7 Tips to Develop Habits for the Long Run

Author’s note: This article was written for our print publication which hit the streets in January. The specific racing and training goals have changed due to Covid-19.

I’m currently sitting in my apartment scribbling notes, looking at my bookshelf, reading saved articles, and trying to come up with a topic and cobble together the required word count for this column. If I had developed a better habit for writing, something I’ve tried to commit to numerous times over the past few decades, I wouldn’t be struggling for a topic today. If I had developed the writing habit I desired I’d be able to craft something of worth with less frustration. If I had developed the habit I might even have numerous articles already written from which I could choose. Instead I struggle and procrastinate.

Now I have a topic.

How can we succeed in the coming year with our intentions, objectives, and specific endeavors? Better yet, how can we make changes that will improve our lives over the long term?

Typically our intentions and goals fall into specific areas of our lives. One area tends to be physical such as losing weight, gaining muscle, running a marathon, trying a 5K, or tackling our first triathlon despite our fear of open water swimming. Then we have objectives with work or finances, maybe getting that promotion or raise, or leaving the vitality-sucking rat race for a vocation more fulfilling. Relationships are important and our resolves are often to be a better husband, wife, parent, friend, or perhaps for us introverts, to do the seemingly simple, but often paralyzingly difficult, task of showing up for the company gathering or local Saturday run.

Too often we begin the year with general ideas for goals or resolutions but the exercise of putting this list together is more akin to a warm-up lap around the track than a true workout. We lack the intensity of focus we’d give to the Tuesday night ride or weekend long run up one of the Pacific Northwest’s many mountain peaks. This year we could take that warm-up lap and jot down our basic big picture intentions, but rather than leave it at that and blindly hope for a better year and a better life, we can commit to digging deeper into our list and, with purpose, extract some very specific steps to give our full attention.

For the purpose of staying within my word count and keeping this article aligned with the mission of this magazine, let’s focus on our physical objectives and intentions for the year — and life. Hopefully what we learn from our physical successes, failures, and practices like this we can use in other areas of our lives.

I have several physical objectives for myself. At the top of my list are vitality, longevity, and mobility. These are very general, but I’ve recently turned 50 and my flexibility is poor, my back is very tight in the mornings, and I feel my energy levels waning. I realize if I don’t make improvements in these areas a priority it will negatively affect my endeavors this year, and more importantly, in the decades to come. I’ve researched protocols I can do to improve mobility and strength and identified a few I will add to my regimen this year. I’ve begun the year with an online 6-week bodyweight program and will follow it with a 6-week kettlebell program (the kettlebell option has been delayed as it’s become impossible to find any for sale).

I have never worked with kettlebells so am a bit intimidated to start. Tackling the easier bodyweight option first will allow me to get a feel for the way the program works, and an opportunity to practice similar movements unweighted. I want to allow myself to experience success while I build the habit, then work toward objectives that will be more difficult.

I’ve chosen bodyweight and kettlebell programs because I desire to develop a habit I can do anywhere: at the gym, home, outside, or on the road. Additionally, I’m looking to take a natural movement or functional strength workshop in the spring (postponed to the fall). To continue doing what I most enjoy – running distances on trails, riding gravel and single-track, and occasionally surfing – I need improved mobility and functional strength.

To that end, these are the specific actions I’m taking and habits I’ll be developing to improve my long-term objectives of increased vitality and mobility. Vitality, however, isn’t just physical energy or strength but also mental vigor. I must commit to clearing up the morning head fog and general lack of energy I’ve experienced lately. I’ve dealt with this in the past and know I need to get quality sleep and clean up my nutritional habits that recently I allowed to slip.

I initially wrote the following list with the verb “need,” then replaced with a firm and committing  “will.”

  • I will cut back on coffee and limit myself to one morning cup.
  • I will purchase fewer meals over-the-counter, and cut back on the gluten-free, but sugar bomb, cookies and pastries at Thump.
  • I will add high quality supplements and a greens supplement to my daily morning routine.
  • I will increase my quality fats intake through wholesome foods such as nuts and avocados.
  • I will eat vegetables daily with my meals.
  • I will reduce my weekly pint count (admittedly I faltered on this in April).
  • I will drink more water, specifically adding a bottle of sparkling water to my daily consumption.

Again, I’m committing to what I’ve written so far in order to do the physical activities I love. This year I’ve committed to running a road marathon in the spring, an ultra trail race in the summer, and a gravel bike event in late summer or early fall. I’ve signed up for the Eugene Marathon (cancelled) in April, the Lavaredo Ultra Trail UltraDolomites at the end of June (cancelled, but I have deferred my entry to 2021), and I’m still working on an option for the gravel event. I’m still waiting on the gravel landscape to shakeout for the fall, but have signed up for the RUT 50K in September.

I’ve had a very specific goal for a few years to do the trail running race in the Italian Dolomites. The Lavaredo Ultra Trail event added the UltraDolomites 80K race option, which takes runners around the mountains outside Cortina d’Ampezzo. To enter the event one must complete a qualifying event of 50 miles to earn points, then be drawn from a lottery. I spent two years working toward this goal starting with a 50K in Texas the first year, followed by the Wy’east Wonder 50M at Mt. Hood last summer. I got the draw and now the specific work begins.

Once we’ve created our list of general goals then refined it to specific habits to develop and events to target, we need to determine the Why and devise the How to hopefully create intrinsic motivation and a sure-fire plan of action.

There are countless books and articles published with regularity that posit on the path to success — I’ve read too many of them. What follows is a distillation of what resonated most with me. Tweak them. Remove what doesn’t work. Double down on what does. Most of all, don’t get discouraged. Failure is progress.

If I were to distill what has worked for me into one sentence, it would be: To succeed at anything we need to know why we’re doing it, create a plan, adopt supportive habits, add accountability, do the work, rest from the work, and limit choices that distract us from our stated intentions.

Before I break down the aforementioned sentence into more detail, let me preface with this…

To begin — reframe success. Possibly the most helpful thing we can do is adjust how we measure success and lighten the weight we place on ourselves in the pursuit of that success. Greater value should be placed on individually measured accomplishments rather than our often less productive focus on comparisons. It’s okay to follow Instagram accounts that inspire you, look at past results from your age group for a goal race, or check where you fall on Strava segments. These data points can be helpful if we use them as motivators, or to constructively tweak how we approach our own training. They become destructive if they distract from the work, fuel negative self talk, or push us to make poor training and fueling decisions to hit an arbitrary or unrealistic measurement of success. If you are incrementally better than you were, count that as a win. Worry less about what Joe and Jane with 1M IG followers are accomplishing, just keep progressing forward on your own terms.

And so begins the listicle…

1. Why We’re Doing It

In 2008, Simon Sinek wrote a book titled, Start With Why, which explored a commonality amongst great leaders and companies in their ability to clearly define why they exist and why they do what they do. The most successful companies crafted an authentic Why which served a greater purpose beyond themselves. All important internal decisions were then filtered through that Why. While often the Why exercise (or finding one’s purpose and crafting a mission statement) has been attached to vocational pursuits, we should craft a Why for our physical objectives as well. If possible and relevant, we should affix them to a cause greater than ourselves. This gives us a determined direction to better formulate our plan, as well as increased motivation to stick with our commitments. It’s easy to give up six weeks into a program when things get tough, distractions arise, or you miss one, two, then three workouts. Having a Why to continually reference will improve your odds of becoming better.

This is what I’ve crafted for my personal Why. It’s short, easy for me to remember, and it aligns with my personal, professional, and relationship intentions.

“Get dirty, be good, stay curious, and live an essential life; in doing so, encourage and support others to adopt a similar way of living.”

When I don’t want to do my run, ride, or functional workouts I try to read my Why. It reminds me that the work isn’t about that day’s choice, I need to follow the plan because it supports the lifestyle I’ve chosen. Following the plan will give me the best opportunity to remain mentally resilient and physically well. If I want to get dirty on the trails and mountains in the summer and fall and I need to get my hands dirty today. If I do the work, the next guy will do the work. I become better, he becomes better, and little by little the world becomes better.

2. Create the Plan

The best intentions won’t get us anywhere unless they are accompanied with specific tasks that incrementally lead us there. Creating a plan is essential. There are many ways to go about planning. We can create our own program, purchase a book, find one online, consult a coach, or join a club. The key is to choose what will realistically work for you and find what will give you the best opportunity for success.

3. Adopt Supportive Habits

Supportive habits are the regular practices we embrace that will help sustain our desired lifestyle and improve the probability of accomplishing our stated objectives. A morning habit is coffee and a bagel. That won’t get us to optimum performance and likely may contribute to feeling sluggish mid-morning. Adopting a healthy supportive habit could begin by simply eating half the bagel and adding avocado and an egg to infuse a moderate amount of healthy fat and protein into the meal.

James Clear, in his book, Atomic Habits, provides a methodology for creating an environment that supports adopting better habits. James, as do many others who have written of habits, harps on the importance of consistency. It’s the compound effect that creates results. According to James, habit formation depends on the following process: cue, craving, response, and reward. Something triggers a want that causes a response and the feeling or reward we get in return keeps us repeating the habit. To adopt supportive habits we need to recognize this system and manipulate the four steps in our favor.

4. Add Accountability

Accountability holds us to the task. Coaches and clubs are easy ways to add accountability. I’ve written more about accountability and its importance to accomplishing goals in a previous column titled, The Importance Of Accountability For Success. You can find it on our website.

5. Do the Work

This is fairly self explanatory. Nike and Larry the Cable Guy have communicated this step most aptly. It’s time to follow through on the plan and habits you’ve created in steps two and three. If you started with your Why, motivation is in ready supply and if you followed step four then someone is ready and waiting to hold you to it. Start.

6. Rest and Recover

Science shows there are two elements to growth. The work, and the recovery. We must push ourselves to stimulate growth and force adaptation, but we must also allow for rest which is when the body and mind repair and do that “growing” part.

The main principle of Peak Performance, by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness, is: stress + rest = growth. In essence, working hard and pushing your limits, followed by recovery and downtime equates to growth. Consistent growth (back to those habits), gives you a higher probability of success.

This is where many get derailed from their goals. Often, we don’t respect the rest and recovery element and go all in from the get go. Burn out ensues, which is followed by giving up because we feel physically worn out and mentally depleted.

If you find a good coach to work with, or a suitable plan to follow, you’ll get specific rest days each week with longer recovery periods within build cycles typically lasting three to four weeks. Masters athletes may need to build in more rest and recovery. I typically do 3-week cycles, building for two weeks followed by a week of moderate training and ample recovery. As my focus is on long runs and rides, and because I thoroughly enjoy the long training days in the mountains, the volume can stack up on me over time. Late in the season I tend to wrestle with fatigue and injury if I don’t moderate myself. So, I’ve adopted shorter cycles with more rest and recovery and, as I mentioned earlier, am prioritizing a vitality and functional movement/strength regimen.

7. Limit Choices that Distract

This is the step I struggle with most. I allow myself to be distracted by work, sporting events on Flobikes, Instagram, and all too often, just aimless thinking. Creating supportive habits and accountability with my time is key to avoiding distractions. To do the work and give myself a chance at success I need to create specific time blocks for my work and training. This limits the opportunities to make poor choices.

There you have it. Follow these steps to guaranteed success. If that were true I’d be the most successful person I know — I’m not. But, I still have the desire to accomplish big things, and make small changes. So, I’ll keep experimenting, remain curious, and incrementally become better — at my pace.

Get dirty, be good — and I’ll see you on the trails.

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Paul Lieto
Paul Lieto is the Editor for RaceCenter Magazine. He currently lives in Bend, OR where he writes, runs trails and rides dirt.