Goals Set the Direction, But Habits Are Best For Becoming The Runner You Want to Become

“When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at this rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that last blow that did it – but all that had gone before.” – Jacob Riis (social reformer)

Happy New Year Runners!

Each year approximately 40 percent of Americans make New Year’s resolutions. Unfortunately, by the time February arrives most have quit, and will probably make the same resolution next January. Why weren’t they successful? Most likely they didn’t develop the proper behaviors and habits necessary to be successful. Yes, goals are important and provide direction, however it’s the systems and habits that we develop, that are most important to our success.

I recently finished reading James Clear’s Atomic Habits, which I highly recommend. He shares some valuable insight on how to develop good habits, and eliminate bad ones. In this article, I will touch upon a few insights that might help you get started in developing the habits you need to become a better runner and achieve your running goals.

Goals are helpful in that they provide us direction. Such as if we were flying from Los Angeles to Maui, it is helpful to know which direction we need to go. However, if we set a course starting from Los Angeles to land in Maui we would not arrive, if we did not make adjustments along the way. Similar with our running goals. We may have a goal of completing our first marathon, or breaking four hours, or qualifying for Boston, however if we don’t develop the proper plan, get in the runs and support work (dynamic warmup, cool down, strengthening exercises, and cross-training) and develop other important habits, we’ll not optimize our training. Instead, we may develop an injury and we won’t develop the endurance and/or speed necessary to achieve our goal.

Take Small Steps with a System-Focused Approach, Instead of Goal-Focused

One important principle from Atomic Habits is developing systems that set you up to become the person necessary to achieve whatever goals you set for yourself. Thus, to become a better runner such things as: proper training and nutrition plans, running form, support work, sleep, and hydration are important. If these are implemented on a consistent basis, incremental progress will be made leading to improved running performance, which then lead to better race results.

One of my favorite coaches of all time is the late Coach John Wooden, who had his players focus on making some small improvement each day that would help improve their game. These small improvements compound over time, like when you invest in mutual funds. Wooden put the emphasis on improvement and not on winning basketball games and national championships. As a result, some of Wooden’s players became some of the best basketball players in history (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton), and his teams won ten national championships, including seven in a row.

It is interesting to note that Wooden did not win his first national championship until he had been coaching at UCLA for 16 years! So, it took him a while to develop and successfully implement a system that would maximize his players’ performance, as well as his own coaching abilities. Similarly, if you are growing bamboo. It takes a significant amount of time for a bamboo plant to lay down an extensive root system. Then, all of sudden, a whole bunch of bamboo appears!

A systems-first mentality also allows you to fall in love with the process rather than the product/goal and you don’t have to wait to give yourself permission to be happy. You can be satisfied anytime your system is running. This is important because we are hardwired for immediate gratification. The goal-first mentality forces us to delay gratification until the next milestone is reached. The goal-first mentality also creates an “either-or” conflict in which you are either successful or a failure. Also, a goal-oriented mindset can create a “yo-yo” effect, which once the goal is achieved, you revert back to old habits. This is common with those trying to achieve weight loss.

So, it can be more beneficial to focus on what you want to become, instead of what you want to achieve, and develop the habits or systems to do so. If instead of waiting until we achieve our goal, we can achieve satisfaction in performing the steps along the way, we will be much happier and are more likely to make good habits automatic. Early on we may want to set up a rewards system for when we are completing the habits that we need to become the runner we need to become. Therefore, if we complete our run and the important support work, then we reward ourselves appropriately. For example, I reward myself with ten minutes of additional guitar-playing time. Over time you may not need the reward system because you automatically include support work on your run days.

So, again even though your goals will direct you, what’s most importance is the system you implement to become the runner necessary to achieve those goals. If you develop the habits and put in the work, the results will follow, just as they did for Coach Wooden.

 Identity Focus

Another important aspect of Atomic Habits is to become identity-focused, instead of goal-focused. Your habits are consistent with the identity you have for yourself. So, in order to change your habits, you have to change your identity. For example, if someone is trying to lose weight, they could change their identity to that of a healthy person, instead of focusing on losing a certain number of pounds. They can then focus on making decisions consistent with what a healthy person does, and could ask themselves, “What would a healthy person do in this situation?”

Similarly, if you have a time goal and/or want to be a Boston qualifier, your identity could be I’m a “sub-3:45 marathoner” or a “Boston qualifier” and put your focus on the habits necessary or consistent with being a “sub-3:45 marathoner” or “Boston qualifier”. You can then ask yourself, “Who is the type of person that would get these results?” Therefore, you would begin developing the sleep habits (such as 7-9 hours of sleep per night, because while you are sleeping the important adaptations to your training are occurring), nutrition habits (proper nutrients to fuel you and support adaptations), and support work habits necessary. You may also determine that it is necessary to work with a coach, so that you optimize your running form for performance and have an optimal training plan.  You may also need to develop the mind-set of focusing on improving as a runner from year-to-year, and appreciate that it may take a couple of years to break 3:45 in a marathon, or qualify for Boston.

Habit Stacking and Designing Your Environment

Techniques such as habit stacking and designing your environment (make it obvious) may help you facilitate the habits consistent with your identity of being a “sub-3:45 marathoner”, for example. After my runs I grab a glass of water to begin hydrating and focus on “relaxing my legs” by doing gentle leg swings, gradually increasing the range of motion. I perform these close to our designated workout room, which has my yoga mat, resistance band, dumbbells, foam roller, and lacrosse ball all laid out in full view (designing my environment). This cues me to perform the rest of my support work, including my strengthening exercises and cool down (habit stacking). Also, I usually play music I enjoy while performing these, which makes it easier to perform. I’ve performed this routine so many times that it has become automatic, and I recommend setting up a similar situation for yourself.

I will touch upon other important principles from Atomic Habits and other behavior change strategies in future blogs, to help you become the runner you want to become and help you achieve your goals along the way.

Summary of Key Points

  • Success is the product of daily habits
  • Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results
  • Identity the person you want to become and develop the habits consistent with that identity
  • Consistency of habits is important. Start small and implement a proper reward system for immediate gratification once you’ve completed these habits. These habits should soon become automatic.
  • Focus on improvement over time, such as year-to-year, as a runner, not just a one-time goal

Please let me know if you have any questions, or if I can be of help.

I don’t want to leave you with the idea that goals aren’t important. They have their place, as far as providing direction. Also, there are other steps you should take before beginning your training. Click here for a post from last year on goal setting and here to learn of other steps you should take before you begin training.

Also, it’s not too late to get started on training, if you are planning to run a spring half- or full-marathon. I began my formal training for the Colfax marathon last week.

Finally, I plan to lead a half- and full-marathon training group this year for fall half- and full-marathons. The group will meet once per week in Louisville (CO) for a run, and participants will be provided with a 16-week training plan. If you are interested, or would like to learn more, please contact me at brian@denverrunningcoach.com

Your friend and coach,

Brian

References

James Clear. Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones.  Avery: New York, 2018.

Cooldown: I Hate Static Stretching So I Don’t Do It – Part 1

Cooldown is a critical component of your workouts.  A cooldown is important because it can help facilitate bringing the heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure back to their normal, resting levels.  Also, a cooldown can facilitate removal of by-products produced from your workout from the exercising muscles.  One of these by-products is lactic acid, which is converted to lactate.  Lactate is actually a primary fuel used by the heart.  Lactate can also be recycled in the liver to reform glucose, which then can be used again as a fuel the next time you exercise.  Isn’t the human body great!

There are different types of cooldowns and one which will help facilitate what I just described is walking for 5-10 minutes.  This is certainly something that I recommend after your run workouts.  I also recommend a cooldown, which will address the length or mobility of the muscle.  In this post and the accompanying video, I will address a cooldown to improve muscle length.  In the next post, I will discuss what you can do to improve muscle mobility, which for many runners may be a more important issue to address.

 

What Is Static Stretching?

It seems every time I run I see someone performing static stretching, either before or after their run.  You may already know this, but I want to make sure everyone is on the same page.  Static stretching is used to stretch muscles while the body is at rest. During static stretching the muscle is gradually lengthened to an elongated position (to the point of discomfort) and held in that position, typically for 30 seconds.  Static stretching is meant to increase or at least maintain the length of the muscles and tendons, which are constantly being shortened when we run or perform strengthening exercises.

 

Does Static Stretching Really Work To Improve Muscle Tissue Length?

Several years ago when I was in graduate school I worked at the university’s wellness lab where I was earning my degree.  As a graduate assistant at this wellness lab I was involved with exercise testing, developing exercise programs, and demonstrating exercises to university staff and faculty.  At this wellness lab we recommended static stretching for those who exercised there.  However, I remember the director sharing in private with me that even though we recommended it, static stretching doesn’t really work.

Unfortunately, I did think too much about this until several years later as I incorporated static stretching after my own workouts, and have recommended it to other runners I have worked with.  Then I began reading more of the research and here it what I found…

Research suggests that to fully realize the benefits of static stretching you need to hold a stretch for 3-5 minutes!  Also, to lengthen the muscle you need to perform static stretching 4-6 days per week and it will typically take 10-12 weeks before you get positive results.

If I’m in a yoga class, holding a pose or a stretch for minutes is possible because I have the instructor constantly cueing to help distract me.  However, if I’m not in a yoga class, holding a static stretch for 3 minutes, even with my favorite music playing is a real challenge!

 

Is There a Better Option?

Fortunately, yes!  Research suggests that there are more effective ways to improve muscle length than static stretching.  These include techniques such as proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) and active stretching usually referred to as Active Isolated Stretching (AIS, developed by Aaron Mattes) or Active Isolated Flexibility.  These techniques typically involve contracting either the muscle we want to stretch first, or contracting the opposing muscle.  This can help trigger the nervous system to cause the muscle we want to stretch to relax, so that we can more effectively stretch that muscle than with static stretching.

I won’t discuss PNF in this post, but will focus on AIS.  In AIS, you contract the muscle or muscle groups opposite the ones you want to stretch for 1-2 seconds and then relax and repeat 5-10 times.  You can gently assist the stretch using a rope or your hand.

In the accompanying video I demonstrate several stretches that I recommend you incorporate into your cooldown.

 

Here is a description of each stretch:

Hamstrings:

–          Lie on your back with your right leg straight and a rope or band wrapped around your foot

–          Keeping your right leg straight, actively lift it as high as possible, then give gentle assistance with the rope until you feel a stretch

–          Keep your opposite leg in the ground by pushing your heel as far away from your head as possible, contracting the glute

–          Pull the rope above your head

–          Exhale and hold for 2 seconds and then relax

–          Repeat 5-10 times

–          Switch legs and repeat

Quadriceps:

–          Lie on your side with your knees curled up against your chest (fetal position)

–          Relax your neck, resting your head on the surface or on a pillow

–          Slide your bottom arm under the thigh of your bottom leg and place your hand around the outside of the foot, if you can’t reach the foot stabilize the knee

–          Contract your abdominal muscles to keep you from rolling

–          Reach down with your upper hand and grasp the shin (or ankle or forefoot) on your upper leg

–          If you are unable to bend your knee sufficiently for you to reach your foot with your hand, use a band or rope and wrap it around the ankle and grasp the ends

–          Keep your knee bent and your leg parallel to the surface on which you are lying

–          Contract your hamstrings and glutes and move your upper leg back as far as you can

–          Use your hand to gently assist

–          Exhale and hold for 2 seconds and then relax

–          Repeat 5-10 times

–          Switch sides and repeat

Psoas (hip flexor):

–          Get in a table top position on hands and knees

–          Reach back with your right hand and grasp your right ankle

–          Contract the hamstring and glute muscles to lift the right leg until the thigh is parallel to the ground

–          Be careful not to arch your back

–          Use your hand to gently assist

–          Exhale and hold for 2 seconds and then relax

–          Repeat 5-10 times

–          Switch legs and repeat

Gluteals:

–          Lie on your back with both legs extended straight

–          Rotate the leg you are not stretching toward the midline of your body by pointing the toes inward, this stabilizes the hip

–          Using your abdominal muscles and hip flexors, lift your bent knee toward the opposite shoulder, keeping your pelvis flat on the surface

–          Place your hand on the outside of the knee and gently guide it toward the opposite shoulder

–          To get a deeper stretch place the opposite hand on the shin and press your heel toward the floor as your knee nears your shoulder

–          Exhale and hold for 2 seconds and then relax

–          Repeat 5-10 times

–          Switch legs and repeat

Adductor (Inner thigh):

–          Lie on your back with a rope or band wrapped around one foot, it should be wrapped around the inside of the lower leg

–          Hold on the end of the band or rope in the hand on the same side as the roped leg

–          Actively lift your leg as far to the side as possible, then give gentle assistance with the band or rope until you feel a stretch

–          Exhale and hold for 2 seconds and then relax

–          Keep your opposite leg on the ground by pushing the heel as far away from your head as possible, contract the glute

–          Keep your toes pointed upward

–          Keep your back in line and your shoulders on the ground

–          Repeat 5-10 times

–          Switch legs and repeat

Abductor (Outer hip):

–          Lie on your back with a rope or band wrapped around the outside of one foot

–          Hold the end of the rope or band in your opposite hand with your free hand out to the side

–          Actively lift your leg across your body as far as possible, and then give gentle assistance with the rope or band until you feel a stretch

–          Exhale and hold for 2 seconds and then relax

–          Keep your non-roped leg on the ground by pushing your heel as far away from your head as possible, contracting the glute

–          Keep your toes pointed upward

–          Keep your back in line and your shoulders on the ground

–          Repeat 5-10 times

–          Switch legs and repeat

Gastrocnemius (Outer calf):

–          Lie on your back with a rope or band wrapped around your right foot and your right leg raised in the air

–          Actively pull your right foot to your shin and then give assistance with the rope

–          Exhale and hold the stretch for 2 seconds and then relax

–          Perform 5-10 repetitions

–          Switch legs and repeat

Soleus (Deeper calf) and Achilles Tendon:

–          Lie on your back with a rope or band wrapped around your right foot and your right leg raised in the air

–          Bend the right knee

–          Actively pull your right foot to your shin and then give assistance with the rope

–          Exhale and hold the stretch for 2 seconds and then relax

–          Perform 5-10 repetitions

–          Switch legs and repeat

 

 

References

Anatomy for Runners.  Jay Dicharry

The Whartons’ Stretch Book.  Jim and Phil Wharton

Core Endurance Performance.  Mark Verstegen and Pete Williams

It’s All in the Hips (and Pelvis) Part 1: Hip Flexors

The April issue of Running Times include an article entitled “It’s All in the Hips”, which I felt contained useful information for runners at all levels, on improving running performance, and factors which can negatively affect running performance and potentially increase injury risk. The hips and the pelvis play very important roles in running, in fact I refer to the hips as the steering wheel to help us run effectively. Originally I planned to hilite and elaborate upon the important points of this article in one post. However, I soon realized this would result in a post that was much too long! So I will be sending out multiple posts hiliting the important points and elaborating upon these.

In this article, elite running coach Bobby McGee, who I’ve had the privilege of meeting and who has helped me as a runner and coach, states that the first issue that should be addressed to improve running performance is tight hip flexors. In fact, approximately 85% of runners have tightness in the hip flexors. Therefore this article will focus on the importance of hip flexors, what causes tight hip flexors, and what can be done to address this.

What are the hip flexors and what is their function during running?

• Muscles located on the front (anterior) and inside (medial) of the hip

• Includes the rectus femoris, iliopsoas, hip adductors (longus, brevis, and magnus), tensor fascia latae (TFL)

• Allow us to bend at the hips for such activities as sitting

• During running allow us to, both accelerate our thigh forward, or decelerate the thigh as it moves backward

What causes tight hip flexors?

•The primary cause is overuse of the hip flexors because they are constantly being contracted and shortened while we sit for hours at work, while driving, and during leisure time

• In addition, while sitting the glutes become deactivated and weakened, this will be discussed further in my next article

What are the potential issues related to tight hip flexors?

• Ideally the pelvis should be properly aligned (think of the pelvis as a cup of water, or your drink of choice, which we don’t want to spill by the pelvis tipping too far forward or back), which allows the hips to be more stacked under the torso. This allows you to increase power as your leg drive pushes your body forward (hip extension), rather than twisting your hips forward, arching your back and losing energy in the torqueing. Tight hip flexors will cause the pelvis to “spill forward” and reduce or inhibit the amount of hip extension.

• Low back pain, strains in the hamstring, quadriceps, and groin

• Knee issues such as patellar tendinopathy, patellar femoral syndrome

• IT band tendonitis

What can I do if I have tight hip flexors?

• There are several muscles that flex the hips and these should be foam rolled and stretched

• Ideally, foam roll hip flexors 4-6 days per week

• General guidelines for foam rolling:

• Roll on tight, overused muscles until a tender/sore spot is found

• Apply pressure to tender/sore spots and hold for 30 seconds

• Foam rolling exercises:

Rectus Femoris:

http://www.menshealth.co.uk/cm/menshealthuk/images/Lw/quadriceps.jpg

TFL:

http://stoneathleticmedicine.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/TFL-Foam-Roll.jpg Hip adductors: http://icraved.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/foam-roll-adductor.jpg

• After foam rolling, stretch the hip flexor muscles. Hold each stretch for at least 20-30 seconds, perform 1-3 sets of each stretch.

• Hip flexor stretch:

– Kneel in the right knee, with the left knee bent and directly over the left

ankle

– Lean forward, shifting your body weight on to your front leg. You should

feel a stretch in the right leg.

– Hold for 20-30 seconds and repeat 3 times

– Keep the back straight and abdominals tight. Do not allow the front knee to

pass over the toes.

– A folded towel can be placed under the knee on the floor for comfort

http://eplerhealth.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/hip-flexor-stretch.jpeg

• Yoga variation of hip flexor stretch – Kneeling lunge (Anjaneyasana) http://www.yogachuck.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Low-Lunge.jpeg

• Hip adductor or “butterfly” stretch: http://www.velogirls.com/resources/publications/stretching101/butterfly.jpg

• TFL Stretch:

http://hilloah.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/tfl-wall-stretch.jpeg

Please contact me with any questions or comments.

See you on the road or trail,

Brian