Run to Live, Live to Run!
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“Huff… huff…” Your soft exhales harmonize with the rhythmic pounding of your legs striking the ground. Your head bobs as you glance around the fourth floor hallway. After a couple of seconds, you reach your destination: the staircase! Opening the door, a flier on the wall catches your eye. It says: TRACK TRYOUTS (No cut :D). Scanning over the information, you familiarize yourself with the dates; your interest is piqued. But a visible confusion floods your face as you scrutinize the poster again. You ask yourself, “What is the difference between sprint and distance running?”
It is vital to make the distinction between distance running and sprinting. Sprinting usually involves running over a 55 meter to 400 meter distance at the top-most speeds of the human body—running at 80 percent or 85 percent of one’s maximum heart rate. Distance running, on the other hand, takes the form of slower jogs over longer distances, usually measured by mileage. This usually occurs at 60 percent of the maximum heart rate or less. Each can be thought of as their own separate way of training or exercise, with different benefits and setbacks.
Both forms of running have been shown to improve overall heart function. The constant stress of pumping blood to maintain the full body’s active motion almost immediately strengthens the heart muscles. In the long-term, improved heart function can ultimately result in lower blood pressure and resting heart rate, reducing the risk of heart disease and leading to a longer and healthier life.
However, when it comes to overall cardiovascular improvement, distance running takes the cake. Extended periods of less intensive runs are better suited toward building endurance. Like any other muscle, the heart needs to be continuously trained in order to break and rebuild stronger muscle fibers for growth. A 1985 study found that in general, distance runners have lower resting heart rates with maximal oxygen consumption (VO2 max). This is reflective of how much oxygen they are able to take in with each breath; the higher the value, the more oxygen the body has to supply its cells. Intense cardiovascular exercise leads to “Athlete’s Heart,” a non-pathological condition characterized by thicker ventricles that pump blood more efficiently.
An increased cardiovascularity from distance running directly translates into other health benefits. For example, runners have drastically lower risks of cancer and dementia. Interestingly, running is able to allocate glucose resources in the body toward internal organs rather than to malicious tumors, depriving them of the fuel needed to grow. Furthermore, according to the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, researchers concluded that running 15 miles a week decreases the chance of dying from Alzheimer’s by over 40 percent.
The physical difference between sprinters and distance runners is especially notable when examining some of the top runners in the world. Take Eliud Kipchoge, the undisputed GOAT of marathon running and the only man in history to ever run a sub-two hour marathon. He has a lean muscular frame. On the other hand, sprinters like Usain Bolt tend to have bulkier muscles, with well-developed shoulders, biceps, and quadriceps. While a lot of this comes down to training, there is also a genetic aspect to running. The genes ACTN3 and ACE both play a role in athletic performance by influencing muscle development, especially fast twitch muscles, which are important for short, intense bursts of energy and explosive power.
Sprinting is an excellent means of maintaining a healthy fitness level while toning the body. A 2008 study on morphological differences of elite Croatian track-and-field athletes showed that sprinters have a lower body fat percentage than many endurance athletes. However, sprinting is also an excellent way to build up muscle mass. When sprinting, the production of human growth hormones spikes up to 200 percent, which can help repair past injured muscles and increase one’s overall muscular strength.
On the other hand, distance running offers an outstanding means of losing weight. Running over long distances for extended periods of time teaches one’s body to utilize not only glycogen, a quick source of energy in our bloodstreams, but also fat deposits, a more long term source of energy. Activating these fat deposits help whittle them down, decreasing overall body fat percentage.
It is also worthy to note that while both forms of running build different types of muscles, sprinting builds fast twitch muscles, while distance runners build slow twitch muscles (muscles that are more fatigue-resistance, aiding endurance related activities). Everyone has both kinds of muscles, but the proportions vary based on which type of exercise they do more frequently. For instance, elite sprinters have nearly 80 to 85 percent fast twitch. The short bursts of energy help them accelerate to unimaginable speeds. On the contrary, elite distance runners can have the same 85 percent of slow twitch muscles, granting them the ability to run for hours without stopping.
Various studies have demonstrated the mental and cognitive benefits of running. A short 10-minute jog can boost memory, attention, organization and planning by increasing blood flow to the prefrontal cortex and simply stimulating the growth of new nerve cells and blood vessels in the brain. This growth counteracts the gradual shrinking of the brain as one grows older. Sprinting serves to bolster memory formation by increasing the brain’s neural plasticity, or how well neurons are able to communicate with one another. Furthermore, while running, the body releases high levels of endorphins and endocannabinoids, which are biochemical substances that help relieve pain and negate feelings of anxiety.
Sprinting and distance running are also great ways to train resilience and willpower. The act of pushing the human body to its limits is extremely challenging and requires immense determination. Through physical exertion, runners develop a better mind-body connection. For example, the TaraHumara, a group of indigenous superathletes living in Chihuahua, Mexico, are able to run hundreds of miles weekly without even breaking a sweat. Running is not only crucial to their livelihoods, but also a source of enjoyment. Their athleticism and exceptional physical prowess has also correlated to many mental benefits, eradicating virtually all suicide, violence, and theft in their societies. Combining all these benefits, both sprinting and distance running can result in higher confidence by promoting self-image, resulting in positive effects on mental health.
With any physical activity, there are variable levels of physical exertion. In a study of running injuries among different populations of runners, injuries were most common in sprint athletes and ultramarathon runners—the two forms of running that take speed and distance to the very extremes. For the average runner, however, sprinting has an even higher risk of injury due to the higher intensity of the sport, even for professional sprinters. Each step a sprinter takes places pressure equivalent to nearly four to five times their body weight, which undoubtedly places a stress on both the runner’s muscles and joints. While distance running is more of a leisure activity, injuries can still occur. Generally, the rate of injury increases significantly when one runs more than 40 miles a week, wearing down the limits of the body.
Similarly, in both sprinting and distance running, the risk of injury is compounded by flaws in one’s running technique. One common example is overstriding: taking steps that are way too long. While this might feel like it covers more ground, it forces the leg to strike the ground in an awkward position, placing further stress on the joints. Over 85 percent of novice runners get injured due to overexerting themselves or poor running form.
Recovery and Efficiency
Ultimately, sprinting is much more efficient due to the benefits it incurs over a shorter time frame. However, it is notable that while sprinting is a more efficient workout, there is also a longer recovery period associated with the exercise. In general, many athletes need around 48 hours to 72 hours for a full recovery after a sprint workout. Distance runners typically only need a day of rest, which allows for daily workouts and a high amount of fat loss in a short period of time.
It is clear that distance running and sprinting each have their own benefits and drawbacks. Though they do share certain key similarities, both should be viewed as separate entities rather than being lumped together. During your next workout, it is important to select the one most suitable to your physical fitness and prevent injuries by practicing in moderation and employing good technique.