For decades, long distance running was the go-to exercise for people who wanted to lose weight, and for many people it still is.
Someone who has never exercised before is more likely to go for a quick jog than join a gym. If they stick at it, that quick jog may turn into 5, 10, or 20 km weekly run and suddenly they are now identified as a long distance runner.
In recent times resistance exercise has been promoted as the new and improved way to lose fat, with long distance running being looked down on and many trainers stating that it was an outdated way to exercise.
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An old school exercise
Sprinting has also become more popular due to the huge success of High Intensity Interval Training
and a current love affair with ‘hardcore’ training – think Crossfit, ‘Go Hard or Go Home’, Competitive Bodybuilding etc.
The obvious benefit of sprinting over long distance running is that it can be completed in a much shorter time-frame. Perfect for those of us with busy schedules and active family/social lives.
If you were to perform five 30 second sprints you would burn around 200 calories  which is a lot more efficient than long distance running, where you could be looking at an hour’s worth of work for the same payoff.
So in terms of calories burned per minute of exercise, sprinting is the hands down winner.
And science does back this up, a study  in Germany found that there was a significant difference in energy required between slow and fast speeds when running an 8km race. Yes, running 8km is not the same as sprinting 50m but it does show that running faster burns more calories.
So why am I not rushing to promote sprinting over long distance?
Because most of us are not athletes, we are simply not ready to sprint.
We need to remember that sprinting is a skill and it is not something that people can jump straight into.
You need proper technique
to run as fast as you can without injury
and a certain level of fitness to maintain the exercise long enough to use that energy.
An overweight 60 year old would not be able to sprint for 30 seconds, they might not even be able to jog for that long. And if you are not sprinting, then you are not burning those extra calories.
If that hypothetical 60 year old did manage to sprint as fast as they could for 30 seconds (something most 20 year olds would struggle to achieve) they would have seriously increased their chances of injuring themselves.
Sprinting runs risk
In a review of injury proportions for different types of running , Kluitenberg et al found that 63.8% of track sprinters had reported an injury (115 out of 180) whilst only 31.7% of long distance runners had reported an injury (1,870 out of 6,209).
As you can see from the study sprinting clearly has more risks, but does it have more benefits (apart from calories burnt per minute) overall?
In a comparison of the benefits and risks in sprinting and long distance running  Kusy & Zielinski found that long distance runners had considerably better aerobic capacity and heart function, better Glucose metabolism and an improved lipid profile.
Whilst sprinters had more muscle mass, a higher bone density, and improved neuromuscular function. Sprinters were also found to have better training adherence which points to sprinting being more enjoyable long term.
Interestingly, both sprinters and long distance runners had similar fat levels (both significantly better than sedentary individuals).
Showing that both forms of running are excellent at helping maintain lower body fat levels. This study also find that sprinters had a higher risk of injury.
So what would I recommend?
Many studies  have found that it is less to do with how fast you run, or how far but the duration of exercise. By this, I mean how much time is spent on exercise per week over the course of a year, rather than how long the session itself is.
So in my opinion, when you are deciding whether sprinting or long distance running is better for you, the first thing you should ascertain is what you want to achieve.
Do you want to lose fat?
If so then both activities will work, though I would recommend long distance running for the beginners amongst you.
The important thing is that you enjoy the chosen activity and can see yourself continuing with it for a long time. Combine either (or both) with some weight training and a well managed diet and you will see results. Just be patient.
Do you want to improve performance for your chosen sport?
Then find out which of the two most closely resembles it (in most cases a combination of both would be best). Or maybe you want to run because you enjoy running. In which case do whatever you want! There is no right answer here.
Connect with Expert Matthew Smith
1. Science Daily, American Physiological Society (APS): “Minutes of Hard Exercise Can Lead to All-Day Calorie Burn
2. Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise: Rosenberger, F., Meyer, T., and Kindermann, W., Running 8000 m Fast or Slow: Are There Differences in Energy Cost and Fat
3. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine: Chambliss, H, Exercise Duration and Intensity in a Weight-Loss Program
4. Sports Medicine: Kluitenberg, B., Middelkoop, MV., Diercks, R., and Van Der Worp, H, What are the Differences in Injury Proportions Between Different Populations of Runners? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis
5. Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews: Krzysztof, K., and Zielinski, J, Sprinters vs Long-distance Runners: How to Grow Old Healthy
6. The Journal of the American Medical Association: Jakicic, J.M., Marcus, B.H., Gallagher, K.I., Napolitano, M., and Lang, W, Effect of Exercise Duration and Intensity on Weight Loss in Overweight, Sedentary Women: A Randomized Trial
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