The term “functional training” is not new, its been around for many years. The functional training movement initially was began in the world of rehabilitation and was designed to help fix movement disorders. In a nutshell and according to Wikipedia functional training is this, “Functional training attempts to adapt or develop exercises which allow individuals to perform the activities of daily life more easily and without injuries”.
So functional training is good right? Well…yes it is but it seems to be a very misused term these days. I’ve seen mountain bikers just go to the gym and use weight machines in the off season to train and they seemed to think that would best prepare them for the wild and unpredictable world of biking in an uncontrolled environment. And the list goes on..
Lets take for example the world of obstacle racing and events like Tough Mudder, The Spartan Race and even Mocean365’s own, Vermonster Obstacle Challenge and examine the demands of the sport a bit. Most of all obstacle races require a combination of running or at least fast hiking combined with tackling various obstacles both of the manmade variety and natural terrain as well. People must exhibit some elements of endurance, speed and agility while thinking on their feet in an often changing and uncontrolled environment(the outdoors). Furthermore, participants are often extremely wet, dirty and either hot, cold or both. They are also required to scale walls, lower themselves under barbed wire, carry heavy objects, hurl themselves over various obstacles and climb ropes among much more. And of course we would want to examine the length of the event many of which these takes take people 3-5 hours with some way less and some way more. So before deeming an exercise program functional we must first examine the playing field and the elements and the demands.
Would it make sense to functionally train for such an event indoors in an extremely controlled environment? Would it be wise to ignore direct grip strength work? Would it be beneficial to not have a bulk of the movements contain an element of locomotion? Would isometric strength(carrying objects) be important? Would training times of less than an hour always be the call?
It is important for fitness and movement educators to not just use a term because a certain movement is categorized under the functional blanket. Like training on a balance board inside would be an example. I’m personally a huge fan and advocate for these as a great all around training modality. But would I put a client who was training specifically for an obstacle race on one and call it “functional”? No, because it is arguable that is has any practical relevance to the person improving their experience in an obstacle race. The same could be said for a multitude of exercises that I’ve seen in the viral jungle spread around promising people better race times if they follow the trainers sage advice.
In training their is a term called the SAID principle which stands for “specific adaptations to imposed demands”. This means that the body will adapt to the stresses that are place upon it. If you are a logger, you will develop musculature that allow you to perform the task more efficiently and hopefully safely the more and more you do it. Look around at any occupation or sport and you will see many of the body types are the same across the board for that sport or occupation with obvious variables due to body types,diet and lifestyle etc.
At the obstacle races I’ve been to, one of the theme I see is people seemingly completely unprepared for the elements as well as having very poor technique when climbing, scaling walls/ropes, carrying heavy objects and being hot, cold and submerged in water. The comments and complaints I’ve heard have been numerous and it has always struck me as odd. Why would you do this if you weren’t prepared to complete tasks by clearly not ever having trained for them?
So back to obstacle racing and the idea of doing “functional training” for it. You need to clearly replicate the demands of the sport to properly train for it effectively. So here are some key elements of training that would need to be included for maximum adaptation. This is a condensed list.
- Training in an outdoor, uncontrolled environment. Mud and dirt. Cold and hot. Navigating terrain in all planes of movement. There is even elements of swimming in The Spartan Race where people have to swim in their clothing for prolonged amounts of time. Reading and navigating steep terrain with many hazards including holes, rocks, stumps and roots among many others. Developing strong hands and even callouses would be very beneficial.
- Training would need to include elements of isometric strength such as carrying heavy objects that will be done in the race such as a sandbag or 5 gallon buckets.
- Subjects would need to work on mastery of their own body weight in all three planes of movement not limited to specific work in climbing, jumping, crawling, pulling your own bodyweight up and over walls, up ropes etc.
- You would need to be able to maintain some mastery of your movements while your cardiovascular system is working extremely hard.
- The person would need to have a very solid level of conditioning ideally in all areas of the demands they will see in the race.
In my eyes its like this. If you want to get good at something, you have TO DO that something, there is no way around that. If you want to improve your rock climbing ability, you MUST rock climb. Does that mean you shouldn’t do other training besides that? Of course not, but just remember for specific improvements to happen, you must do the activity and in training,do your best to replicate the demands of the endeavor.
I often tell people we train as a means to an end, not the end. Is the end result of performing pull-ups to get better at pull-ups and that’s it? No, we do pull-ups so we can master our body weight, toughen our hands and improve our grip strength and perform movements such as climbing more efficiently. Some food for thought and I hope this helps you decide how to approach your program or system in the future.
Brad Grant at the 2012 Vermonster Obstacle Challenge. Photo by Megan Walsh.