How To Keep Your Running Resolutions

iverson practice

Allen Iverson questioning practice.

This is a cross-post from an article I wrote for Today While Running… There’s some interesting psychology throughout so I thought I would share it here as well.

If you are anything like me, February is when the new year resolutions begin to fall apart. So today I am reflecting on my running resolutions for 2014 and my ability to keep them. In particular how important it is to have concrete measures that match your goals.

Everyone knows that consistency is the key to successful running. The old “practice makes perfect” mantra. Just run a little bit everyday and you will get better. But Allen Iverson was right to question practice. Consistent practice is only part of the successful runner’s story.

Set concrete goals and measures to match. 

When I first sat down to record my running goals for 2014 I wrote this:

“Run 2,500 miles. That is roughly 50 miles/week and somewhere around 20,000 minutes.”

Now, while this objective is both measurable and concrete, it is lacking one essential quality, it doesn’t capture what I want to accomplish in my running life.  If my goal were to run more consistently it would be perfect, but consistency is really just a means to my actual objective: run better.

Be consistent. Be deliberate. 

Consistency is the key to developing new habits. And good habits (like running) are most-likely good for your health. But consistency will not necessary help you be a better runner.

Psychologist have found that the largest difference between experts and novices on a given task is the time spent engaged in deliberate practice (See Ericsson et al., 1993). In essence deliberate practice is time spent grappling with the hard stuff. For running this means you should strategically schedule days when you pick up the pace, and log more miles. You need to push out of the comfort zone, and change-up the daily routine. To keep improving you also need to regularly analyzing your weaknesses in a effort to understand and overcome them (e.g. to prevent my regular side stitches I need to keep my head still, and my arms straighter, and maybe engage in more core strengthening exercises). In order to analyze your weaknesses you need to track your progress and tick-off your successes. I do this via Strava and a spreadsheet.

The lesson here is that you will only ever be as good as you practice. It is not enough to practice consistently, you have to engage your brain and push your body to it’s limits with deliberate practice if you want to see substantial improvement.

But how do you develop measures to match a deliberate practice resolution?

One option is to get very specific. For example, On Tuesday, February 4th, I will run that 20 x 200m workout and focus on keeping my head still and arms straight. This takes a lot of work (especially if you don’t have a coach). It is unreasonable to plan out the entire year in this fashion.

Another option is to focus on outcomes. For example, I will race the Boston marathon and finish in under 2 hours and 40 minutes. The problem is that successful completion of this measure doesn’t accurately demonstrate that you are consistently practicing deliberately over the entire year. Perhaps you worked hard up until race day and then sat on the couch the rest of the year. Or perhaps success in the race was due to an under estimation of your ability.

In general I think it is best to use a combination of very concrete measures and outcomes.

After this deliberation here is how I amended my running resolution for 2014.

  1. Run 2,500 miles. That is roughly 50 miles/week and somewhere around 20,000 minutes.
  2. Push limits with up-tempo workout twice/week.
  3. Focus on technique on 2 runs/week.
  4. 2-15 minutes of strenuous strength training at least 5 days/week.
  5. Place in top 3 at the East Bay Triple Crown Trail Championships.
  6. Track and tick-off training and successes in spreadsheet and Strava.
  7. Continue to add outcome measures. New 5k PR later this year, location TBD?

Some final notes on resolution keeping from the psychologist in me:

Make one change at a time. Will-power requires cognitive resources that are deplete-able. In other words, we have a limited capacity for self-control. When forced to use restraint in one area, we more readily give-up on hard tasks in another area or compensate by indulging in some other vice (see the original Baumeister et al. (1998) “cookie” study or read an overview). For me running daily isn’t a change, but incorporating more strength work, technique honing, and strenuous workouts constitute more than enough change for now.

Reinforce behavior by tying rewards to actions. Cash in on the power of negative reinforcement by depositing your hard earned money in PACT and earning it back, or losing it all, through the pursuit of your goals.

Relish ing the big picture (occasionally). When things get hard sometimes it is helpful to visualize the big picture. Think back on your concrete goals. What do these lead to? 50 miles/week =  2600 mile in a year = rough distance from New York to San Francisco = Woah! = Good Health = Winning Races = Glory!… BUT don’t over do it, you need to stick to the daily grind and focus in order to reach those lofty goals.

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