The best 30 day challenge for runners

What is the best 30 day challenge for runners?

So, another blog in response to a question from twitter.

What are the best "30 day challenges" for runners? I.e do I really need to be able to wall sit for 300 seconds?

It depends. As ever, it depends (it really does). When you look to construct a robust training plan for a given person, ‘Individualization’, is one of the main requirements you should look to satisfy. I’d like to know a lot more about you (or any runner) before I would answer it specifically (for you) e.g:

In general terms, on your athletic journey, what is our starting point? What is the destination? Specifically - What is your biological and training age? Training history? Current training load? Health status, stress levels, ability to recover?

I don’t mention this to avoid the question, but more to demonstrate that it would be irresponsible to suggest I could offer you a decent answer without such information. I’d like to see how you move, how you run. Only then might it be possible to determine the suitability of any 30 day challenge for you. Taking that into consideration, the likelihood of an arbitrarily designed challenge is unlikely to be that useful for you.  But that doesn’t mean they are completely without benefit either.

Everything that goes into a training plan, should have a purpose. With busy lives to lead, few of us really have the time to be participating in anything that is anything less than something that is fit for purpose toward our eventual goals. Assuming that the specificity of our overall training is also not something that is mutually exclusive from the ability to enjoy ourselves, let’s evaluate the 30 day wall sit challenge in a little more depth and examine its potential benefit to runners.

Image listing the progression of the 30 day wall sit challenge
The 30 day wall sit challenge

So first things first, what is a wall sit exercise? Its an exercise that predominantly works your quads, but also glutes and calves. On the face of it, it sounds like this will be good for running. You definitely use your quads, glutes and calves for running, so thats a tick in our ‘specific for running’ box…..or is it? The wall sit exercise involves an isometric muscle action. What does this mean?  Basically the muscle length doesn’t change and the contractile force is equal to the resistive force, hence you stay in the same place! So what? Well lets look at our quads very briefly while running. They help extend the hip and knee. So actually work both concentrically (where muscle length shortens because the contractile force is greater than the resistive force) and eccentrically (where the the muscle length extends because the contractile force is less than the resistive force) during the running cycle. Ever run fast down a steep hill and had achey legs the next day? This is where your quads experience an exaggerated version of one of their main functions during running i.e. a lot of eccentric loading - (think braking/shock absorbing). As your foot falls further downwards than normal, it effectively increases the resistive forces your quads must absorb. Yet they simultaneously have to contract to stabilise your knee. No wonder they ache after this - I hate trying to do two things at once 😉 So while an isometric exercise like the wall sit this might be useful for downhill skiing or rock climbing, where the sport specific movements require extended and coordinated isometric contraction of the lower limb (holding a static position) - the wall sit does not lend itself well to the more dynamic action of running. Some form of lunge challenge might be a little more specific to a runner.

Moving on from the physical specificity of the challenge, lets look at it from a psychological perspective. I do appreciate that these challenges can be motivating, especially if there is a group of you completing it together. You have target to aim for and a simple plan to follow. In terms of how motivating it might be, take a look at how it fits with the continuum of motivation according to self-determination theory. Where might you put it?

Image depicting The continuum of motivation from self-determination theory
The continuum of motivation from self-determination theory (image from http://ow.ly/IgiS1)

The more ‘self-determined’ your motivation, or so some evidence suggests, the more positive the outcome. If you are going to do a challenge, pick one with meaning for you and your journey.  The 30 day wall sit challenge might be the one for you, but only you know that.

As for the format of the challenge, it is progressive (an important training principle). However, whether the majority of it is enough to stimulate ‘overload’, from which we ultimately adapt is questionable. There is also no opportunity for recovery in it. If it does become too hard, there is little room for manoeuvre. Hence we come back to individualisation and your current training status and ability. Say 120s wall sit was the minimum required to stimulate an adaptation at the outset, you’ve just potentially spent 11 days when you could have been doing something more appropriate to your standard. Say you find 10sec difficult at the outset, the rate of progression is unlikely to be sustainable. The arbitrary nature of the length of the challenge is a double-edge sword. Its short enough, and familiar enough within our mental models to be something that seems achievable and compartmentalised - a nice little package. But our bodies don’t physiologically and physically respond to external stimuli according to where we are in a 30-day challenge. Furthermore, if I wanted to make meaningful gains with an athlete, I’d ask them to set aside 3 months minimum. Worthwhile physical change and adaptation takes time.

For a runner, I’d probably argue 90s in a given position, providing you demonstrate perfect form is enough to demonstrate a bracing competence. After that, progress the exercise in different ways, load, position, amplitude, plane…..The body doesn’t generally work in distinct parts but as a very complex interconnected chain - it should be challenged like that.  Here is a tweet I posted last year from an online Strength and Conditioning Conference, summarising the thoughts of two coaches who know far more than I ever will about training an athlete appropriately (Vern Gambetta and Kelvin Giles) that I think sums it up quite nicely.

Image of skeletal connections linkages and interconnectedness
'Connect,sync,link,then coordinate' (Vern Gambetta) & 'Creating linkages' (Kelvin Giles) From Brendan Chaplin's Online Strength and Conditioning Conference 2014

 

The best 30 day challenge for runners?

So where does that leave us? What ARE the best '30-day challenges' for runners?  Ones that are specifically designed with a beneficial transfer to running in mind, yet appropriate and considerate of the individual undertaking them. Ones that motivate and ‘challenge’ the athlete, and ones that fit into the wider context of their journey from wherever they might be to wherever they are going. And no, you don’t need to be able to wall sit for 300 seconds. 😉

Hope that helps, and of course if you have any questions about this blog or any other general ones please write to me (andy@acbcoaching.com) or get it touch on twitter @acbcoaching.

How do I build confidence after returning from injury?

Returning from Injury

Struggling with own list of blog topics, I thought I’d reach out to the twittersphere for inspiration.I asked @UKrunchat if their followers had any strength and conditioning and running related questions and received several interesting replies. As it turns out, the response I decided to write about was not strictly strength and conditioning related but more aligned with the psychology side of things. As I am currently rehabbing from a nasty knee injury myself (don’t play rugby - its dangerous) and my background in psychology, it really appealed to me, so here goes:

'How do you get confidence back after injury. After the physio. Back to form, but every step is more thought about'

The question sounds as though it comes from someone who has been cleared to exercise again, but is now struggling  perhaps more with certain psychological aspects relating to her running as they are getting back into it.  First, its important to caveat the rest of the answer with the obvious shortcomings of 140 character tweets - It’d obviously be useful to understand more about both the nature and severity of initial injury, length of layout, details of her experiences during rehab, any other psychological interventions etc. These will all play a critical part in the eventual outcome and any exercises that might be suggested as the issues could be rooted in a number of areas. With that said, I’ll try to outline what I would consider MIGHT be some useful techniques and approaches in this situation.

1) Retain perspective and adopt a whole-person philosophy throughout the injury process

Although you have been cleared to exercise again, it is important to continue to retain perspective on the process you have gone through. Remember that you are not your injury, so don’t let it subsume your athletic or even personal identity. When exercise or sport is a big part of your day to day life, it can be a real knock to your sense of self, when your ability to exercise effectively is taken away from you. Any particular injury might cause a given individual to experience a whole range of feelings and emotions - inadequacy, fear, frustration, anxiety etc. throughout the entire journey to complete recovery. Recovery takes time, and patience is required. Understand that these types of recurring thoughts during runs are a frequent and completely normal experience for someone recovering from injury.

Cartoon of glum looking frankenstein-like zombie holding his own arm
It is easy to for your injury to subsume your personal or athletic identity - don't let it!

Try to retain and re-connect with your social support networks - talk to other injured athletes, or those that have had similar experiences. You are not alone in this, and as a person first and foremost, both informal and formal types of support can help improve ongoing motivation and rebuild your confidence. Even just a small conversation, tweet, text or call could be the conversation to help unlock and shake these intruding thought patterns! If they don’t happen to lead to that ‘light-bulb’ moment, over time these connections will help you to appreciate and normalise your current thought patterns. You’ve successfully negotiated your injury so far, this is just another small step in that ongoing process.  Having chatted with friends and fellow runners, next time you go running, try to spot these thoughts as they occur. Acknowledge them for what they are (just normal thoughts), as even the process of noticing and labelling (give them any name you want) can help lessen their salience.

2) Practise thinking differently 

Once you have started to spot these thoughts as they arise, you can then start to implement the process of thinking differently when they do.  The fancy terminology used for this by Sport Psychologists ‘cognitive restructuring’ and the aim is to replace the negative thought patterns with more positive ones. Now, I don’t know exactly what you are saying to yourself or thinking when these patterns occur, but  as an example, instead of thinking ‘I can still feel my injury, its not fixed, I’m never going to run properly again’, you might learn to say to yourself ‘STOP!’ each time you notice your thought patterns running away with themselves, and instead saying 'I’ve done the rehab, these sensations are a normal part of recovery and adapting to running again’.  Choose your own, make it specific, and practise - it won’t necessarily come easily or straight away.

Depitction of cog-like workings of the brain
We learned to think the way we do, so we can learn to think differently too

3) Positive self-talk    

You’ll probably have heard of this. It’s similar to cognitive restructuring, but these are more intentional, pre-rehearsed statements that you can recite (internally or out loud) to help pre-emptively combat negative thoughts. They can be used motivationally or again in a cognitive way. Try both, but I think that the latter would be more relevant to you. Again I don’t know what your injury is, or if it relates to your form, but if it did, something like ‘high hips, light feet, great running’ could be appropriate. Say it to yourself - and mean it, it won’t work if you don’t buy in.

4) Practise asking yourself questions that won’t lead you down the garden path.

If the question you ask yourself is ‘how does my *previously injured area* feel?’, you leave yourself open to becoming lost in a rabbit hole of thoughts to follow. The question is open-ended and general, and can subsequently be interpreted in a multitude of potentially unhelpful and distracting ways. Make the questions you ask yourself offer specific, targeted and useful answers. You might want to develop some highly structured, short-term performance goals and seek out feedback in relation to these. Do you have a checklist for running form? Use this to evaluate your running, as opposed to nebulous and intangible thought-patterns.

Hopefully some of the above techniques and hints will prove useful, and I'd love to hear if any of it helps. Its difficult to be specific without knowing more - please do email me on andy@acbcoaching.com if you have any questions or feedback. If all else fails....

Don't worry, be happy text image
Wise words from Bob Marley

Good luck!