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,



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

It’s All in the Hips (and Pelvis) Part 2: Strengthening the “Glutes”

As part of an ongoing discussion of the article entitled “It’s All in the Hips” that appeared in the April issue of Running Times I want to discuss the importance of the “glutes” and how to go about strengthening them and making sure they are activated. Many of the injuries that runners develop are due to weak or improperly activated “glute” muscles. This article will cover strengthening of the” glutes”, while the next article will cover making sure the “glutes” are being properly activated.

What are the “glutes” and where are they located?

• Gluteus medius and minimus : Attached to outer surface of the ilium (the uppermost and largest of the three hip bones) and the femur

• Gluteus maximus: Attached to outer surface of the ilium and posterior side of sacrum and coccyx and the femur

What is the function of the “glutes”, including during running?

• Provide power to our stride to propel us forward as our hip extends

• Provide balance and stability when one foot is on the ground, which keeps our body aligned in the three planes of motion (sagittal (front-to-back), frontal (side-to-side), and transverse), without this the forces of running can lead to injury

What happens if the “glutes” are weak in runners?

• Adversely affects posture

• Can cause other muscles to compensate like the tensor fascia latae (TFL), which can lead to IT Band Syndrome

• Can lead to overpronation, which can cause plantar fasciitis

• Can contribute to the development of patellar tendinopathy and patellofemoral syndrome

• Can contribute to the development of medial tibial stress syndrome (shin splints)

How do we strengthen the “glutes”?

• Exercises primarily for gluteus maximus:

– Stability Ball Glute Bridges : http://www.acefitness.org/acefit/exercise-library-details/0/66/

– Body weight squat: http://www.exrx.net/WeightExercises/GluteusMaximus/BWSquat.html

– Single leg stand (note: hold for 30-60 seconds or until fatigue): http://www.acefitness.org/acefit/exercise-library-details/0/112/ – Step-up (can be done just with body weight): http://www.exrx.net/WeightExercises/GluteusMaximus/DBStepUp.html

– Standing lunge I recommend different angles to target different portions of the glute muscles (straight in front, to the side, 45 degree angle in front, 45 degree angle behind): http://www.exrx.net/WeightExercises/GluteusMaximus/BWLunge.html

– Walking lunge (can be done just with body weight or dumbbells): http://www.exrx.net/WeightExercises/GluteusMaximus/BBWalkingLunge.html

– Split squat: http://www.exrx.net/WeightExercises/GluteusMaximus/BWSplitSquat.html

– Single leg squat: http://www.exrx.net/WeightExercises/GluteusMaximus/BWSingleLegSquat.html

• Recommendations for these exercises:

– Frequency: 2-3 times per week

– Number of sets: 1-3

– Number of repetitions: 8-15 or for 30-60 seconds depending on the exercise

– Resistance: Some of these exercises will be challenging enough with just your body weight, however if they are too easy then you can challenge your muscles by adding appropriate resistance so that you can perform the prescribed number of repetitions with good form

– Progression: Over time as the exercises become easier, I would progress from the easier to the more challenging exercises. The order of progression from easiest to most challenging is: body weight squats (double leg) → step-ups → lunges → split squats → single-leg squats

– Perform 1 or 2 of these exercises

– I would recommend also incorporating glute bridges and single leg stands

• Exercises primarily for gluteus medius:

– Clam shell

– Side lying single leg raises in three positions (foot in neutral position, toes pointed up, toes pointed down)

– For both of these exercises see the first half of eight week progression part 1 video: http://www.coachjayjohnson.com/2011/11/eight-week-general-strength-progression/

• Recommendations for these exercises:

– Frequency: 2-3 times per week

– Number of sets: 1-3

– Number of repetitions: 5-15

– Resistance: Some of these exercises will be challenging enough with just your body weight, however if they are too easy then you can challenge your muscles by adding appropriate resistance, such as using a resistance band, so that you can perform the prescribed number of repetitions with good form

• Other exercises to strengthen the gluteus maximus and medius:

– Body weight squat with hip abduction – perform a regular body weight squat, at the top of the squat abduct on leg (raise it up and out), alternating legs

– Single leg body weight deadlifts (note: this exercise may be too challenging for some runners and triathletes to perform properly): http://www.exrx.net/WeightExercises/GluteusMaximus/BWSingleLegStiffLegDeadlift.html

Please contact me with any questions or comments.

See you on the road or trail,


General Guidelines for an Off-Season Program to Help Transition into the 2014 Season

I have addressed some of the components of an off-season maintenance program in two previous articles, specifically cross-training and strength training. In this article I will tie together all of the important components of an off-season training program and provide guidelines for each. Although cross-training is one important way for us to maintain aerobic fitness during the off-season, we don’t want to neglect running, if possible, depending on the weather or access to a treadmill.

Guidelines for running during the off-season:

• Run 2-3 days per week

• Most runs should be at a comfortable, conversational pace

• Include a longer run once every 2-3 weeks, distance depends on goal events, fitness level, running history, any current injuries

• May progress to short intervals, such as strides, hill sprints, Fartlek (speedplay) runs

• Include proper warm-up (maybe include some basics for warm-ups)

Strength training guidelines:

• Should be done after any cross-training or running workout

• Focus on exercises to improve activation of abdominal, hip abductor, hip flexors and extensors (gluteus maximus and hamstrings) lower back, and scapular stabilizers

• Performed 2-3 days per week on non-consecutive days

• Use body weight resistance or low resistance

• Typically involve a progression, which can include adding an instability component, such as performing exercises on a pillow, or increasing the range of motion of the exercise

• Exercises are typically performed to fatigue and not a specific number of repetitions

• Rest period can be 30-60 seconds between exercises, or you can perform the exercises in a circuit, and just move from one exercise to the next with little or no rest

Cross-training guidelines:

• Performed 2-3 days per week

• I would recommend using a variety of cross-training modes to incorporate a variety of muscles

• Ideally, choose at least some cross-training modes, which incorporate motion in different planes than running, such as side-to-side or transverse plane motion, as opposed to forwards and backwards motion

• Intensity should be light to moderate, with incorporation of short intervals every 2-3 weeks with full recovery

Additional components:

• 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

• Perform 5-7 days per week

• Stretching:

• Should include calf, hamstring, glutes, hip flexors, IT band, lower back, chest

• Hold stretches for 30-60 seconds

• Perform 1-4 repetitions for each stretch

• Perform after foam rolling, as the last component of a workout

If you don’t own or have access to a  foam roller I highly recommend getting access to a foam roller. Foam rolling can be beneficial in improving flexibility and reducing soreness in tight, overused muscles. An example of tight, overused muscles common to runners and triathletes are the hip flexor (thigh) muscles. To improve flexibility and lengthen these muscles roll on the hip flexors until you find the most tender/sore areas and apply pressure with the foam roller for 30 seconds (see picture below). If performed on a regular basis, this can result in increased range of motion when bringing the back foot up towards the glutes. This will increase the power with each stride, increasing speed.


Final note: A maintenance program should be designed to accomplish a few goals, which will help transition us into successfully building aerobic fitness for the next running season. The goals of a maintenance program are to maintain and start rebuilding endurance, and to address muscle imbalances and flexibility issues to improve running form (biomechanics), so that we are more efficient runners with less chance of developing running-related injuries, and possibly start incorporating some short intervals to improve running economy (similar to efficiency) and biomechanics.

Please contact me if you have any questions. I would love to hear from you!

See you on the road or trail.


Strength Training for Runners and Triathletes During the Off-Season

Strength training is a vital part of any runner’s training program, during preparation for races and during the off-season. The goals and emphasis of strength training vary during preparation for races and during the off-season. Depending on the fitness level and goals of the runner, strength training may be divided into as many as five different phases including: functional, endurance, strength, power, and peak or performance. Strength training is important for improving speed and for injury-prevention. This article focuses on how to effectively use strength training during the off-season and addresses one particular area that runners should focus on.

What is strength training?

• Performing exercises against resistance to increase muscular strength (or amount or rate of force production) and improve function of skeletal muscles

• Forms of resistance include:

– Body weight

– Resistance bands

– Medicine balls

– Dumbbells

– Kettle bells

– Resistance machines


Why is strength training important?

• Improves running economy (basically how efficient we run) and increases running speed, especially speed at lactate threshold (speed at which lactate begins to significantly accumulate in the blood and in which our breathing rate significantly increases) which is one of the best determinants of running performance

• Corrects muscle imbalances to improve running efficiency (biomechanics) and to minimize injury-risk • Helps maintain or improve body composition

• Provides psychological benefits

• Helps improve respiration or breathing during running

• Increases short duration and long duration endurance capacity

• Prevents loss of muscle mass that occurs as we age

• Helps maintain or improve mobility and stability at appropriate joints


Although often ignored, strength training is a must for all runners. Many runners are weak in the core muscles, especially the gluteus maximus and hip abductor muscles (muscles responsible for moving hips away from the midline of the body and stabilizing the leg as the foot hits the ground), such as the gluteus medius. Many of the injuries that runners experience can be linked to weaknesses in the core muscles, especially the gluteus maximus and medius, such as IT Band Syndrome, plantar fasciitis, medial tibial stress syndrome, and Achilles tendinopathy. Incorporating strength training into your program only requires 20-30 minutes 2-3 days/week and can significantly reduce your risk for the above-mentioned injuries. Another group of muscles that get ignored and should be trained are the scapular stabilizers (muscles that stabilize the “shoulder blades”). These are important to maintain proper posture in the upper body during running to avoid early fatigue and unnecessary strain in the upper back, shoulders, and neck.


Guidelines for strength training:

• Frequency: 2-3 days/week

• Number of sets: 1-3, start with one set and gradually increase the number of sets

• Number of repetitions: depends on the phase and focus of training, can be as few as 5-10 repetitions, if focusing on strength and power, or higher if focusing on endurance

• Intensity: Again depends on the phase and focus of training, such as low to moderate for functional and endurance training, and moderate to high for strength and power training

• Be sure to exhale on exertion and inhale on relaxation during strength training exercises


Ideally, exercises which are functional should be used, especially early in a strength training program or during the off-season to transition into the next season. Functional exercises mimic the movement and muscle recruitment patterns of running, and also help improve mobility and stability, which are important to running performance and injury prevention.


Simple exercises to improve hip abductor strength:

• Clamshell and side lying leg raises with foot in three different positions (neutral or normal position, toes pointed up, toes pointed down)

• Perform these exercises 2-3 days per week on nonconsecutive days

• Perform 10-20 repetitions for each exercise (or each different foot position) or until fatigue

• Clamshell (clams in the video below), side lying leg raises exercises appear in the first part of the following video by Coach Jay Johnson:

• To increase resistance and gain more benefit from the exercise, lower the leg at a slower and more controlled rate


Final Note: The primary focus of strength training during the off-season should be on correcting any muscle imbalances and improving core strength. Functional strength training will lay the foundation for you to be successful in your training for 2014 events.

General Guidelines for Preparing for Race Goal

Recently I was finishing up one of my long runs and started stretching. As I was stretching I overheard someone speaking with a friend of his about doing a marathon in the fall. I’m not into eavesdropping, but my ears perked up when he mentioned doing a marathon. She asked him what type of training program he was going to follow. His response was that he was basically going to “wing it”. Now there is a recipe for disaster!

So in this week’s blog I want to talk about the need for a plan to get to your running goals. Basically, you can’t just “wing it” if you want to be at your best on race day and avoid injuries.

Last time I mentioned setting realistic goals. This is your first step. Then you have to figure out how you are going to get there. Below are things you need to consider. For many of these I have just given some basic guidelines, which I will provide more detail on later either on this website or if you attend my workshops or if I work with you as a coach.

1. Proper shoes – If you are new to running or haven’t run in a while, I highly recommend getting fitted at a reputable running store. Make sure that the person who does your fitting is knowledgeable. You may want to ask running friends about this or you can ask the manager and/or owner of the store about shoe fitting. They should put you on a treadmill and videotape your stride as you run on the treadmill. They should be looking at how your foot strikes. They should also be finding out the type of arch you have (high, normal, flat). They should be measuring your foot length and width. When you do the fitting make sure you are wearing socks that you would run in. Also if you wear orthotics make sure you try on shoes with these. The salesperson should have you try on at least three pairs and at least two different brands. Walk around in these shoes and if possible see if you can run with them either on a treadmill in the store or better yet outside. It can be difficult to determine how comfortable the shoes will be while you are at the store, so make sure you find out about the store’s return policy. Also I would recommend getting a second pair, if not on that day, soon after. If you are really happy with that model pick up a second pair. Or you may want to go with another brand that you tried on which is similar. The problem with running shoes is that models don’t stay around for long. Running shoe manufacturers are constantly changing and discontinuing models. Sometimes the changes are beneficial; sometimes they are not.

2. Proper nutrition – Typically the recommendation for adults is approximately 55% of calories from carbohydrates, with almost all of these as complex carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables, and whole grains), approximately 25-30% of calories as fats, with less than 10% of calories from saturated fats, and 10-15% of calories from proteins. For runners and other endurance athletes the percentage of total calories which are carbohydrate should be even greater, such as 60% or more. That means less calories from fat. My recommendation is to spread out your calorie intake throughout the day so that you are eating about every 2-3 hours. Also drink plenty of water. My recommendation is to divide your body weight in pounds by 2 and number is the amount of water in ounces you should take in each day, as a minimum.

3. Periodized plan – To get to your goal you will need to have a periodized program. If your goal is to complete a half marathon and you are just getting into running you are not going to just go out and run 13 miles. You have to build up to this in the proper way. Typically, your training should be divided into phases that will target certain aspects of your cardiovascular and energy systems, as well as muscles, to best get you to your goal and avoid injury.

4. Strength training and flexibility – Injuries are very common among runners. Approximately 70-80 percent of runners incur at least one injury each year that causes them to stop running for a significant period of time. Wow! Many of these injuries are due to muscle weaknesses/imbalances and poor flexibility. Therefore, for all runners there needs to be exercises done to address muscle weaknesses/imbalances and in addition, stretches need to be performed improve flexibility at the hip, knee, ankle, and shoulder joints to maximize performance and reduce injury risk. Core strengthening, of muscles including the hips, abdominals, and lower back is very important for runners.

5. Cross-training – To get better at running you need to run. But running alone can take its toll on the body. So it is important to incorporate cross-training once or twice a week. This would include biking, swimming, inline skating, etc. This will help to maintain your fitness level, but work some of your other muscles. It may be necessary to result solely on cross-training if you develop an injury that prevents you from running.

6. Support – We all need a support system, whether it is from family, friends, running clubs, etc. or more likely a combination of these. Preparation for your first half or full marathon is not easy and workouts sometimes don’t go as planned. Plus, we all have other commitments in life. Therefore, having a support network can play a vital role in our success in attaining our running goals.

7. A schedule – Based on our busy lives we have to determine how much time and what times we have available to devote to training. Typically, I schedule my workouts just like I would a dentist or doctor appointment. That way I can commit that time for my workout. So I highly recommend that you sit down and map out what days and what times you are going to have available to train.

8. Pacing – This can be difficult to do, but it is very important in races, so that you don’t fatigue too early.

9. A coach – I know I’m biased with this one. However, I strongly recommend a coach. They have been through this process of planning to achieve goals in races and can help you get to your goals, so that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. I know there are lots of online programs that you can get for free; however, keep in mind that these are very generic. The person who came up with these programs doesn’t know you. They have no idea what your fitness level and goals are, and certainly won’t know your schedule or any muscle weaknesses and areas where you lack flexibility. Only a coach who can work one-on-one with you will be able to determine these and design a customized program that will be best for you.

Stay tuned for more information which pertains to those points. I will be starting a series of blogs which includes strengthening exercises and stretches.

Until next time… see you on the road (or trail)