The Real Difference Between Running And Sprinting

For those who are new to running — or those who only run when they absolutely have to — the difference between a standard run and a sprint might seem minuscule. Sure, sprints are a little bit faster, but can extra speed really change that much? After all, both activities burn calories, elevate your heart rate, trigger a sweat, and lead to fatigue and muscle soreness (via the Victoria State Government Department of Health and Health Fitness Revolution). In addition to the physical effects, running can also lead to mental clarity, an increased energy level, and improved endurance. 

With so many similarities, it's easy to see why people may think speed is the only difference between sprinting and running. However, a 2004 study from Brigham Young University suggests that running and sprinting require different muscle movements. The activities use all the same major muscle groups, but how they move is slightly different, specifically the motion of the knees and ankles. Sprinting and distance running require such different movements that runners cannot move the way sprinters do unless they retrain specifically for sprinting. These facts were clear once studied, but to find the biggest difference between the two activities, we have to look at how our muscles are powered.

The differences between distance running and sprinting

Joint motion is a notable difference between sprinting and running, but it is not the biggest one. The most significant difference is in the way they affect the body on a muscular level. Running is a high-impact aerobic activity. These are activities that the Cleveland Clinic describes as any where breathing controls the amount of oxygen that reaches the muscles. Running, cycling, and swimming are all aerobic exercises, and each one can decrease a person's risk of heart disease, lower blood pressure, and improve lung function (via the Mayo Clinic).

Sprinting, on the other hand, is an anaerobic exercise, as explained by Healthline. During anaerobic exercises, the body fuels muscles with glucose rather than oxygen. This triggers the production of lactic acid, a compound that causes muscle soreness and fatigue. It is also why most sprints are limited to distances between 100 and 400 meters that are covered in 60 seconds or less. Distance runners can cover several kilometers over a longer period of time. The difference in how muscles are fueled is the true line that separates sprinting from running.