Harnessing the Power of Habit in Your Marathon Training

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We recently read the book The Power of Habit—Why we do what we do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg.

It’s an excellent book that I’d highly recommend. In fact while I was reading it I thought of numerous examples how developing the right habits can help us achieve our running goals.

You may also be trying to implement positive habits (like running and healthy eating) in your life and working on cutting out bad habits.

This post will help you understand how to make habits work to your favor!

Harnessing the Power of Habit in Marathon Training

The Google Dictionary gives this as the definition of habit: “A settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.”

Most of the things we do each day are not carefully considered decisions but simply habits. It’s our brains way of conserving mental effort and streamlining functioning and productivity. From the time the alarm clock goes off we all have morning habits and routines that we go through without thinking.

Understanding the Habit Loop

When we look carefully at why habits occur it’s helpful to understand the habit loop. The Habit Loop consists of a cue, a routine, and a reward. (p.19)

First your brain picks up a cue, usually from your environment, that reminds you of a certain reward. For example, the smell of doughnuts triggers an appetite for them. Your brain remembers how much you like doughnuts.

Then you follow a well established routine to reach the reward. Doughnuts enter mouth and you enjoy a sensory pleasure. The habit is re-enforced because you prove once again that your brain was right, you really do like doughnuts!

“This explains why habits are so powerful: They create neurological cravings. Cravings are what drive habits. And figuring out how to spark a craving makes creating a new habit easier.” (p. 36)

The book gives the example of why Cinnabon stores are located away from the food court so that their scent will trigger cravings. The Cinnabon people have figured this out. They don’t want to compete with all the other food court smells.

Exercise Habits
The habit loop can also explain how exercise habits emerge. In 2002 researchers at New Mexico State studied 266 people who worked out regularly.

  • The reason they started exercising varied (from stress, a whim, having more free time, desire for weight loss, peer pressure).
  • But the reason they continued (habit) was because they started to crave the specific reward. 92% said exercise made them “feel good” (they craved the endorphins and other neuro-chemicals released by the brain).
  • 67% said exercise gave a sense of accomplishment- a sense of triumph in tracking their performance.

So if you want to start running regularly you need to create a cue (running shoes by the front door, workout clothes laid out, a training plan where you can see it). Then when your brain starts expecting the reward it will become automatic. When that happens you could say that you’re addicted to exercise.

The Golden Rule of Habit Transformation

The Golden Rule of Transformation says that you can never truly extinguish bad habits. There will always be a brain map able to respond to that habit loop. So to change habits you still use the old cue and old reward but insert a new routine.

Once you’ve changed the routine you start to believe that you’ve changed, that you’re a different person with a different identity (I’m a runner).

Many people experience a drastic situation that starts the change process. They have a health scare, lose someone in their life or undergo a career or financial crisis. But that’s not a necessity. People who become members of a social group find that makes changing easier.

“When people join groups where change seems possible, the potential for that change to occur becomes more real. For most people who overhaul their lives, there are no seminal moments or life-altering disasters. There are simply communities—sometimes of just one other person—who make change believable.” (p. 89)

Psychologist Todd Heatherton says, “Change occurs among other people. It seems real when we can see it in other people’s eyes.” (or words, I might add). Belief is easier within a group or community.

Keystone Habits

Some habits have the power to start a chain reaction and they’re referred to as keystone habits. “Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transforms everything.” (p. 100) They influence work, eating, play, lifestyle, free time, spending habits, social structure and communication.

When you make running a routine you start to identify yourself as a runner. You probably eat differently, use your free time differently, spend your money on running gear, hang out with other runners, participate in races and like to talk about running. Exercise is one of those keystone habits.

James Prochaska, a University of Rhode Island researcher says,

“Exercise spills over. There’s something about it that makes other good habits easier.”

Studies have shown that an exercise routine changes other patterns in life. People who exercise often eat better, are more productive at work, smoke less, feel less stressed, and use their credit cards less frequently.” (p. 109)

Small Wins
In order to develop lasting change you have to create the right mindset. Small wins are one reason why keystone habits create lasting change. Small wins have enormous power. A Cornell professor wrote in 1984,

“Small wins are a steady application of a small advantage. Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favor another small win.” (p. 112)

These small wins don’t have to be a linear equation (a continual upward growth). Life is sometimes more like two steps forward, one step back. You experiment to see what works best for you. By applying that knowledge it leads to a sense of accomplishment.

So how do you make a series of small wins into a lifetime habit? Something called willpower is the single most important keystone habit for achieving success.

A University of Pennsylvania study found that self-discipline has a larger impact on academic performance than does intellect or talent. When willpower or self-discipline becomes stronger it influences everything.

Making healthier choices starts to change how you think. Todd Heatherton, a Dartmouth researcher says,

“People get better at regulating their impulses. They learn how to distract themselves from temptations. And once you’ve gotten into that willpower groove, your brain is practiced at helping you focus on a goal.” (p. 139)

Willpower is developed through the following steps.

  1. A sense of control or autonomy over yourself own life.
  2. Setting goals and implementing the new routines.
  3. Community support.

Steps for Reshaping Habits

Identify the routine you want to develop or avoid. Figure out your habit loop of cue, routine and reward.

  1. Isolate the cue. Is the cue for the routine you want to avoid caused by hunger, boredom, low blood sugar, stress, etc? Most habitual cues fit into a category: location, time, emotional state, other people, and immediately preceding action. .
  2. Try a different routine.
  3. Experiment with rewards. This is the time to test and look for patterns. When you try a different routine write down three things that you experience. This breaks the unconscious negative habit and creates awareness.
  4. Have a plan.
  5. Get group support for long-term success. It may be as simple as a friend or coworker to keep you accountable, finding a runner partner or club, a support group or even an online community like MTA.

Let’s illustrate with a couple examples . . .

The Unhealthy Snack Example:
Let’s say you want to change a bad habit like reaching for an unhealthy snack at a certain time of the day. Think about what the cue might be. You may be experiencing low blood sugar, or it could simply be boredom.

Time to try a new routine. Instead of hitting the vending machine where the unhealthy snacks lurk, drink a big glass of water, stand up and stretch and set the alarm for 15 minutes. When it rings ask yourself if that took care of your craving. If you’re still feeling it you may be truly hungry. Start keeping healthy snacks at work or home.

The Morning Run Example
If you want to get in the habit of running in the morning there are several things you can do to make the cue and routine easier. Lay out your running clothes/gear/shoes, check your training plan to see what you’re supposed to do or make a plan for the workout the night before, and set the alarm for a certain time. Don’t reevaluate your plan when the alarm goes off. Simply go through the motions of putting your running clothes on, have your coffee or whatever you need, use the bathroom, and head out the door.

When you get back from your run be sure to reward yourself. Take a shower and drink a recovery shake. Go to your training plan and check off the mileage. Focus on how good it feels to have done your run for the day. You da boss!

Our habits make us who we are. My hope is that this episode and blog post will help you make running and exercise a keystone habit in your life.

My thanks to Autum Haley, my sister, for sending us the bookThe Power of Habit.

6 Responses to Harnessing the Power of Habit in Your Marathon Training

  1. Trevor Spencer September 9, 2014 at 1:42 pm #

    What do you think? Do you have any bad habits you are trying to replace?

  2. Ruby Cropper September 9, 2014 at 10:23 pm #

    Awesome blog!

    • Ruby Cropper September 9, 2014 at 10:24 pm #

      I ment awesome blog POST!
      And if only I can become a morning runner. lol. I need accountability. So I run 2 -3 times during the week in the morning with a running partner.
      Keep up the great work you guys!

      • Angie Spencer September 10, 2014 at 7:13 am #

        Thank you Ruby. Having the accountability of running partners is the perfect way to get you out of bed in the morning. Keep it up!

  3. Jami September 18, 2014 at 8:55 am #

    This is one of the best blog posts I have seen. I am an avid runner who competes in half marathons and the occasional marathon. I work with many people who are obese and some that are morbidly so. I do my best to help them find the enjoyment I have in running, but most quit quickly after it becomes difficult. I am hoping that this blog may help a few get on track to a healthier lifestyle.

    • Angie Spencer September 18, 2014 at 9:24 am #

      Thank you Jami. It’s wonderful that you set a healthy example for the people you work with. Helping them to discover their reward cycle and make the most of small wins can help them adopt and stick to healthier habits. I saw a good quote today. It says, “Everything changed the day that I understood that if I was to become a runner, I would have to run with the body I had.” (John Bingham). I think this applies to any goal we have. We have to start where we are right now and not wait for the conditions to be “perfect.” All the best as you continue to pursue your running goals!

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