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.