Why Runners Should Add Functional Exercises into Their Training Plan

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Why Runners Should Add Functional Exercises into Their Training Plan Why Runners Should Add Functional Exercises into Their Training Plan www.runnerclick.com

Function. The definition is simple enough– it is the natural, purposeful movement or activity for persons and/or things. For example, envision someone getting in and out of bed, on and off a chair, up and down the stairs, lifting a box off the floor and putting it on a shelf, turning to look behind you when driving, picking up a child, helping an elderly person to step off a curb, jumping over a puddle, squatting to put in the spring garden, running to catch the bus, running a marathon… I bet you are starting to get a sense of what I am talking about. In other words, movement is life!

Strength training, by itself, is important for building muscle mass, keeping bones dense, lubricating joints helping us to stay mobile while also creating stability, and additionally, giving us more power and speed in most day to day and athletic endeavors. There are several methods for strength or resistance training including single plane or multi-plane movement with bodyweight exercise, use of dumbbells, machines, resistance bands, anti-gravity devices, balance and stability devices like Swiss balls, Bosu balls, balance discs, etc. All of them serve great purposes for different goals. The more dynamic the exercise, the more challenging for all of the body to respond. This ultimately will translate into better reaction time, balance, and stability in the real world.

As a physical therapist, I focus on prevention of injuries by not just focusing on single plane motion. Some examples of this would be performing a bicep curl or doing a plank. My emphasis is training muscles correctly with proper movement patterns and to fire muscles appropriately, when they are needed and with the least force and best efficiency. This would include full body, diagonal cross firing patterns that require multi-directional movement and balance. Think a single leg bicep curl into an overhead press or a plank with lifting an arm or leg or both. These subtle, yet strategic movements will ultimately assist in an overall more responsive and stronger body during activity, whether it be getting ready for work in the morning or doing an obstacle race.

Functional training involves movements that mimic activities of daily living all the way to the movement in sport. So doing a sumo squat is great if you are a sumo wrestler, but if you are a baseball player you need to do an isometric squat, have hip and thoracic mobility to rotate and glute strength to allow for hip extension to assist with sprinting explosion force to reach first base. Can you see the connection?

For my runners out there, have no fear as I am going to pass on my 5 of my favorite functional exercises and movements for runners. Try each exercise for 3 sets of 10 repetitions on each side, 2-3 times per week.

5 Functional Exercises for Runners

Lunge into a Single Leg High Skip
Lunge into High Skip

How to perform:

  1. Step back into lunge using arms to mimic running.
  2. Swing the back leg up into a high march as you stand and jump off the front leg as if skipping.
  3. Return back to lunge.

Why this move?

Lunges work on balance at the same time they strengthen the glutes and quads. The transition to the skip mimics the start of a sprint, using power in the trunk and calf of the standing leg while giving way to the momentum of the swinging leg.

Single Dead Lift into Back Kick and Overhead Press  
Single Leg Dead Lift Balance

How to perform:

  1. Stand on one leg, lifting opposite leg to high march while holding a light weight.
  2. With abs engaged and keeping a flat back, hinge at the hips to drop the upper body over the standing leg. When you have reached a 90-degree angle, slowly extend the free leg back to extend the hip while simultaneously pushing the light weight overhead.
  3. Return to standing position.

Why this move?

Balance is key for core strength and stability. This is important because running is a single leg activity, when in weight bearing. The dead lift works on glute strength eccentrically and the hip extension and overhead press activate the posterior chain to improve posture.

Squat with Wood Chop
Squat with Wood Chop

How to perform:

  1. With feet forward and hip-width apart, hold a small weight and reach it over the outside of one foot without rounding the back.
  2. Extend the legs, using the glutes to pull your upper body and weight back up while reaching the weight up and over the opposite shoulder without hyperextending the low back, allowing the opposite leg to pivot towards the reach.

Why this move?

This exercise mimics several day-to-day activities like grabbing the laundry basket, groceries out of the car, putting dishes away, lifting a child. For runners, it focuses on quad and glute strength while emphasizing stabilization of the core with rotation. Most importantly, it teaches you to keep your abs engaged to protect the low back.

Leap and Bound with Single Leg Squat 
Leap and Bound

How to perform:

  1. Start standing on one leg and squat down, keeping weight in the heel of the foot and knee over ankle, while reaching with the opposite hand to the outside of the foot.
  2. Stand up using the glutes of standing leg and leap the opposite leg forward, trying to stick the landing.
  3. Perform the single leg squat with reach on this leg.
  4. Stand back up and leap back to repeat.

Why this move?

Single leg squats works on balance and strength, again which is important for running.  The reach increases your depth to further develop the medial part of the quad which will assist in proper kneecap tracking. The leap, of course, mimics the transition from one leg to the other, which is something repeated several times, over and over again, during a run.

Renegade Row into Side Plank Crunch with Threading the Needle
Dynamic Plank

How to perform:

  1. Start in a high plank position with a light weight in one hand.
  2. Row the weight up, keeping the arm close to the torso, without letting the pelvis tilt or rotate.
  3. Letting the weight guide you, continue to pull the weight up by extending the elbow while pivoting on feet to transition to a side plank.
  4. Once stable, crunch the top elbow to the top knee.
  5. Extend both the top arm and leg back out to create a star shape and hold for a brief count.
  6. Return to side plank and take the top arm with weight and reach under the space of the weight bearing arm and foot, rotating the trunk.
  7. Return to side plank.
  8. Return back to high plank and repeat on the other side.

Why this move?

Planks are a great core exercise but that alone will not prevent injury if we do not add movement. Running certainly isn’t a stationary position, so our core work shouldn’t be either. By adding arm, leg, and twisting components, we create a higher functioning core that can react quicker and stabilize ourselves better while our extremities seem to be doing most of the work, but really it’s the core keeping us from falling over.

Do you have any function exercise favorites? Let us know!