Unlike marathon running, sprinting is a short-distance, explosive run that can leave you almost breathless. Sprinters need a quick source of fuel that powers almost every cell in their body to achieve the greatest amount of speed in the shortest time possible. While carbohydrates are the rocket fuel for sprinting, your body also uses other sources of fuel for energy during and after the training.
Sprinting uses the anaerobic energy system, which doesn't require oxygen to make energy -- instead of the aerobic system which uses oxygen to make energy. Because short-distance sprinting usually lasts less than 10 seconds, there isn't enough time for your body to use oxygen to tap into your fat storage for energy. Instead, your body uses one anaerobic system called the phosphagen system for immediate energy source. ATP, or adenosine triphosphate, is an energy-rich molecule that is stored in all cells, and a typical supply lasts no more than 10 seconds during a high-intensity bout of exercise, says Dr. Jason Karp, contributing writer for the "IDEA Fitness Journal." Once this supply is gone, your body taps into your carbohydrate storage in your muscles for more ATP.
Long-distance sprinting, like the 200- to 400-yard dash, requires your body to break down carbohydrates once the existing ATP in your muscles are used. Between 30 seconds to two minutes, glycogen in your muscles -- which is a form of stored carbs in your body -- are released into your bloodstream in the form of glucose and is delivered to all your cells in your body, especially your nervous system. This allows muscles to continue to work without getting cramps and getting too fatigued. Therefore, too little carbohydrates in your body can slow you down and slows your recovery.
EPOC: The Afterburn
The recovery period is just as important as the exercise period where your body regenerates ATP. This is where you experience the deep breathing and quick rise in body temperature as you catch your breath. This event is called EPOC, or excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, where your body increases your metabolism and respiration to restore your body to its resting state, says Dr. Len Kravitz of the University of New Mexico. Even though your body uses very little or no fat during sprinting, fat is needed as the main fuel source to make more ATP and to deliver oxygen to cells.
Sprinters need a high-carb diet to perform and to have a high storage amount of glycogen in their liver and muscles. However, these foods should be unrefined, complex carbohydrates that are full of vitamins and minerals, such as starchy vegetables, fruits, whole-grains and green leafy veggies, recommends the Australian Institute of Sport. Keep sugary refined foods to a minimum as well as high-fat foods, like bacon and butter. There is no magic number to determine the amount of calories, carbohydrates and protein each person needs. Everyone has a different body and fitness level that influence their metabolism -- genetics, lifestyle, cardiovascular health and training experience play a big role. Consult with a sports dietitian to find out what works best for you to maximize your sprinting ability.
- Dr. Len Kravitz: Exercise After-Burn: Research Update
- IDEA Fitness Journal: The Three Metabolic Energy Systems
- Australian Institute of Sport: Sprinting
- Exercise Physiology: Energy, Nutrtion and Human Performance; William McArdle, Frank Katch, Victor Katch
Nick Ng has been writing fitness articles since 2003, focusing on injury prevention and exercise strategies. He has covered health for "MiaBella" magazine. Ng received his Bachelor of Arts in communications from San Diego State University in 2001 and has been a certified fitness coach with the National Academy of Sports Medicine since 2002.