As we are stuck indoors during the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re bound to get some ants in our pants. This is why movement of any type feels so good right now, and also why so people are lacing up their running sneakers to hit the pavement. If you’re working on speed, though, there are some pointers to follow, as it’s quite different than going fast on a treadmill—so we’ve asked running pros for tips on how to start sprint training outside.
The biggest factor that changes when you take your sprints from the treadmill to outdoors is the control over speed. “You can set your speed, and you know that you’re going to hit that exact number every single time,” says Selena Samuela, Peloton Tread instructor. You also don’t have to worry about tripping over a pothole or avoiding cars when you’re on a tread. “On a treadmill, you have no active obstacles,” she says. Plus treads are “easier on the joints,” she adds, which is why outdoor running (and definitely sprinting) can feel more intense on your body.
Besides external factors, sprinting outdoors versus indoors means that you’ll be using different muscles within your body, so the way that your run will subtly change. “Sprinting on treadmills is primarily quad-based, and when you run outside, it promotes your natural mechanics more, which means that you pull on your hamstrings way more,” says Meg Takacs, fitness trainer and founder of the #RunWithMeg app. “This is because outdoors, you’re creating your stride cycle, which is why you find a lot of people putting their incline up to one percent on a treadmill to simulate outdoor running.”
To make sure that your outdoor sprints are as efficient—and safe—as possible, keep scrolling for expert-approved tips on doing them properly.
How to start sprint training outdoors
1. Find the right spot to train: “If you’re sprinting outdoors, and not on a track, the key component is to know your route and the area where you’re training,” says Samuela, who recommends finding locations where there are as few obstacles as possible. “You want to find long straightaways, so that you can just focus on your sprint and nothing else.” She also suggests sprinting on stable ground—not rocky terrain. “Try to avoid unpaved or rocky roads—those are not recommended for sprints,” says Samuela. “If there are rugged rocks jutting out, that’s a pretty easy way to injure yourself.”
2. Don’t go too fast, too soon: According to Takacs, sprinting outdoors calls for being more aware of how fast you go in a given interval. “You want to not go too fast, too soon,” she says. “It’s important to gradually increase to your max effort to the last 15 to 20 seconds.” This is because going at your max speed can get you above your aerobic threshold, which means your body starts cycling lactic acid, which is hard to recover from, she explains. “It’s really important when you’re sprinting to take breaks so that your body can recover and bring your heart rate back down. This way, your body is ready to power those fast-twitch muscles again.”
3. Watch your foot strike and your form: As you could imagine, your foot placement is different when you sprint versus when you’re running at a more steady pace. “Your foot placement and cadence are different with sprints,” says Takacs, who recommends aiming for a forefoot strike as opposed to midfoot, as this lets you “peel through your toes so that you can use your hamstrings in a stride cycle.” This also makes your impact phase very quick, which means that you’re not releasing a lot of body weight into the ground (which makes you run lighter on your feet, and therefore faster). “A lot of people think that they should extend their stride and make it bigger when sprinting, too, but you want to take more steps so that you’re landing under your center of mass, which is your hips,” says Takacs. “You don’t want to land in front of your body and pull your bodyweight from behind you.”
4. Try hill sprints: For an added sprinting outdoor challenge, try doing it on a hill. Samuela suggests trying one of her go-to ways to train: “sprint hill repeats,” in which you find a hill to continuously sprint to the top of. Takacs says that sprinting on hills adds in the element of increasing your VO2 max, which is the amount of air that your lungs can hold. “If you’re working on speed and increasing your power, I’d do sprints flat. But if you’re looking to increase power, speed, and your VO2 max, I’d do hill repeat sprints,” she says. That’ll improve your lung capacity, which will benefit your endurance in every other workout that you do.
5. Take it easy: Even though sprinting outside is fun (it is!), it’s not something you should necessarily be doing every single day. “You don’t want to do speed work every day,” says Takacs. “It’s important that your body uses different energy systems throughout the week.” Sprinting, she points out, introduces a lot of lactic acid throughout your body, which takes time for your body to repair afterwards… so don’t forget about your rest days.
P.S., here’s how to have proper running form: