Tips to Avoid Injury During Sprint Sessions
Sprinting is a powerful asset to any training program. It’s brief and effective and long-lasting and reverberates throughout multiple aspects of health and performance. If you sprint regularly, you’ll likely improve your body composition, strength and fitness levels, metabolic flexibility, stamina, and explosiveness. Since sprinting is “going as fast as you can,” it’s infinitely and instantly scalable to your ability level. Anyone who can sprint but does not is making a huge mistake.
However, with great power comes great responsibility. You have to do it right. Sprinting actually isn’t very dangerous compared to other athletic pursuits. You’re more liable to get injured playing a team sport, where you’re responding quickly to unpredictable changes in the game, moving laterally and vertically, diving and leaping for balls or discs, jostling for position. Sprinting is linear, straightforward. You go from point A to point B. However, the very thing that makes sprinting work so well – the fact that it represents the highest intensity your body can muster – can lead to injury if you’re not prepared.
So make sure to be prepared. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
1. Raise your body temperature.
Literally warm yourself up a bit. This could be a short, brisk walk, a few minutes on a bike, rolling around on the floor like a kid, or even a really light jog. Just get warm. This is why sprinting in really cold weather requires extra prep – your body is really, really cold, which can increase injury risk. Heck, it might even mean taking a hot bath before training.
2. Don’t static stretch before.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to construct a controlled trial testing the effects of different stretching modalities on sprinting injuries. You’d have to come up with an “injury-inducing”, and that’s just not ethical. What we do have is plenty of research into the effect of various types of stretching on sprint performance. Generally speaking, improved performance is a barometer for good technique, which is a fair representation of safety and protection from injury. Most studies suggest that static stretching before sprinting impedes performance.
3. Instead, do dynamic stretches.
Dynamic stretches are active stretches that involve movement through the full range of motion. Some sprint-specific ones include:
A couple rounds of those should suffice. Do about 10-20 meters for each move per round.
4. Do dynamic stretches before, but not too many.
Dynamic stretching before sprinting improves performance, but there is a limit. One study found that while one to two sets of 20 meter long dynamic stretch drills improved subsequent sprint performance, three sets impaired performance by inducing fatigue. Do enough dynamic stretching that you feel energized and ready to go. Stop short of doing so many that you start getting tired.
5. Do a few depth jumps.
This is a depth jump. In one recent study, subjects who performed three depth jumps a minute before sprinting improved their performance. Three depth jumps are enough to “shock” the nervous system and get it prepared to move your body, but not enough to impair your performance or fatigue your legs. A few deep squat jumps should work, too.
6. Do a few trial ramp up runs.
Run several half sprints before your real session starts, starting at about 50% intensity and steadily increasing it until you hit 80% in the last one. These are all rough approximations, of course. Just work up to near-full intensity. Beginners may want to hold off from hitting full intensity for a few sprint sessions as they get used to it.
7. Use proper technique.
Good technique is paramount. It won’t just make you faster; it will protect you.
- Maintain a balanced center of gravity at all times, never overstride. When landing don’t let your feet land way out in front.
- Stand as tall as possible – never collapse weight into ground.
- Torso and hips should face forward at all times.
- Arms swing fore and back – never side to side – locked at 90 degree angle.
- Bicycle style stride: flex foot immediately after takeoff and snap foot back onto the ground quickly.
- Generate explosive force with each footfall: midfoot landing, Achilles snap to touch ground, explosive midfoot takeoff. Foot on ground as short a time as possible.
The difference between Usain Bolt and you the reader is more explosive force per stride and less time on ground per stride. Stride frequency is nearly identical believe it or not. Your turnover is almost identical to Usain Bolt but you only generate half as much force per stride. Hence, Usain’s strides are 9 feet long due to the explosive force.
8. Only run barefoot if your feet are conditioned.
Barefoot sprinting is one of life’s greatest joys. I do all my sprinting barefoot (on the beach), in fact. But if you’re not accustomed to going barefoot, sprinting can introduce an excessive amount of loading to your tissues. Remember: it takes awhile to undo a lifetime of shoe-wearing.
9. Never run barefoot on rubberized tracks.
Those tracks are made for traction, but you don’t really want that much traction applied to your bare feet. You’ll rip the skin clean off (I’ve seen it happen). They’re great when you’re wearing shoes, though.
10. Stop while you’re ahead.
Think you’ve got “one more in ya”? Stop. End your workout. That’s exactly when you need to quit. Sprinting should not be done to failure, because failure means fatigue and fatigue is when systems fail, technique breaks down, and injuries occur. Stopping just short of that point is ideal for injury prevention. I always stop my workout right when I figure I have another one or two in me. It’s just not worth it.
11. Optimize your rest intervals.
When I sprint, I usually try to recover as completely as I can between sprints. If I’m running 30 second sprints (rare for me these days), I’ll usually rest for at least four minutes. If I’m running 10-15 second sprints, I’ll rest about two minutes. If I’m doing real short 3-5 second bursts, I’ll only rest about 20 seconds or so. I go by how I feel, though – not the numbers or some formula. When I’m rested and ready, I sprint. Folks looking to maximize their cardiovascular fitness will probably want to reduce the length of their rest periods, but full recovery is safest.
12. Sprint when fully recovered from the last workout.
Don’t sprint after heavy deadlifts (your hamstrings will be fried). Don’t sprint two days in a row (you won’t have recovered). Don’t sprint after a sleepless night (your balance and proprioception will be impaired).
13. Choose the right surface.
Generally speaking, natural surfaces are better for sprinting than manmade ones. In a comparison of plantar loading forces, running on natural grass resulted in lighter loading on the rear and forefoot, while running on asphalt placed considerably more stress on the rear and forefoot. Many top sprinters, including Usain Bolt, even promote training on grass tracks to reduce the impact to joints and bones. I love sprinting in sand. It’s harder (since your feet are sinking into the sand) and easier (since the sand is dampening your foot’s impact) at the same time. Lower impact, more difficulty.
The only time I sprint on pavement is uphill (which significantly reduces impact forces). I usually advise against it. Most of us aren’t sixth graders with invincible bones and joints playing freeze tag on the blacktop playground anymore.
14. Don’t sprint on a treadmill.
Some people pull this off, but it can be pretty dangerous – far more dangerous than sprinting out on solid ground. For one, it changes the kinematics of the hamstring and increases the risk of hamstring pulls. Two, it’s hard to go all out on a treadmill without overshooting, falling off, or holding back. I’ve never been able to really go for it on a treadmill. Something lingers in the back of my mind and holds me back. If you’re sprinting in the gym, use an exercise bike or a rower instead of the treadmill.
15. If you’ve got a prior history of hamstring pulls, knee pain, or other lower body injuries, favor hill sprints over flat sprints.
The number one risk factor for a pulled hamstring while running is having had one previously. The best way to pull a hamstring while sprinting is to overextend your leg so that your foot is out in front of your center of gravity when you land. Pretty easy to do during flat sprints over level ground, but very difficult when running hills, which prevents the full extension of the hamstring. Hill sprints generally result in lower ground forces.
16. Don’t neglect eccentric strength training movements.
Sprint-related hamstring strains can often be caused by inadequate training of the eccentric portion of movements. That means you shouldn’t just focus on lifting weights, but also lowering them. For the hamstring, a great strength builder that incorporates both concentric (lifting) and plenty of eccentric (lowering) is the Romanian deadlift.
17. Cool down.
There are many ways to cool down after sprinting. The easiest, and my favorite, is to simply walk followed by a minute or so of Grok squatting. Walk for about 5-10 minutes, then sit in a squat, maybe grabbing your feet and pushing your thighs out with your elbows to get a little stretch going. Biking, rowing, jogging, it all works. Whatever you do, do something.
18. Use a lacrosse ball, foam roller, or other self myofascial release tool at night.
At night after your sprint workout, get the SMR tool of your choice and do some hunting for tender spots. Focus on the glutes, hamstrings, quads, and calves – about a couple minutes per body part. The research is inconsistent, but I’ve always found this stuff really does seem to help break up adhesions and promote improved mobility.
Better yet, get a regular sports massage if you can swing it.
19. Choose the right vehicle for sprinting.
Not everyone is ready for traditional sprinting. Some will never be ready, and that’s okay. Choose your method wisely. Defer to the safer option with less impact if you’re not sure. Consider:
- Exercise bikes
- Road bikes
- Swimming pools
All are viable. All will give you the “sprint effect.”
I don’t mean to overwhelm you guys. Sprinting does work best when performed safely, however, and the rewards are worth the investment. If you don’t want to worry about traditional sprinting, remember that you can always get most of the same health benefits from doing sprints on a bike, rower, and other more forgiving, more user-friendly machinery.