- Sprinting builds muscle mass and strength, can increase your speed and tone muscles.
- Long distance running can improve your cardiovascular endurance and your respiratory system.
- Which one is best depends on your fitness goals, but both can be beneficial for a weekly fitness routine.
Long distance running and sprinting are both effective cardio exercises that can build muscle, increase respiratory endurance and burn calories. But the two are different enough that doing one over the other can be beneficial for some runners.
“Sprinting involves running shorter distances and relies on differences in stride length,” says Melissa Kendter, ACE-certified running coach and trainer. “Long-distance running usually occurs over 3km, 5km, 10km or marathon distances (26.2 miles) and anyone running these distances should be able to maintain their pace during a relatively long race.
To find out which form of running is ultimately better, I spoke with several trainers and running coaches about the benefits of both, including which is better for building strength, improving speed and losing weight.
Best for increasing muscle mass and strength
“The key difference between a sprinter and a marathon runner is that a sprinter’s body is primed for less speed and power, relying on fast-twitch muscles,” says Kendter. “Alternatively, a long-distance runner’s body trains for long, sustained endurance by relying on slow-twitch muscle fibers during training.”
You work fast-twitch muscles when you have explosive movements and need that quick burst of power, like sprinting off a starting block.
Because of this short burst of energy, sprinting builds muscle mass and strength more easily and quickly than longer distances, which is best if you want to build and tone your leg muscles.
Best for endurance
While both sprinting and long-distance running strengthen your cardiovascular endurance and respiratory system, the longer time commitment and slower pace of a long-distance run are better for increasing your overall exercise endurance.
“Your body adapts to the increased workload [of a long-distance run] as the heart begins to pump more blood throughout the body, while lung volume increases and helps you take in more oxygen,” Kendter says.
According to Ian Scarrott, personal trainer and running coach at PureGym, distance runners need to focus on a steady pace to start conserving as much energy as possible for longer.
If you’re training for a long-distance race, aim for a plan that includes mostly slower, longer runs with some speed work and strength training sprinkled in once or twice a week.
Best for avoiding injuries?
Starting any new exercise program too quickly can put you at risk of injury, so it’s smart to start slowly, even when running. Kendter recommends building up your strength, power and miles gradually to avoid injury.
“Doing too much, going too fast or going too far can lead to injury,” he says. “You need to properly build your body’s strength, speed, power and endurance.”
For both sprinting and long distance running, consider adding strength work and cross-training to support your joints and muscles. This includes routines such as weight training, plyometrics and technique work.
Best for muscle toning and weight loss?
Overall, sprinting is better for weight loss because the body works harder during exercise. Additionally, your body continues to work hard after you finish the sprint as it begins to recover.
This post-workout burn is called excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). Either exercise burns calories, but the high-intensity nature of sprinting allows your body to continue burning after the event.
Better for speed boost?
Even if you’re training for a long-distance race, adding speed and speed can ultimately help you run faster. This is because you can build those fast-twitch muscles while increasing your cadence (ie the number of steps you take per minute) and your stride length.
Studies show that athletes who focus on tempo work increase their steps per minute as well as their overall running performance.
If you plan to focus mainly on long distance running, add some steps after your run, aiming for one to two striding sessions per week. These are workouts where you start at a jogging pace and build up to avoid a full sprint before slowing back down to a walking pace.
To do them, find a length of track or road that is about 100 meters. Then start with a jog and start increasing your speed so that by the end you are at about 95% of your maximum speed. This will take you about 20 to 30 seconds. Rest for about two minutes and repeat three to five times.
If you are not training for anything specific, it is beneficial to include sprinting and long distance running in your training routine. Both require limited equipment other than a pair of running shoes and workout clothes and can be done almost anywhere.
As Kendter says, think of the sprint as a short race, but at full speed. sprint for anywhere from 20 to 30 seconds, walk or rest for a minute and sprint again.
For longer runs, slowly build up to longer mileage and remember to slow down as you start to run longer.