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What Is Functional Strength Training and Why Do Runners Need It?

Functional training will help you become a stronger and faster runner over time and here’s why.

functional exercise
Trevor Raab

The need for speed as a runner is crucial. But to pick up your pace, you need to increase your power. And the key to increasing your power? Building strength. That’s why you want to incorporate functional training exercises into your weekly workout routine—you’ll improve your overall running performance and reduce your risk of injuries.

“If we think about ourselves as runners like a car, we have an engine that we work on all the time. When we’re running and we’re working on our aerobic side, we’re building the engine. You might have the biggest, baddest engine, but if the frame of the car is not there to support the engine you can only go so far,” Matthew Meyers, an ACE-certified trainer and RRCA-certified running coach, tells Runner’s World. “So, as we do strength work it’s not only preparing us, it’s preparing the body to handle running. As the demands of running increase, strength training allows our bodies to handle those demands.”

So whether you’re exercising during the off season or preparing to run a race, adding functional strength training to your routine will help you run faster and more efficiently. Various research backs this up, with a recent study published in Frontiers in Physiology confirming that athletes who perform functional strength training see improvements in speed, muscular strength, power, stability, and agility.

With the benefits of functional training evident, what is functional strength training anyway? How does it differ from traditional strength training? And how can you implement it into your workout routine? We spoke to strength training experts to find out how you can maximize your strength gains by including functional moves into your weekly workouts.

What is functional training?

As described by the American Council on Exercise (ACE) functional strength training focuses on exercising several muscles and joints together so an individual can perform daily activities with ease. For runners, functional exercises help improve overall performance because they mimic the movement patterns you perform while you run.

“Any time you do any type of strength exercise you’re doing it to function better as a human,” Mary Johnson, USATF running coach and owner of Lift | Run | Perform, tells Runner’s World. “It’s stuff that you can and should be doing every day,” she adds. Basically, functional exercises don’t only help you to become a better runner, but they help you move better overall.

How is functional training different from traditional strength training?

Both Johnson and Meyers agree, traditional strength training is a great way to strengthen your muscles in general. In the more traditional strength training approach, you typically exercise one muscle group at a time—for example, doing leg day on Tuesday and upper body day on Thursdays. You also practice exercises to focus on very specific muscle groups, like doing bicep curls to build your biceps, says Meyers.

On the other hand, functional training, particularly for runners, focuses on full-body movement patterns that mimic what you do on the run. Most experts will say functional strength training is the best option for runners. “As runners, functional strength training tends to be more of what we’re looking for because functional strength training is increasing strength, but it’s also increasing quality and performance,” says Meyers.

“Running is essentially a single-leg sport, requiring impressive muscular strength and endurance,” Nicole Ramos, P.T., D.P.T., a physical therapist and fitness coach at Shift Integrative Medicine tells Runner’s World. “Prioritizing functional strength work as part of your training routine can help improve your pace and endurance and prevent overuse injuries.”

By breaking down the movements needed to function as a runner (think: hip flexion and extension, as well as single-leg and oblique stability), you begin to see some basic functional exercises that can promote those specific patterns and muscle needs. Playing with speed and resistance can improve strength and power within these functional movement patterns.

Running, unlike most sports, does not require fancy equipment to perform. Your body is your most powerful tool. Therefore, working your body in the ways that emphasize functional movement patterns can help improve the propulsion and dynamic stability you need to move through these positions safely and swiftly.

If you haven’t performed functional strength training exercises, then consider adding the exercises in this list to your weekly routine. Meyers and Johnson recommend strength training two to three times a week. Meyer says taking the time to perform functional strength exercises after a hard run will create a simulation of doing hard work on tired legs. This will allow you to reap the most benefits over time!

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The Best Functional Strength Exercises to Add to Your Routine

Dynamic stretches are functional exercises because they are typically performed in positions and movement patterns like those needed to perform a daily task specific to runners. According to research identified by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), dynamic stretching has been shown to improve running performance. In addition to the stretches, strength moves like the squat, lunge, and split squat help build strong, resilient muscles, while the single-leg hop and box jump improve your power. Consider this your ultimate, functional routine.

How to use this list: Jess Movold, NASM-certified trainer and Runner’s World+ Run Coach demonstrates the top functional strength exercises for runners. Prior to a run, spend about 30 to 60 seconds performing each dynamic stretch (quad stretches, hip openers, and hamstring scoops). On strength training days, perform each exercise with bodyweight only for 30 seconds, or load the exercises such as the squats and lunges with enough adequate resistance so you can only perform 10 reps before needing a rest break. Perform 2 to 3 sets of 10 at this resistance level to improve strength and help prevent running-related injuries.

Quad Stretch

Why: Quad stretches help lengthen and stretch the quadriceps muscle on the front of the hip and thigh by promoting improved pelvic alignment and extension for walking and running.

How: Start standing with feet hip-width apart. Bend right knee to draw right foot to butt. Grab right ankle with right hand as you reach left arm straight up toward the ceiling. Keep pelvis tucked and knees aligned to feel a nice stretch along the front of the thigh. Hold for 5 seconds, then return to starting position, and repeat with the left leg. Continue to alternate.

Hip Opener

Why: This stretch promotes hip flexion, abduction, and external rotation to allow for improved hip mobility during your workout.

How: Begin standing with feet hip-width apart. Draw left foot up to right hip and let the left knee fall outward as you grab the left ankle to support the leg. Hold for a brief stretch in this position before performing the same move on the opposite side. Continue to alternate. You should feel this throughout the outer and inner hip and groin.

Hamstring Scoop

Why: This is a great stretch to promote hamstring lengthening for reduced risk of a hamstring injury while running.

How: From standing, bend right knee as you step left heel forward with left leg straight and send hips back to bend forward. Scooping both hands along the floor from hip to toe before returning to stand. Repeat on other leg. Continue to alternate this movement while standing in place or walking forward, switching side-to-side.

Deep Squat

Why: Deep squats promote hip mobility while also emphasizing the work of the gluteus maximus, hamstrings, and quadriceps—all important muscles for running gait.

How: Begin standing with feet wider than hip-width apart and toes slightly turned out. Clasp hands in front of chest for balance. Send hips back and bend knees to lower hips down to the floor without rounding out your back—keep your chest lifted. Engage glutes to push back up to starting position. Repeat.

Walking Lunge

Why: Walking lunges promote sagittal plane (forward and backward) mobility while requiring lateral stability. Both of these are essential for maintaining a smooth and healthy alignment while running and for preventing dynamic valgus that can often lead to knee or other injuries of the lower extremities.

How: Start standing with hands on hips and feet parallel. Step right foot forward and bend knees to lower down so that legs form 90-degree angles, making sure to keep the front knee in line with toes. Press through right foot to return to standing, bringing left foot forward. Repeat deep lunge on left leg. Continue walking for about 20 feet.

Bulgarian Split Squat

Why: Running is a single-leg sport, meaning you leap and land on one leg at a time, thus it requires single-leg stability as well as the ability to propel your whole body off of one leg. That’s a lot of strength required to go through a simple motion! Bulgarian split squats challenge all of the major muscles in your hip and leg. Keep in mind you do not want to do a Bulgarian split squat until you are comfortable with a double-leg squat.

How: Stand with right foot behind you, resting on a low bench or chair, laces down. Clasp hands in front of chest for balance. Slowly and with control, bend left knee to lower down, right knee lowering down to floor. Press through left heel to return to starting position. Repeat for 30 seconds, then switch legs.

Single-Leg Hop

Why: Running is a plyometric sport, meaning the muscles must shorten and lengthen quickly to provide power and propulsion. Because this is done one leg at a time, single-leg hopping is a great way to work on single-leg strength, stability, and power for stronger, faster running.

How: Balance on left foot in front of a step or low box. Clasp hands in front of chest for balance. Using just the left leg, hop up onto the step, then hop back down. Stay light on your foot. Try to do these in front of a mirror to make sure your knee is staying straight (not falling inward) with each hop. Repeat for 30 seconds then do the same on the left leg.

Box Jump

Why: Box jumps combine the squat positioning with the power element that make it an excellent combined exercise for both hip and leg strengthening as well as power production. By incorporating all the muscles from the gluteus maximus and quads to the calf muscles, it is an excellent functional exercise for runners of all levels.

How: Stand with feet hip-width apart in front of a box. Make sure you have room to perform a squat before propelling yourself up to the box height of your choice. Send hips back to squat down then quickly jump up onto the box. Step back down and repeat. Try a box height that is just high and challenging enough that you feel it would be hard to do more than 10 in a row.

Images: Julia Hembree Smith

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