Functional training: how it can make you a better runner

By July 25, 2016Run

Post by: Garrett McLaughlin, MS, ATC, CSCS, ART. 

Supplementing your training with functional movement is important in a sport that is becoming more and more competitive every day. Nowadays, the ability to go out and be the best is extremely difficult, as areas like nutrition, technology, functional training and recovery are raising the bar. That is why I teach my clients how to cheat the outcome. If we know that adding proper functional movement training can reduce race time, help prevent the likelihood of injury and improve recovery after long runs, why not incorporate these methods more readily into your training program?

One thing we need to realize when it comes to functional training is that its benefit goes far beyond strength. Improving strength is only one piece of the puzzle and needs to be done on top of good mechanics with a movement based approach. That is why functional training provides the most benefit for runners.

When looking at the function of the human body, especially as it relates to running, there are several key characteristics that are needed to be successful. They range from strength, power, endurance, single leg stability, balance, neuromuscular control, joint mobility, flexibility and resilience to injury. If we can create a supplemental program that challenges and improves each one of these areas, there will be a noticeable improvement in performance.

How do I start?

Before starting a functional training program, it is important to complete an assessment to uncover your specific limitations. Do you have any imbalances or asymmetries? What are your weak links and problem areas? Too often runners complete functional training programs with no specificity to their individual needs. In the end, a general approach will yield general results.

Finding a qualified movement professional in your local area can make the biggest difference. Once the assessment is completed, you will have a more thorough understanding of how your body is functioning. Simply restoring balance within the musculoskeletal system, improving restricted range of motion, and getting the proper muscles firing will often yield improvements in performance. Next, we can address strength, power, and endurance on top of good function to see the best results.

Over the years, I have found several exercises to be more worthwhile for runners than others. And by that I mean they address common limitations while also being specific to the sport of running. Below I will highlight each exercise so you can implement them into your functional training program today!

Single Leg Romanian Deadlift (SL RDL)

The SL RDL is a hip hinge variation that puts single leg stability, balance and gluteal strength to the test. Not to mention the dynamic lengthening within the hamstrings that often provides more improvement in flexibility than static stretching. We all know that gluteal activation and strength are key factors in running performance. Therefore, this exercise won’t disappoint!


Split Squat

The split squat is another fantastic exercise that develops unmatched hip stability, balance and lower body strength. As opposed to the single leg RDL we mentioned above, the split squat provides a more quadriceps-focused position. Finding balance within the quadriceps, hamstrings and gluteals are essential for proper function of the lower extremity.



Neglecting the upper body is a big mistake for runners. Not only does a good, upright posture positively impact the running cycle, but the latissimus dorsi muscle attaches to the shoulder all the way from the lower back. This means, completing an exercise like pull-ups can not only impact the postural muscles of the back, but help improve core strength. Since this movement is typically more difficult for most, I wanted to include the best starting point which is the eccentric version.


You can’t go wrong adding one of the above mentioned functional movements into your training program. But remember, functional training is used to supplement your running program and not be the main focus. Adding more stress on top of your current mileage may actually predispose you to injury if not done properly. That is why I always recommend speaking with a movement professional to ensure you are getting what you need without overtraining.

What questions do you have about functional training? We will be LIVE with Garrett McLaughlin on Tuesday, July 26 at 6:45 pm answering all your questions and more about functional training!

Garrett McLaughlin is a licensed athletic trainer and performance coach who works with runners and triathletes. He believes that a function-based approach should precede fitness training and therefore incorporates manual therapy alongside his functional training programs. Follow Garrett on Facebook or read related articles on his blog.