I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself.  A bird will fall frozen dead from a bough without ever having felt sorry for itself.
D. H. Lawrence

Sprinting for a fixed time vs sprinting for a fixed distance. Now, you might legitimately ask if there’s any real difference here — why the bother to differentiate?  Well, in the simplest of terms, it allows one to more easily identify proper drop-off (defined below) in a particular exercise — when to appropriately call it quits, in other words.  Let me explain.

I prescribe to the theory that an individual’s ability to tolerate stress (be it exercise induced or otherwise), will fluctuate day-to-day, workout-to-workout.  When we hit the gym — or as in my case recently, the track — we really only have but a vague idea (at best) as to what we are truly capable of.  We don’t really know how much training-induced stress is too much, not enough, or just right at that particular time and under that day’s unique set of circumstances.  In other words, if it were possible to control and standardize all the variables of a particular workout session (set, reps, weight, speed of execution, total time under tension, etc.), and actually re-perform that exact same workout at various times throughout the year, the net affect on the body would indeed vary at each instance.  Very few times, in fact, would that workout’s particular workload be “just right” for our needs.  In an attempt to remove some of the guessing-game element from knowing how much workload is sufficient, I usually incorporate some manner of “drop-off” measurement in my workouts.  Now ideally, I’d do this for every exercise of every workout.  Realistically, however, I don’t, due to practical reasons (lack of time usually being the most limiting factor), and some real-world timing and/or speed-measuring limitations that make measuring a drop-off impractical for my needs.  I will say tough, that if my living were dependent upon my sporting performance, I would make sure to use drop-offs with every exercise.  That said, when the practical option does exist for a particular exercise and modality, I will certainly use it.  Sprinting for a fixed time is just one example.  Throwing repeats, for either distance or height, is another.  I touched on this subject a bit in this post, but now I’d like to expound a bit on the notion of the measured “drop-off”.

I think this explanation will be made easier by jumping right to an example.  Let’s look at an initial exercise from a recent workout  — and by “initial” I mean only if we are to discount the pre-sprint, lugging of a 45 lb medicine ball (via fixed-speed bicycle) to the track.  I’ll use this recent sprint/throw session as an example.

The set-up here  is simple: I’ve got a time-down stopwatch that I’ve set for 10 seconds (why 10 seconds?  I’ll get into energy systems in a later post), and I’ve stationed a marker approximately 85 yards away from my starting line.  Now, my goal for each sprint, after the initial sprint, is to better my previous “best distance” covered in that 10 second span.  Now I’ve got a visual goal — something tangible to focus on — and so I’m not forced to rely on the prompt of the “phantom timer” in my mind.

Let me back up just a minute.  I initially stationed my marker at 85 yards away — but I knew this to be a pretty good estimate of my ability because I’ve done this before, and I looked back over my records to get a ball park feel for about where I should be.  I could have just as easily set my stopwatch, sprinted (after a decent warm-up, of course) for the applicable time, and dropped a marker at the sound of the chime.  Either method works just fine.  The first method just allows you the aid of the “visual goal” at the onset of the session.

Now, in this workout I performed a total of 10, full-out, 10-second sprints, with a full recovery between each sprint.  The distances covered, relative to my initial marker, were as follows:

  1. beat the original mark (reset mark to new distance)
  2. beat mark (reset mark)
  3. beat mark (reset mark — this wound-up being the best distance — or PR — of the day)*
  4. missed mark by a shade
  5. missed mark by a shade
  6. equaled mark
  7. equaled mark
  8. equaled mark
  9. missed mark
  10. missed mark by a greater distance than in sprint #9 (drop-off reached).

*every time I “beat the mark”, I reset the mark to the new, “better”distance.  This then became my new goal to beat.  In other words, the #3 mark was about a yard greater in distance than the #1 mark.

A couple of things here: obviously, the use of a hand timer at the start throws an element of imprecision into the mix. This is one reason I prefer to use the “sprint for time” method, as it requires only one interaction with the watch.  For an athlete in training, I’d use a FAT (fully automatic timing) system.  This would also allow for much more precise drop-off measurement.  I’d also take precise distance measurements so as to more adequately figure drop-off percentages.

All fine and well you say, but I still haven’t defined “drop-off”, much less explained how it can be used in the day-to-day doings of us slave-to-he-grind folks.  Very well then, try this on for size:

Drop-off: a reduction in performance in a particular exercise, as measured against that day’s personal best performance in the exercise,and expressed as a percentage of the exercise’s identified, limiting parameter (i.e., time, repetitions, speed, distance, height, etc.). Used as a way of accurately measuring induced stress.

Armed with this information, then, I can better gauge my performance.  I could have said, “well, I’ll go out and rip off 10, 85 yard sprints” and be done with it.  The thing is, though, how do I know that I did enough work — or worse yet — how do I know if I’m not falling into an overtraining zone by pushing myself too hard (the all-too common, over-exuberance factor)?  As an example, after sprint #7 here, without having measured drop-off, I probably would have called the session due to perceived fatigue.  As it was, though, I could actually see that my performance hadn’t slipped, so I did another sprint and hit the mark again. Hmm. In sprint #9 (and feeling pretty damn taxed by this point), I missed the mark, but only by about half a step.  I was a good step and half off in sprint #10, and this is where I eventually pulled the plug.  I was officially, at this point, “sprint toast”.

Now, one can really drop off (pardon the pun) the edge of the earth and totally geek-out with this stuff, because drop-off percentages are highly individualized, and are correlated to an individual’s unique work capacity (also highly individualized), and the resultant, appropriate workout frequency, and to whether (as in my case here) the workout was based on tapping a max effort performance or a repeated effort performance (i.e., how many times can I repeat, say a 90% effort at 50 yards — an effective conditioning tool). These are two totally different animals, with the induced drop-offs for each, and the resultant workout frequency, being a bit different.

So now that you’ve got a feel for what a drop-off is, what can you do with it?

Well, truth be told, your everyday fitness/health seeking individual will be miles ahead of the pack by simply realizing that going into a workout with a preset notion of how to structure an exercise (as far as weight, sets, time under tension, and total reps are concerned) is a subpar way of going about business.  In the simplest of terms, you need to test the waters of what you’re capable of in that particular exercise, situated as it is in that particular location within your workout, and on that particular day.  Use your notes of of an exercise’s past weights, reps, times, distance, etc. as a guide to the current workout, no more than that.  This is similar to what I did by placing my sprint marker where I did at the beginning of my sprint sequence.  By my third sprint I had readjusted to the day’s new “max”, as this was then used as a gauge for all the following “reps”.  What might have affected the day’s new max?  Anything in the world.  Hucking a 45lb medicine ball to the track?  Yup, that’ll affect things.  Heavy deadlifts two days prior?  I’d say so.  But I did have two days worth of extended sleep, and no job/commuting stress to speak of; so did that fact offset the other circumstances?  See what I mean?  Only your performance can dictate what you are really capable of on a particular day.

Let’s look at a second example from the same day; the overhead medicine ball throw for distance — otherwise known as a caber toss.  A fantastic exercise for working explosiveness in the posterior chain.  But wait, sprinting is also pretty taxing on the posterior chain.  Ah, but I am equiped with two pieces of knowledge here: (1) my past performance in this particular exercise, under more “ideal” conditions (i.e., not pre-fatigued) and, (2) I’ve got a drop-off goal in mind (how I establish this goal is the subject of another post).

I wound-up performing 8 all-out throws here, with the second throw being my day’s PR.  By throw #8, I was off my PR by about a foot — time to pull the plug.  Any more work here would’ve been an act of futility akin to beating a rented mule; any less work would not have taxed my posterior chain enough.  Armed with a drop-off measurement, though, I was able to more accurately approximate the Goldie Locks zone of “just right”.

I’ll include another video clip here of Dan Pfaff considering the “Macro view” on how an over-emphasis in one particular part of an overall training regimen can negatively affect overall performance.  Don’t let the title of the clip scare you away, as this is applicable to all traing groups, not just throwers.  I use the vertical jump as my personal, overall performance measurement (as I explained in this post), and so I look at training through the prism of increasing my performance in that (the peak anaerobic power) realm.

I should mention as well, that I am a big proponent of sprinting for distance under a fixed time, for another reason: it is particularly well-suited as a training method — aside from the ease in which drop-offs can be measured.  It is, simply speaking, a great psychological twist that can help in maximizing physical performance output.  Mike Young, over at Elite Track, touches on this notion a bit in this post.

And oh, yeah — how did you lug that damn medicine ball to the track?

Very carefully 🙂



and haul…

In Health,


  1. Wow, learned a lot from this article. Thanks!

    ps – throwing and sprinting are two of my favorite things to do. I like throwing tires and sprinting to them and then heave them some more.


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