8 Functional Training Moves To Up Your Speed!
It’s no secret that being strong is an important part of being a runner and critical for preventing injuries. But there are many different fads that pop up in the strength training world, and not all of them are backed by science.
Functional training, though, is one method that research shows is effective for everyone from children to grandma and grandpa, as well as athletes like us runners. This type of training strengthens the major muscle groups needed for the positions and movements that healthy running requires, and it also addresses mobility to encourage good form.
“Running is essentially a single-leg sport, requiring impressive muscular strength and endurance,” says Nicole Ramos, P.T., D.P.T., a physical therapist and fitness coach at Shift Integrative Medicine. “Prioritising 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, 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.
To get you started, here are eight functional training exercises that are especially beneficial for runners. Typically, dynamic stretching and functional exercises are best performed prior to a workout so that your muscles are warmed up and and your joints are loose and ready to perform the movements required for your workout. Try mixing these exercises into your pre-running routine or adding resistance the functional exercises such as squats and walking lunges on strength-training days.
How to use this list: These functional exercises are demonstrated by Jess Movold, NASM-certified trainer and Runner’s World+ Run Coach. 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 body weight only for 30 seconds, or load the exercises such as the squats and lunges with enough resistance that 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 prevent running related injuries.
Dynamic stretches are functional exercises because they are typically performed in positions and movement patterns similar to 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.
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.
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.
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.
Why: Deep squats promote hip mobility while also emphasizing the work of the gluteus maximus, hamstrings, and quadriceps—all important muscles for running and 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.
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 and 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, but do not try 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. Clasp hands in front of chest for balance. Slowly and with control, bend left knee to lower down right knee down to floor. Press through left heel to return to starting position. Repeat for 30 seconds, then switch legs.
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 going inward) with each hop. Repeat for 30 seconds then do the same on the left leg.
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. Hop 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