The Difference Between Marathon Training vs. Sprint Training

I’ll admit it: I’ve never been much of a runner. I consider myself more of a hiker, walker, or, when I’m really in the mood for something more intense, a circuit trainer. But running has never been my forte. Recently though, with warmer weather right around the corner, I’ve been inspired by the idea of getting outside and hitting the pavement. I brushed up on our very own article about learning to love running, and I’ve even bought some new workout gear. The only thing left is my mental preparation! So, I turned to one of my good friends and personal trainers, Dr. Hunter Vincent.

The first thing to know about doing a running workout, Hunter explained, was to determine whether you are going to go for an endurance run or do sprints. Since I don’t know the first thing about what either of these does for your body, Hunter and I got to talking about the differences between marathon training (or long distance running) and sprint training. The differences were fascinating, and your preference can actually say a lot about you.

So, without further ado… For all you new runners out there (and the seasoned veterans too!), here are some big picture differences you need to know about marathon training vs. sprint training…

First Things First…

When drawing comparisons between “Sprint” and “Marathon” training, it is important to look at what you are exactly asking the body to do, and the physiology behind it, says Hunter. Here is a very basic physiology lesson on the two…

A “sprint” is technically considered a very short interval of work with high intensity effort. By demanding such a high intensity from the body, sprinting actually utilizes a different muscle fiber type, called type 2 or “fast twitch,” which also uses a different metabolic process.

Examples of Sprint Training:

  • Running stair workouts
  • Sprints (try doing these in the soft sand!)
  • Jumping / Plyometric Workouts
  • Interval Circuit Training
  • Hill Repeats

Marathon training does quite the opposite. Although it is equally challenging to run a marathon or even train for one, the intensity is technically considered to be less, and heart rates tend to be a lower percentage of your maximum. Marathon training can be classified by longer durations of lower intensity exercise, which works on building muscle endurance and stamina. This type of exercise utilizes “slow twitch” or type 1 muscle fibers.

Examples of Marathon Training:

  • Elliptical
  • Stair master
  • Rowing
  • Jogging
  • Cycling
  • Hiking

Let’s Break Down the Differences…

1. Marathon Training Builds More Endurance
As a general rule of thumb, “marathon” training, with lower average heart rates and longer duration is best to help improve endurance and stamina. But some research shows that HIIT can improve overall aerobic capacity. Although, high intensity interval training can be a great form of exercise for heart health, it will not prepare the body and joints for longer runs, such as a marathon, where the joints and ligaments can fatigue and ache from the constant pounding. (i.e mile 22 of a marathon)

2. Sprint Workouts Are More Efficient
As Hunter puts it, you get more bang for your buck! They will burn more calories in the same amount of time. For people that are pressed for time, and want to get the most bang for the buck, a HIIT workout can help burn the most calories in a short amount of time.

3. Long Distance Running Can Serve as Meditation
The steady pace and longer duration can help you clear your mind, center your thoughts and help you feel rejuvenated. Marathon training is generally an easier form of exercise to gain mental clarity.

4. Sprint Workouts Will Build More Muscle Tone
It’s important to realize that both marathon training and sprint training will develop muscle tone if done consistently and for long enough time. But the “fast twitch” muscle fibers are generally more responsible for muscle strength and tone. By performing more high intensity, shorter duration exercises, you focus more on fast twitch fibers and can maintain better muscle tone and development.

5. Sprint Workouts Burn More Fat
Studies have shown that high intensity interval training and sprints burn more fat than lower to moderate intensity exercise. This is due to a variety of factors, but largely because of increased muscle recruitment, muscle fiber type, EPOC (exercise post oxygen consumption), and even release of hormones (such as human growth hormone).

What you need to know about sprints vs. marathons

Hunter’s Recommendations

Overall, when it comes to being fit and feeling your best, Hunter recommends high intensity intervals as the most effective way to see results. This type of training burns more calories, achieves higher heart rates, and builds more muscle strength than lower intensity cardio workouts. Hunter’s highly recommended workout style for “getting that summer six-pack” would be high intensity intervals and sprints.

The truth is, when it comes to weight loss and looking lean, it’s about balance. The best exercise is always the one that you continue to do. If you’ve had a hard day at work, and doing hill sprints is out of the question, then an easier cardio session on the elliptical is better than nothing. Every body has its own strengths and weaknesses. The best exercise is the exercise that you want to do, and you can continue to do pain-free.

Thanks for the tips, Hunter! Sounds like sprint workouts are something I’ll (hopefully) be adding into my weekly schedule… Wish me luck.

What do you prefer: sprints or long distance running?

XO Lauren

Photos: Jessi Burrone Photography