“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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
Your friend and coach,
James Clear. Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. Avery: New York, 2018.