Get lean and fit—and enjoy it!
This Is How to Grow Strong by Sprinting
The science-based way to reboot your body in only 21 minutes per week
The vet listened to the stethoscope on my ailing 2-year-old Corgi, Arthur. “Oh,” she exclaimed. “Arthur must be off leash.”
“Yes,” I said. “But why do you say that?”
“His heartbeat is strong. He must do a lot of running.”
“Sprinting,” I replied. “He sprints after the geese. Whenever he sees them walking the pasture, he sprints and chases them into the pond.”
“I see. That explains it. He’s a sprinter,” she said with a smile. “ No wonder he is so hardy. It’s amazing, isn’t it? To see the sheer joy of dogs charging as fast as they possibly can when not constrained by the leash.”
“Yes,” I answered, rather vaguely. I was too worried about my pup’s Lyme disease. Unlike humans, dogs show immediate physical signs when they contract Lyme disease. They limp.
Lyme disease first affects animals in their joints. The joints grow sore from inflammation. When you’re a sprinter like Arthur, any vulnerability in the legs is immediately spotted. He was prescribed a 30-day cycle on antibiotics and within a single day, he was visibly back to normal. Another sun rose. There were more geese to chase from the pasture to the pond.
On my way home from the vet’s, I thought about what the vet had said about the sheer joy in dogs when they can charge off leash. I thought about the poem written by the late Mary Oliver in her wonderful collection, Dog Songs:
You may not agree, you may not care, but if you are holding this book you should know that of all the sights I love in this world — and there are plenty — very near the top of the list is this one: dogs without leashes.
“Run like you’re 5-years-old.”
A few days later, I was on Facebook Portal with Thom, a friend from Chicago who runs a children’s publishing house. Out of the blue, Thom asked, “Davey, have you ever just full-out run like you were 5 years old again? Run so fast and strong until you couldn’t run another step?”
“No,” I replied. “Not for years and years.”
I was a step counter, always walking to get my 10,000 steps a day in. Recently, I gave myself a fitness challenge to walk 100,000 steps — I did it and wrote about it in Better Humans. But I did not like running. And sprinting? I had never done that since a kid.
“You should try it. When you do, you’re going to love it. Your lungs will burn. Your legs will ache.”
“Wow,” I replied. “Sounds like an overall great time.”
The truth is, I was terrified of sprinting. Immediately, I placed myself in the line-up with those lean, muscled athletes that flood Instagram. We all know those photos. Here’s one, in case you forgot. I could not measure up in that way. I saw myself in awkward, graceless countenance.
After stewing for a while, I remembered what one of my earliest mentors, Michael Eisner, Chairman of Disney for 21 years, said: “the only one on the racetrack is you.”
“Have you started running like there was no tomorrow?” asked my friend Thom from Chicago.
“No,” I replied.
“Remember, the key is to make it fun.”
Making It Fun
Being a kid was fun, most of the time. But how could I be a kid again? I decided I would rise above my own terror and embarrassment by kicking a ball and chasing after it.
If people saw me running like a maniac, they would say, “Oh, that makes sense. He’s chasing a ball.”
Next day, I found myself in the pasture with my Corgi. I kicked my soccer ball several hundred feet and then ran after it as fast as I could. I ran even when my breath ran out. I ran like there was no tomorrow. It was an exhilarating sensation because I couldn’t remember ever having that sensation before. Ever.
I had read that a full workout for sprinting should be 7 sprints. So, I decided I would sprint again. And when I was ready, I sprinted. I continued to kick and chase after that ball, and after 7 sprints, I called it a day. Honestly, it was fun. Arthur the Corgi was with me for every yard.
As it turns out, in sprinting, I wasn’t using air to power me.
Aerobic vs. anaerobic
One of the seminal differences between aerobic (running) and anaerobic (sprinting) is the power source. In aerobics, you are using air for energy. Anaerobic exercise is “fueled by the energy sources within the contracting muscles and independent of the use of inhaled oxygen as an energy source.”
We have been conditioned to believe that running is better for us than sprinting. Running requires more time (20 minutes vs. a few minutes), more regularity (every day), and is the acceptable lifestyle choice in the modern world. Everyone runs in movies. No one sprints except in a boxing flick.
Sprinting seems like an add-on. It requires little commitment (say 7 minutes) and patchy regularity (every other day). It doesn’t seem serious. Yet the studies show it’s a supremely valuable fitness activity.
In University research conducted between running vs. sprinting, the results are not discernibly different. Both forms of exercise increase your metabolism — which is critical. Research shows that high-intensity interval training in the form of sprinting every other day can improve insulin sensitivity in men by 23%.
Just as importantly, it generates the human growth hormone and awakens your endorphins, including oxytocin.
If you are looking to lose weight, because of the time and regularity, jogging every day is most probably going to help you lose weight faster in a 30-day window. But, sprinting burns more fat at a higher speed — about 200 calories in 3 minutes— than running.
Within hours of my simple 7-sprint workout in the pasture where I ran not like an athlete, but like “I was 5 years old,” something happened.
I felt I had flicked a switch. I discovered that I was more aware of my body — aligned with it. I carried my body with deeper confidence. For me, I am never looking for a beach-bod. I simply want to be strong, free from disease. It was amazing. In just a few minutes, my mind was signaling me — you’re stronger.
Benefits of sprinting
I took a deep-dive in researching scientific data on sprinting. Again, I was amazed. Based on the most recent studies, these are the benefits of sprinting:
- Takes very little time
- Improves metabolism
- Improves cardiovascular health
- Burns fat
- Busts stress
- Increases happiness hormones
- Gym equipment isn’t necessary
- Aids in muscle growth
Chasing the Ball
I began a sprint regime on every other day. I took a holistic approach: exercise, nature (fresh air, green grass, and sky) and fun. The biggest challenge was to have a marker.
I spend a fair amount of time traveling and lecturing, so the marker had to be universal. After some thoughtful consideration, I decided on a soccer ball. I would kick it as far as I could and then I would sprint to it. That became my focus. I would arrive at the ball and stop.
Once I “recovered” from the sprint — which meant I had breath again and felt the energy return to my body (generally about 30–45 seconds), I would kick the ball again and then sprint to it. I did this 7 times every sprinting cycle. The 7 sprints and the 7 recharges took approximately 7 minutes. I found the ball helpful because it meant I didn’t have to look at my watch or be distracted by an alarm from my phone. It was all about the visual destination of reaching the ball… just like when I was a kid.
You can throw a tennis ball or run a chuck-it with your dog… anything that works to give you a vibrant sprint AND a visual target. The youthful mindset switches on when you use a ball. That’s important with this holistic approach — you are at play with your body. That is no small feat. It’s all part of experiencing your youth. One of the most highlighted passages from my work with Better Humans features a mindset toward aging:
I have seen it happen again and again. The weight of fear and potential illness topples people before their time. As they focus their energies on fearing old age, they become old through their own dreadful prophecy.
No matter where I am in the world, I keep my sprinting life alive. Sprinting has become my anchor workout. Then, it’s up to me the rest of the day to remain active — walking, carrying groceries, reaching up to the high shelves. Because of sprinting, I am as fit as I have ever been: I’ve lost any flab, I’m lean, I’m healthy, and just like my sprinting Corgi, I have a steady heartbeat and a strong heart. I am also 67 years old.
I sprint 9 months out of the year in the great outdoors. In the very cold weather, I take to the indoor treadmill. I do not sprint in the winter months unless I’m on an indoor track. Experts say not to try to replicate sprinting on a treadmill. It’s just too precarious.
I found that the soccer ball is ubiquitous around the world. Whenever I am at a location for over 3 days, I pick up an inexpensive soccer ball at a local sports shop and use it during my stay. Balls run about $20 USD anywhere in the world. At the end of my lecture tour in the city, I leave it for the parents of kids at the hotel desk or Airbnb.
Across the globe, most metropolitan designs include a sizable recreation park. I head to those parks and kick my ball and sprint after it. It doesn’t matter if I’m in London, Paris, or Oslo. After my sprint exercise, and remembering a holistic approach, I’ll play around a bit in the indigenous environment, sometimes finding a pick-up with some locals.
If I don’t have sweats, I’ll wear jeans or walking shorts. Any pair of athletic shoes will do, or even barefooted (if you know the terrain well and are aware of potential hazards). Here I am in France, where I was speaking at a film-making retreat. I am not ashamed to say I use these old farmer jeans as my workout gear.
Avoid Muscle-Joint Freeze
I was so enjoying my sprint regime, that early in the process, I sprinted 2 days in a row. Big mistake. When sprinting, you are using your body in a whole new way than it’s used to.
The day after sprinting, even though we’re only talking less than 2 minutes of exercise (with 7 sprints at 15 seconds each), your body is still recovering.
Sprinting tears at your muscles, compelling them to grow stronger through healing. That’s all good news for strength. However, if you don’t have a recovery day, then the muscles don’t heal properly. That translates to being sore and/or stiff.
Since we are so conditioned to believe the long workout is the best workout, I thought, I could do it all over again the next day as sprinting required so little time. Strangely, I was so sore from those 2 days in a row, I could hardly bend my arms and legs for 12 hours.
Warm up before you sprint
Don’t sprint with a cold body. Warm it up with a short, brisk walk. Don’t do static stretching. Normally, slow, static stretching is good to raise the body temperature — but not with sprinting. Studies show that static stretches can inhibit sprint performance.
If you have heart or respiratory issues, be sure to consult your physician before sprinting.
Time studies on exercise
Remarkable new discoveries on exercise demonstrate that you need little exercise to remain healthy and fit if your baseline exercise (sprinting) is intense. Recent university trials have stunningly shown that 12 weeks of short sprint interval training is just as good as, if not better than, 12 weeks of 40 minutes of jogging a day. In their conclusion:
Twelve weeks of brief intense interval exercise improved indices of cardiometabolic health to the same extent as traditional endurance training in sedentary men, despite a five-fold lower exercise volume and time commitment.
The precise mechanisms responsible for improved fitness present studies, according to the study, “are unknown”. What we do know is that the body has been switched on out of its sedentary sluggishness.
If you are reasonable and responsible in your sprinting activity, this is what will happen to you:
- You’ll have more time
- You’ll develop lean muscles
- Your attitude will improve
- You might be able to cancel your gym membership
- You’ll feel and be more fit
- Your cardiovascular health will improve
- You’ll want to stay active
There are plenty of sprinting “before-and-after” visual testimonies online if you want to check them out, although I cannot lay claim to 100% veracity with the testimonies.
I can, however, testify that regular sprinting has switched my own body back on. It takes only 21 minutes a week. That’s less than an hour and a half a month.
Sprinting is like priming the pump, or changing the fuses, or adding a new battery. Of course, it’s important to eat right and to sleep enough, but sprinting might be your very own game-changer.
That story of your body-replacing-itself-every-7-years is a myth. Yet, the body is constantly replenishing its 75 trillion cells. Skin cells are replaced every three weeks. White blood cells, every year. Red blood cells, every 4 months.
Why shouldn’t we honor our body’s new cells by turning our body on every 48 hours with a switch born from high-intensity play?
Why shouldn’t we give our bodies a flood of endorphins, of oxytocin, of human growth hormones? Why shouldn’t we want cardiovascular health? Why shouldn’t we feel good and be good? Why shouldn’t we run like a 5-year-old child?
You just need a ball and 7 minutes.