body relies on the proper sprinting form to continue without slowing down.

When it is time to slow or come to a stop, muscle power is exerted against the skeletal frame to reduce speed. Your hips, ankles, and knees also absorb force from the ground to reduce your speed. Imagine running at a leisurely pace or over a long distance.

The acceleration and deceleration demands of high-intensity running are much greater, which means you have to train your muscles to be prepared for greater strain.

Male athlete ready for running

Five Elements of Sprinting Mechanics

Sprinting mechanics revolve around five general stages. Account for all of them in your sprint training and you’ll be working more efficiently and get a fantastic workout.

1. Starting

Many people begin their sprint training from the same static, two-point position. A two-point position describes how much contact you have with the ground. In this case, the soles of your feet are the two contact points. However, athletes playing American football and other sports often have three or four-point contact when they begin their sprints.

Beyond how many contact points you have with the ground, you should also consider how you’re starting your sprints. Are you already moving ahead slowly or starting from complete stillness?

To reduce your risk of injury and improve your sprinting and overall athletic ability, you can make a few adaptations in your sprint training. For example, vary your sprints by starting from both stationary and moving positions.

2. Acceleration

Your hip extensors and hamstrings play a significant role in sprint acceleration. Your body acts to generate force against the ground to move your body faster and faster. Strides begin to lengthen as you approach your maximum velocity.

As you move through the acceleration phase of the sprint, your foot should be in what is referred to as the dorsiflexed position. That simply means your ankle is extended with your toes more toward the shin than when you’re standing normally.

One important tip about sprinting mechanics is to maintain a straight posture and keep your torso from hinging at the waist. It can be tempting to lean forward as your ground contact time reduces and you pick up speed, but doing so will affect your sprinting speed and could increase the risk of injury.

3. Drive

Your body begins driving itself forward when the ball of your leading foot exerts force against the ground. Force from the balls of your feet is followed by an extension of your hips, ankles, and knees. The center of gravity moves from slightly behind the lead leg to somewhere in front of the lead foot.

The ground contact time during the drive period is generally very short. Different people will have different ground contact times depending on their running style and body type.

4. Recovery

The recovery phase happens when your lead leg is behind you and its heel begins to rise. During this period, your knee flexes to pull the foot and leg forward toward the hip. With the swinging leg closer to the hip, it can move more quickly. 

When you prepare that foot to make contact with the ground once again, your hip and knee do most of the work. Throughout the drive and recovery phase, your upper body muscles should remain relaxed and the angle of your body should be almost upright.

Your lead arm should start near your cheek and the other should be slightly behind your hips.

5. Deceleration

Sprinters slow down at the end of the run but athletes go through the same deceleration process to pivot or move into a jump. If you want to pivot, jump, or come to a halt, the trick is flexion through your hips, knees, and ankles each time your feet come in contact with the ground.

Your body absorbs force with each footfall during the deceleration phase. Ground contact time will increase as your speed drops, creating a safer and more effective deceleration. If you aren’t coming to a complete stop before pivoting or jumping, the deceleration phase will be shorter and your knee, ankle, and hip strength is even more important.

Sprinter leaving on the running track

Mastering the Sprint Technique

For proper sprinting technique, you have to consider ground contact times, posture, arm movement, and breathing. Every sprinter has their own methods for maintaining the perfect balance between these different areas of sprinting form. There are a few general principles to keep in mind for each one.

Ground Contact

TimeThe total amount of energy spent to propel the body a certain distance - also known as the metabolic cost - is primarily impacted by foot ground contact time. Some studies indicate a much higher metabolic cost when footfalls take longer.

Sprinters run faster when their contact time is shorter. A huge part of sprint technique is the position of your foot strike. Some people naturally land on their heels and roll the foot to the toe when they run while others strike with their forefoot or the midfoot.

One common belief is that constantly landing on your heel is more likely to cause injury because your weight lands unevenly and your knees take more of the impact. If you are landing on the balls of your feet or closer to the toes, you have to take care to prevent bouncing, which will greatly reduce your sprinting speed.

Posture

A slight forward lean is all you need to have good posture when you’re sprinting. Your head, neck, and shoulders should be directly in line with your hips to facilitate the sprinting movement. Keep your shoulders back and down and everything relaxed and in position.

Although you may be tempted to move your torso laterally because of the arm movement involved, it’s vital to refrain from side-to-side torso movement. The shoulders are the primary cause of lateral movement during a sprint, so concentrate on keeping them forward and still.

Even Olympic runner Usain Bolt allows some lateral movement. While you might not be able to completely avoid it, try and keep it to a minimum. A strong core will help you keep your hip height as high as possible and prevent a posture collapse when your feet hit the ground.

Make sure your knees are going up high and forward to generate as much power as possible.

Arm Movement

Your arms should move in sync with your legs to build up the most momentum possible. The right arm will ideally mirror the left leg and the left arm will mirror the left leg. While some people tuck their elbows in when they run, it’s better to keep them parallel with your body.

If you can prevent your arms from twisting or falling out of a parallel alignment, it will help you keep your shoulders in place and reduce the lateral movement we mentioned earlier.

Sprinters sustain their speed and momentum with minimal lateral movement and coordinated arm movements.

Don’t swing your arms out too far, either. That will kill your momentum and burn up energy needlessly. The idea is to cut through the air with your arm movements and make your body more streamlined while you’re sprinting.

Breathing

Sprinting is grueling cardio work despite its comparatively short duration. Mastering your breathing pattern is important to make sure your body can handle a tough sprint training session. Stopping to gasp for air ruins your sprint. Taking in great irregular gulps of air during the sprint will also lead to serious form mistakes.

Maintaining a good posture while you’re sprinting will be very challenging if your chest is heaving. The key to breathing when sprinting is to keep a regular, even breathing pace. Some sprinters count in their heads, inhaling for a few seconds and then exhaling for the same number of seconds.

It’s vital to inhale and exhale the same amount. If you inhale too much and exhale a little, there will be lots of air in your body and your breathing will feel interrupted. If you exhale for a long time and inhale briefly, your body won’t get the oxygen it needs to continue sprinting.

Stride Length & Stride Frequency

When you’re sprinting, you want to cover as much ground as possible in as little time as you possibly can. Some people take that to mean a longer stride will be the best method.

As it turns out, long strides waste sprinters’ energy. Shorter strides allow for better control, so you can prioritize proper running form over covering a greater distance. Stretching your knees, ankles, and hips to push them to their limits makes a running injury much more likely.

There is a tradeoff between stride frequency and stride length. It makes sense - you can do more short strides in the same amount of time, so an increased stride rate is essentially the same thing as a reduced stride length.

An increased stride rate causes many problems, including a decrease in balance, strength and force exertion, shock attenuation, and energy absorption at the knee, hip, and ankle. These three joints are the most sensitive, so taking huge strides is a surefire way to give yourself a serious running injury.

Now let's take a look at some commonly asked sprinting questions.

sprinter crossing the finish line

1. Should Your Heels Touch the Ground When Sprinting?

Many sprinters land on or near their heels first and then roll their soles up to their toes. However, there is some concern that this throws sprinters off their balance and puts a greater strain on the knees, ankles, and hip joints.

Landing on your midfoot is the best running technique. If your foot strike is too far toward the front of the foot, you could create a bouncing motion that will reduce your speed and affect your form. Landing on the midfoot will help you sprint faster and have greater control over your form at the same time.

 2. What Muscles Should I Workout for Sprinting?

Sprinting is an intense cardio exercise that offers plenty of time for resting.

For that reason, it’s a great way to build lean muscle in your quadriceps, hamstrings, hips, glutes, calves, and abdominals. If you want to prepare your body for regular sprint training sessions, these are the muscle groups you should target.

Remember that sprinting isn’t an endurance exercise the way long-distance running is. Your muscles have to be ready to spring into action and reach their top speed in a short distance. Sprinting is kind of like a cardio HIIT routine in that way.

3. How Long Does It Take To Develop Proper Sprinting Technique?

For seasoned sprinters, it can take 8 weeks of dedicated sprint training before a significant change is apparent. People who are new to running or sprinting might notice improvements much faster. It depends on what fitness level you’re starting from.

If you’re starting from zero, you can probably learn the basics of sprinting in a month or so. That doesn’t automatically mean you’ll be running with perfect form in a month, but the process itself isn’t so difficult to understand. Learning how to execute the proper sprinting technique will take longer, possibly months.

4. Does Pumping Your Arms Make You Run Faster?

Simply put, no. Flailing your arms about makes your body less aerodynamic and throws you off balance. It’s also likely to cause your torso to turn from side to side, greatly reducing your speed and making injury more likely.

Your arm movements should mirror your legs. The right arm goes with the left and the left arm with the right leg. Coordinated movement across the body is the best sprinting technique. 

5. What Are the Benefits and Drawbacks of Sprinting?

When done correctly, sprinting is a fantastic way to build lean muscle throughout the body without losing muscle gains the way you might with long-distance running. Long cardio sessions burn up carbs and protein that your body needs to keep building muscle during a recovery phase.

Sprinting enables you to build a strong cardiovascular system without risking your gains. Joint pain is a potential risk of sprinting, especially if you aren’t using the proper sprint technique.

Your body will fatigue much more quickly when you sprint versus when you workout at the gym, so they could strain before you expect them to. However, sprinting with the proper form and setting up the right sprint training will attenuate these risks.

6. What Are the Top 3 Things Sprinters Should Focus On?

Breathing, arm swing, and stride length are the most important thing for sprinters to focus on. Regular, even breathing will prevent your body from giving out in the middle of a sprint and give your muscles the oxygen they need to work.

Arm movement may not seem that important because the arms aren’t responsible for generating power during a sprint like the legs are. But the arms are important for balance and maintaining the proper arm movement will also prevent lateral movement that will kill your sprinting form.

Avoid long strides when you sprint. It will throw off your center of gravity, risk muscle strain, and put your most sensitive joints at risk of serious injury. The ankles, knees, and hips don’t absorb as much energy, and the body’s ability to attenuate shock is reduced. Short strides with shorter ground contact times are the most optimal way to sprint.

Conclusion:

Sprinting is a great cardio exercise to pair with strength training for lean muscles, especially if you’re in a cutting phase. Sprinting provides excellent health benefits and also adds some variation to gym-centric training routines.

Learning the proper sprinting form may take some time, but once you’ve mastered it you can go out for a great sprint training session in as little as half an hour.

Cut away the excess fat and improve your overall athletic performance with regular sprint exercises.

The most important things to remember about sprinting with the proper form are your arm movements, stride length, and breathing. Once you can breathe regularly, take reasonably short strides, and mirror your arm and leg movements, you’ll be sprinting like a pro.


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