Woman doing jump lunges at the gym

Runners, here’s why you need to stop doing HIIT if you want to run a faster 5k

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Sorry to break it to you, but those HIIT classes you keep doing? They’re probably not making you into a better, faster runner. This workout, however, will.

If you want to run stronger and injury-free, there’s one thing every expert recommends: strength training. Follow any run coach or semi-elite marathoner on Instagram, and you’ll find them talking about the need to do two strength sessions a week for better posture, balanced glutes and arms that’ll cut through the air.

But the kind of strength training you do matters. I’m your archetypal lazy runner, and in recent months, I’ve been going to a high-intensity strength class at a studio close to my flat. The weights are medium-heavy, the burpees last forever and you leave feeling like you’ve had a serious workout. But do I have fewer niggles when running? No.

That’s because, as physical therapist Dr Victoria Sekely points out, HIIT isn’t necessarily the best workout for runners. In a recent Instagram post, she explains that the biggest mistake runners tend to make with their strength training is doing high intensity, jump-based, low weight sessions.

“HIIT classes aren’t actually beneficial for runners. Runners are really good at high intensity, high endurance activities – that’s what running is.

If you run three times a week, you’re already doing that kind of work. What she recommends instead is to bring up the weight and lower the reps to really challenge your body into getting stronger. 

That might sound quite obvious, but even as a seasoned runner and fitness editor, I still go to classes that are more HIIT than strength. They’re the classes that have you doing a minute of goblet squats, before jumping into EMOMs of deadlifts and burpee finishers. They use weights – heavy-ish weights – but they’re still expecting us to work to endurance fatigue, rather than going short and steady (say, working for six reps with a minute’s rest).

So what benefits can heavy strength training offer runners? Well, according to a paper published in the Strength And Conditioning Journal, lifting heavy can make you a faster runner by increasing your muscular power. Because each foot only makes contact with the ground for a fraction of a second, there’s no time to generate much force. That makes it much more important to get your muscles to increase their force production and to contract in a shorter amount of time. And according to this research, training like a football player can do that.

What kind of strength training should runners do?

Power training with heavy weights (three-six reps at 85% maximum effort or above), or doing plyometric (jumping) exercises can improve your power, speed and muscle endurance – especially if you feel like you’re already running as much or as fast as you can. Forget lasting an hour; the aim of this game is to do “very high intensity and very few reps”. 

While those classes can be great for making you feel more comfortable with certain strength training movements – they’re also often super fun and certainly better than doing nothing – it’s definitely worth trying to squeeze in one gym-based or at-home serious strength session a week.

Try this dumbbell workout for running a faster 5K

You don’t need to spend a long time doing these sessions – 30 or 40 minutes is enough. You do, however, need to make sure that you have access to genuinely heavy weights – ones that you couldn’t lift for over 12 reps even if you wanted to.

Next, you want to do a mixture of exercises that are going to challenge your posterior chain muscles (upper back, hamstrings, glutes, calves), and anterior ones (quads, core). Some need to work on balance, others need to be about power.

Have a go at this three-block workout. Each block has three or four exercises, which you want to do for six to eight reps, three times (eg six reps of squats, deadlifts and forward lunges, three times over = block one).

Block one 

40 seconds rest in between each exercise. Repeat block one three times with one minute rest at the end of the last round.

8 x goblet squats (going as deep, slow and heavy as possible)

6 x forward lunge on the right (holding your weights down by your sides)

8 x Romanian deadlifts

6 x forward lunges on the left 

Block two

40 seconds rest between each exercise. Repeat block twice, with one minute rest at the end of the second round.

6 x single leg deadlift on the right (holding one or two weights)

6 x single leg deadlift on the left

6 x kneeling shoulder press 

6 x lying chest fly

Block three

40 seconds rest between each exercise. Repeat block twice, with one minute rest at the end of the second round.

8 x lateral lunges (alternating)

6 x clean and press (alternating)

8 x sumo squats

Images: Getty

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Miranda Larbi

Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.