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Functional Strength Defined (and Why Runners Need It)

Ask a group of distance runners how often they do strength training, and chances are good they say they don’t.

“I don’t have time.”
“I don’t want to get big.”
“The training plan I’m following has me running 5-6 days a week.”
“I don’t have a gym membership.”

Sound familiar?

Most runners neglect strength training in favor of running more miles. What we often fail to see is that improving functional strength will improve running performance—even if it means sacrificing a day of running to work on strengthening.

Functional strength is the strength needed to get you through every day life, including all of the activities you need and want to do. This varies widely from person to person based on what his or her life is like, but what’s true is that everyone needs a minimum amount of strength. The ability to ascend and descend a couple flights of stairs, get up from a chair, pick up your infant kids, carry the groceries (especially in New York City!) or move furniture are all things that nearly everyone needs the strength to do at some point.

When it comes to runners, is it really necessary for them to be able to barbell overhead press 225 pounds at the gym? Do they need to be able to deadlift 375 pounds or 2 ½ times their body weight in order to be a successful runner? Of course not.

Should runners be strong enough to engage key muscle groups and control their running motion? Of course they should.

The idea that lifting weights–and incorporating a strengthening routine in your training–will cause a runner to “get big” and hinder performance is a complete misconception. It’s understandable that when running 26.2 miles, every pound matters, and you want to be as close to your ideal racing weight as possible. But it takes a lot more than lifting a few days a week to put on weight; other factors matter as well, such as the type of program you’re following (i.e. your set and rep ranges and the percentage of your 1-rep max that you’re lifting) and the number of calories consumed in your diet.

The strength program a runner follows should be specific to their training goals. If you’re a sprinter, your main focus at the gym should be on improving explosive strength. Most sprinters know to prioritize glute and plyometric-explosive strengthening via box jumps, front/back squats and deadlifts — but if you’re really concerned about your top speed, then you also need to build upper body strength. Having a strong upper body helps to drive you forward and balance out your legs with every stride.

If you’re a long distance runner, you still need some amount of upper body strength to support you and help with your posture both during your runs and throughout everyday life — but the biggest muscle group to focus on is activating your glutes, commonly referred to as your hip abductors. The strength of your glutes is crucial to running — and they’re typically weak in most runners and endurance athletes.

The main function of your glutes is to support your pelvis when standing on one leg. When running, you are either in the air or on one leg — never on two legs at a time. If you’re running a half marathon, marathon or even further, your glutes, legs and core need to be strong enough to support you for the duration of the race.

Ever do a race and just watch other runners? The end of longer races is usually not a pretty sight. One of the biggest reasons is because people aren’t strong enough to maintain the form they started with, which can be a major contributing factor in people getting injured late in races.

Building this sort of functional strength specific to the sport of running doesn’t require a gym or any fancy equipment. It’s as easy as spending 20 minutes after an easy run doing a series of body-weight focused lunges, squats, planks and push-ups in all three planes of motion. Running drills are another great way to “practice” good form while also building strength.

Don’t be one of those runners whose form breaks down at the end of the race! Become a complete runner by taking time now to build a foundation of stability and strength.