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Sprints versus marathons for heart health

05/05/2011
Flat-out Sprinting

Flat-out Sprinting

I read this story (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/8429518/Sprints-better-than-marathon-for-heart-health.html) when it came out last month.  It shows how multiple, maximal effort sprints had similar effects on health compared to long duration exercise.  But after chatting with some people in the gym, I have a couple of problems with the practical implications of it…

  • Maximal effort sprints are not simply shorter duration exercise, but they are much more intense.
  • Maximal effort sprints are bloody hard work and they make you feel horrible (vomiting is a common thing afterwards!)
  • The vast majority of people don’t know what maximum effort is and they never go anywhere near it.
  • If I got the everyday people in the gym to do maximal effort sprints 3 times a week, 99% of them would not come back after the first time.
Fantastic exercise, but not maximum effort sprints.

Fantastic exercise, but not maximum effort sprints.

So while brief, intense bursts of exercise is beneficial (and personally, I much prefer them to long duration, steady exercise), there is a time and place for them.  And that time and place is in people who are physically and mentally capable of doing it.

Unfortunately, these days there are fewer and fewer people who are actually capable of safely putting in maximal effort sprints.  Either their weight or lack of body awareness/coordination makes tripping a real danger, or they are so heavy they can put joints at risk.

And then there are very few people who actually know what maximum effort is, and how to do it!

As a real life example, I have trained with a guy who is much fitter than I am.  He just simply does-not-stop.  He can just carry on going for hours and hours.  But when we did 10 second sprints, he could not go any faster than his normal pace!  He just could not switch his brain out of “steady pace” and into “flat-out pace”.

He knew how to push himself longer, but not harder.

Now personally I think that everyone should learn how to push themselves harder (it makes you a fitter, stronger, better person).  But that was not what people were taking away from this news story. 

They were not walking away telling themselves

“I need to push myself as hard as I possibly can”.

Instead, they were walking away thinking

“I only need to do about 5-10 minutes, then I can go and put my feet up.”

They were taking away the message that they could be even lazier and do even less work than they already were.  Taking away the wrong message is always a problem when it comes to only reading the headlines, but never the deeper story.

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