This post is related to the desired outcome of building muscle and losing fat and not performance competing in distance running or sprinting events. I shall begin then by putting forward what conventional wisdom has us believe is a better alternative to sprinting for losing body fat and why it is difficult convincing people to do otherwise.
At time of writing I am 45 years old. I’m at an age where I remember the start of the running boom. My first memories in fact, are of Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett and the epic battles they had over 800m and 1500m. This was followed by my interest in bigger endurance races where Charlie Spedding, Steve Jones, Grete Waitz and Ingrid Kristiansen won the London Marathon back in the mid eighties. They sparked such a boom that almost everybody became obsessed with the marathon. Every town and village in the land began to host one and the marathon became known as a super feat of endurance any self respecting human had to challenge themselves with. My own father began entering half marathons all over the place and it was the done thing. Adult males would boast of distances completed and times achieved. The distance running era was in full flow.
Why though, did it become so popular? Well it’s cheap, convenient and easily accessible to name three reasons and they are very good reasons to take up any form of exercise so let’s be thankful of that. Perhaps the main reason though is that we looked at the competitors in these events and saw how skinny and devoid of fat they were and thought that if we took up this activity then we too would acquire the same shape as them or at the very least, lose fat.
It is here I shall inject a line of sarcasm although it is very true – if you follow this logic and want to become taller then you should take up playing basketball!
Now around the same time, fat and cholesterol became vilified. Butter, lard, fat on your meat, cream, eggs were all tried and convicted and “healthy whole grains” and low fat options became the choice of food for health freaks. I always remember the “Gold from St. Ivel” advertisements in that era claiming to have half the saturated fat of butter. Science is since proving that this is the biggest catastrophic advice a government could ever give to its people but we will cover more of that another time. The outcome though is that carbohydrates became king and the preferred choice of fuel for athletes, particularly distance runners. And, it seemed with good reason. Fat, gram for gram, contains more calories than carbohydrate and as we were instructed to eat less calories then it made more sense. This, coupled with what we now know to be false advice, telling us that fat and cholesterol would clog our arteries and kill us, well it was out with fat and in with the wholemeal bread. Also, we were told, only carbohydrate could fuel our muscles for exercise so if we were going to run a long way and burn a lot of calories while doing so then we better have plenty of that precious fuel in storage.
So there it was, a culture born and the belief that distance running plus “healthy whole grains” to achieve ultimate health plus fitness became globally rooted in our minds. It still is to this day and it may still be that way for the rest of my lifetime.
Now let’s examine the result of the running boom. The nation is getting more fat, obese, inactive and sick every year. The average person you see panting around the streets trying to shift their belly is fat and when looking at the start line of a race you will see many age category competitors are carrying a little more than they would like to. This doesn’t always apply to club athletes and people racing as there are some good, in shape distance runners but this brings me back to my line of sarcasm earlier:
RUNNING LONG DISTANCES DOES NOT MAKE YOU THIN BUT THIN PEOPLE OFTEN LIKE TO RUN LONG DISTANCES.
I’ll tell you one thing that running long distances will do for you and that is make you hungry. I can vouch for this as a former long distance endurance runner and finisher of four marathons. I was completely addicted to carbohydrates smashing down juice and Jaffa cakes before a run and literally standing with my head in the fridge for thirty minutes after one. Sound familiar? I see this pattern time and time again in many people I know from gyms I have worked in. Year after year banging out mile upon mile in an attempt to lose weight only to increase it by consuming more carbohydrate because they are chronically fatigued and then blaming themselves for being weak and not doing enough. Wake up! It isn’t working! And do they really believe that after twenty plus years of behaving this way that suddenly it is going to start working? I sincerely doubt it.
So let’s do something different and it is here I now present the case to sprint. Sprinting is awesome. It rocks! It’s so cool! When you watch an athletics meet either live or on tv, do your hairs stand on end when the 10k runners line up on the start line? Nope. Is there a hushed silence? Nope. Besides Mo Farrah do you know the names of any? Nope.
Let’s put that in contrast to when the sprinters walk out: Bolt, Gatlin, Gaye, Lewis, Johnson, Bailey, Christie are all household names, and why? Because they are prime physical specimens that are super fast, powerful and extremely exciting to watch. If we take away modern day athletics and technology then it is these guys that could hunt and kill with the best ability much like you watch a lion in a wildlife programme. And as for the ladies, I don’t think I need to go beyond Jessica Ennis do I? Show me a woman who doesn’t want a body like hers and I’ll show you a raving nutcase!
Sprinting builds muscle and muscle is so metabolically active. Muscle burns fat at rest. It is alive and costs a lot of energy to maintain so when you are inactive, sat at your desk or asleep at night, it constantly requires energy to live which is where your fat stores will feed it. This is why sprinters have a lot of muscle (including females but it is never bulky) and are absolutely ripped.
If you know about your nutrition and how to time it then you really can start to make sprinting work for you. It’s not something you have to do regularly because it is too damn hard to repeat on a daily basis. Plenty of recovery is needed when you have built up the capacity to be able to go full out so with me for example, it is once per week – two at most but two per week is never more than once per month.
If you haven’t ran as fast as you possibly can for a short distance in a long time (and let’s face it, it was probably when you were at school) it may take you a few weeks to build up the ability to do so. You may need to run at 80-90% of max and perhaps for times of around ten seconds before you are able to build that to maybe a minute but when you can you will be glad of it.
If you can’t run then you can always perform your sprints either on a stationery bike or elliptical cross trainer. Rowing and swimming are a little difficult but still could be managed if needs be. Whatever the choice of sprinting activity though, if you want to burn muscle and lose fat then you should definitely try it. You may feel a little self conscious at first as it is so different than steady jogging and certainly looks strange to the passing motorists who half the time I’m sure must think I’ve just mugged someone and am scarpering before the cops get me but who cares? It’s bloody good fun and you will feel unbelievably amazing afterwards as your body will release lots of feel good endorphins that will have you upbeat for hours.
My typical preferred session is 10 x approx 400m with around a 3 minute recovery between. It’s a 600 second workout! It’s that short it’s laughable. 75% of the session is resting. The downside of course is that the work time will make you feel like you’re about to die! But hey, that’s what we live for right?