Functional Endurance Strength in Cross Country Training

Posted by Scott Christensen

Strength is one of the five primary physical components (speed, endurance, flexibility, strength, coordination) that defines athleticism.  Cross country runners, like all athletes, benefit from the improvement of all five physical components to the degree to which their particular sport demands.  Strength training must always be focused on training the movement, rather than the muscle, so a close examination of an individual distance running style is always the first step in the process.  Movement screenings that measure six to seven different exercises directly related to the repeated vertical oscillation and foot strike pattern of a distance runners movement signature are essential to initiating and monitoring improvement of their athletic skills.  Today we will look at functional endurance strength.

Movement itself is recognized as a continuous sequence of changing shapes.  Shape changes for distance runners are unique to their sport and in fact, to the individual runners themselves.  Specific strength training designed for distance runners should improve the often-repeated transition from shape to shape, and their ability to maintain a specific shape necessary for that moment in time as the body’s center of mass moves forward efficiently and economically.

This conceptualization defines functional strength, which involves unrestricted movement against resistance, in which the exerciser defines the exercise motion as it moves from plane to plane.  In other words, functional strength training is defined as training that attempts to mimic the specific physiological demands of real-life activity.  In this case, cross country running.

Functional training is likely the opposite of many of the exercises done on the machines found in a gym or weight room.  The motion found there is usually in one plane with the machine itself dictating the path of movement.  This results in the improvement of weight-room strength, but not much improvement in distance running performance.


* Coaching Resource: Strength & Power Development for Distance


Some of this thought applies to the “Big 3” of free weight training as well.  While the squat and clean put the distance runner in an upright stance which is the position of performance, the bench press is a horizontally done exercise with shape changes that are just not applicable to improving distance running performance where the arms are merely used for balance.

Functional strength training in cross country runners takes many forms.  All prescribed exercises must take into account: the degree of resistance, planes of motion, exerciser defined, and the movement signature of athletes within the boundaries of the sport.  Ideally, the majority of functional strength work should put the cross country runner into an upright posture, but there are other exercises such as various forms of crawling and mountain-climbers that travel laterally, rather than stationary, that are surely applicable.

The simplest mode of functional strength training is running itself.  The resistance is gravity and friction.  The planes of body motion are sagittal and transverse, with both linear and rotational movement.  The runner defines the velocity and direction of movement and greatly benefits in multi-directional running done at various angles.  Pushing off and against the pull of the Earth is mainly achieved through backside mechanics by the cross country runner with a concentration on the work of the soleus and hamstring.

To run faster requires more force production, which means more (not stronger) muscular contractions, and brings in greater frontside body mechanics of the quadricep and greater lift from the glutes.  So, cross country runners benefit greatly from running at velocities ranging from slow to medium pace in multiple directions to max speed work done in a straight over 30-40 meters.

Adding a vertical component to exercises brings in a much stronger functional strength stimulus than just running.  Any type of lateral skipping exercise facilitates this mode of training when done with purpose.  There are plenty of stationary exercises that also add a vertical component; with the most familiar being a deep body squat followed by a jump, and then repeated several times.

In running, everything seems to be connected to everything else in the body as it achieves a movement pattern.  In reality, running is an alternating series of unilateral movements that themselves need to be interconnected in a coordinated manner.  With that in mind, useful functional strength training can be done by isolating on unilateral movements.  Doing multiple repetitions of unilateral deep bodyweight squats is a good exercise.  Remember to work on the right side of the body as much as you work on the left side.

Step lunges, bounding, mini-hurdle hops, 30-inch hurdle stepovers, and jump roping are all excellent forms of functional strength training for cross country runners and are easy to do, and do not require time in the “wait” room.  Link several exercises together such as 10 right leg step lunges, followed by 10 bilateral deep bodyweight squats, then 10 left leg step lunges, and then 10 bilateral deep bodyweight squats with a jump emphasis at the end of each one.  Try to average about two seconds per action.  After the set is done, rest 3-4 minutes and then repeat the full set.

Constructive coaching cues are important when doing these activities, with a close eye always kept on proper upright body position.  Many coaches like to prescribe these activities with something always in the athletes’ hands.  Medicine balls, broomsticks, or a five-foot PVC tube come to mind.  It is easier for the athlete to recognize their proper stand-tall upright posture when an object such as these that are in their hands, and it is very easy for the coach to spot improper technique.


* Coaching Resource: Advanced Topics Symposium in Cross Country


If a cross country runner has earned the right to train in the weight room with an artificial load, then it opens up many new avenues of functional training.  A person is ultimately ready when their movement screenings indicate that it is now appropriate to add a greater load.  A thoughtful coach will analyze the running signature of a particular athlete and determine where the loading stimulus should occur to improve a certain movement.  Choose three exercises, to not overwhelm the athlete.  Have them do a load they can surely handle, but barely.  By moving an artificial load that is close to their maximum for only a few reps the muscle stays under tension for only a short period of time.  This is the desired stimulus.

Three lifts to start with might be the hang clean, deadlift, and the squat.  Handling a heavy load (for them) is not easy.  It takes coordination besides strength.  That is why the right to artificially load needs to be earned.  If a cross country runner cannot easily jump rope, forget the weight room. They are not ready.

Functional training such as resistance exercises and bodyweight movements can help a cross country runner become stronger, more flexible, agiler, and better equipped to handle the day-to-day rigor of speed and endurance training.  Plus, it can help a chronic runner become less injury-prone.



Scott Christensen - Scott Christensen’s teams have been ranked in the national top 10 eight times. He won the 1997 High School National Championship and his squads have captured multiple Minnesota State Championships. Scott has coached 13 Minnesota State Championship-winning teams and 27 individual Minnesota State Champions. He was the USTFCCCA Endurance Specialist School junior team leader for the World Cross Country Team in 2003 and the senior team leader in 2008. Scott is a 14-year USATF Level II endurance lead instructor.

Related Posts

A Workout Ingredient List for the Cross Country Coach

Quantifying Training Effort of Middle Distance Runners

Training Aerobic Capacity and Middle Distance Athletes

Middle School Training for Cross Country Runners

General Adaptation Syndrome and Cross Country Training