Is It Physically Possible To Sprint A Marathon?


It seems like if you’re running a race that you would need to sprint to win it! I mean, that’s typically how sprinters win races. But what about marathons? Is it even possible to sprint that long?

It is not physically possible to sprint a marathon. Sprinting is anaerobic and can wear you out quickly, while long-distance running is fueled by oxygen and requires longer endurance. Sprinting and marathons are essentially different sports, with marathon running requiring a consistent manageable pace.

If you are interested to know more about why sprinting won’t work for long-distance running and how the two sports are so different from each other, we have all the information below.

Why It’s Not Possible To Sprint A Marathon

The fastest marathoner in the world (at the 2020 Summer Olympics) finished the marathon in 2 hours and 8 minutes, which averages out to be 12.23 miles per hour. 12.23 MPH is an example of a very fast marathon speed–and definitely would be considered sprinting for many people.

The fastest runners in the world in the 2020 Summer Olympics 200m dash were running faster than 22 MPH.

So, even the best long-distance runners in the world go almost half the speed of short-distance runners (which is by no means non-impressive…

However, sprinting and long-distance running are not the same. Even though 12.23 MPH (running a mile every 5 minutes or so) is really fast for someone like me, the difference in running motion between a marathon and the 200m dash is huge. Let’s take a look.

(Make sure to take a peek at the videos later on in this article)

The Muscles Used For Running

The main muscle groups used in running for both sprinting and long-distance are the glutes, the quads, and hip flexors. Additionally, the hamstrings, the calf muscles, and the muscles of the core region are also used.

While it may seem confusing because both sports use the same muscles, the body movements are not the same. Each muscle group works at a different level during each sport.

When sprinting, the muscles require quick, intense, powerful, explosive functionality, whereas, during a marathon, the muscles require low-intensity persistence during the running gait.

Training Muscles For Running

When training for sports, you have to focus on the specific functionality of those muscles. You have to ensure you are building strength to power up those muscles precisely for what they have to do. 

If you want to sprint, you have to focus on HIIT workouts for fitness and to gain speed and strength since that is what sprinting requires.

On the other hand, marathons (long-distance running) requires you to actually run long distance. If you want to run a marathon, you have to practice to run for as long and as far as needed. You have to learn to pace yourself.

The muscles will get better and stronger according to your training.

How Sprinting Differs From Marathon Running

Sprinting is anaerobic, meaning it is fast and intense. It requires power and is not fueled by oxygen. That means you don’t need the same amount of endurance to sprint as you do for a marathon.

You can see an example of the best sprinters in the world in this video:

Notice how their legs extend almost perpendicularlly to the ground–they are leaping forward with their legs stretch out in every step.

Long-distance running on the other hand is fueled by oxygen, therefore requires high endurance. It requires a slower, consistent pace for a longer time. Long-distance running is aerobic.

Check out this YouTube Video of the Summer Olympics for a visual example of a marathon running by the world’s finest.

Even though these runners are going much faster and running longer than I ever could, notice how different the body movement is for these long-distance runners. They are not sprinting, they are running extremely efficiently and minimizing body movement.

It is clear that if you were to incorporate sprinting into a marathon, you would wear out extremely fast. You would lose the power to continue for a long time and have no strength or energy left. 

Alternatively, you can sprint at the very end of the marathon to complete it. However, you cannot physically sprint in a marathon.

How Extended Sprinting Can Affect The Body

It’s all about the heart and organs in your body. Every time you run, your heart rate increases, your body’s organs and muscles are synchronized, generating heat that burns the fat and glycogen in the body. 

If your body gets overheated for an extended period, it can actually affect the white cells in your lymphatic system, which weakens your immune system–check out this study if you’re interested to see how your immune system can be weakened by extended running.

Running and the immune system

Studies have been conducted to test the endurance running on immune system parameters. A group of runners had blood drawn at regular intervals while running for three hours. The researchers checked their white blood cells and hormone levels at regular intervals. In this study, there was an initial increase in most types of white blood cells and both cortisol and adrenaline levels.

Following the endurance exercise, there was a subsequent reduction in some types of white blood cells. These perturbations of the immune system returned to normal with 24 hours of recovery. Interesting, but what does this show?

There is a relationship between the intensity and duration of runs and immune function. Moderately intense workouts tend to strengthen the immune system. For most people, this means an hour run at a steady pace. Running 10 miles or more or running to exhaustion can actually temporarily weaken the immune system.

This impairment of immune function generally lasts only for a few hours. But for certain people, it may take several days, especially for those with an already weak immune system. Marathon runners have been observed to be up to six times more likely to get the common cold after a race.

What Does It All Mean For Sprinters and Marathoners?

According to the study explained above, we see that running at a moderately intense pace for shorter amounts of time is more helpful and safer for the immune system. It may sound like sprinting can fall under this category. However, running at a sprinting speed for longer than necessary can cause burnout which can lead to the reduction in white blood cells and a weakened immune system.

Marathoners can last longer while running because of the slower pace, but due to the extended time and distance (a marathon is about 26miles), after the amount of time running, it can create the same exhaustion leading to a reduction in white blood cell and again, a weakened immune system which can leave it’s effects long after the marathon is over.

Now imagine combining the two sports – sprinting in a marathon. Your body will go into overdrive, quicker increase in heart rate for longer, muscles working harder and longer to keep up, and no more stored fat or glycogen to burn. The whole process would physically wear your body out to the point of illness, where it may cause long-term or chronic disease because of the shock and impact on the lymphatic system. The immune system would become compromised.

In short–even if we had enough physical energy to sprint a marathon, the other systems in our body would fail.

Why Sprinters Can’t Manage Long Distance Runs

This is because marathons are aerobic, and sprinting is anaerobic. Aerobic exercise is an exercise that depends on oxygen intake to sustain the generation of energy. Anaerobic exercise uses energy stored within the body, usually by burning fat (from carbs) already stored within the body.

When you go past the capacity of your body to take in and use oxygen, the burning of carbohydrates produces lactates. It quickly impacts the ability of the muscles to continue producing energy.

In other words, sprinting drains your body’s resources quickly–while long-distance running slow burns those resources.

You can train your body to release energy more efficiently (anaerobic production by enabling more rapid use of muscles over a short time) within limits. You want to train your body to take in and use oxygen more efficiently (aerobic production by providing more continuous energy, which enables more efficient use of the muscles over a longer duration). 

Both sprinters and marathoners can strive for running at the edge, finishing with an empty tank but running at peak capacity for the required distance.

We see videos of sprinters collapse at the end of their race after exhausting all their stored energy. Yet, we also see marathoners collapse at the end because they change from aerobic running to end the race anaerobically in a sprint finish.

The difference is that the sprinter ran at high speed during their race, while the marathoner ran at a slower pace over a much longer distance.

Can You Be A Sprinter and Marathoner?

It is possible to be both a sprinter and a long-distance runner. It is best not to try and combine both sports. However, if you train accordingly by focusing on powering your body’s muscles groups for each experience, you can achieve both, not simultaneously.

It’s important to give remember the time and effort depending on your focus at specific phases. Your body can take significant negative impact and injury if you are not careful or switch too often between the two without correct form, but especially without sufficient rest.

Conclusion 

Sprinting and running marathons and two different sports, regardless if they are both a part of running and use the same muscle groups.

They require different efforts of body power, and endurance.

Trying to sprint a marathon may seem awesome, but it’s just now how the body works–it is simply not physically possible or safe. Perhaps someday humans will figure out a way to develop their bodies in such a way to make it possible.

Peter

Peter is a software developer who loves to take every opportunity to go outside that he can get. Peter grew up going on long backpacking excursions with his family every Summer and now enjoys staying at the beautiful Texas State Parks and swimming in the amazing Texas Rivers.

Recent Posts