Marathon Training #3: Building Better Habits

Patrick Lawrence

If you missed out on parts 1 & 2, check them out here.

I have reached a crux in my training journey. All things considered, I have stayed fairly consistent in the five months since starting my training: I am running four days per week and gradually increasing my long run distance. I am starting to see and feel the improvement: longer miles do not seem as tiring, and my pace is trending faster. In July, I put my training to its first test with a 6.5 mile trail race at Luton Park, and came out very happy with the results.

However, despite my efforts, I have not been able to log more than 21 miles in a week yet. This is a good volume for overall health, but without gradually progressing my weekly miles, I will find myself under-prepared come race day next May. Not only that, but in order to qualify for Boston (the ultimate goal), I will have to run at a similar pace as the 6.5-mile trail race and repeat the distance three more times. Oof.

The challenge I am having is I am comfortable with my current training volume. It does not take away too much from my daily agenda. But in order to free up more time to log more miles, I will need to decrease time doing other things in my week. As a peer once wisely put, “In order to say, ‘Yes,’ to a marathon, you have to say, ‘No,’ to a lot of other things.”

It isn’t just logging more miles I will need to do either. In order to keep my body fit to support running more miles, I need to develop better habits around my sleep and diet. My average sleep per night ranges between 5-6.5 hours per night, and often interrupted. My groggy mind and tight muscles consistently remind me this isn’t enough sleep.  Old pains from previous injuries start to talk to me. When I get between 7-8 hours of solid sleep, I feel great, and the same run will feel like I am gliding along. Additionally, my diet could use a little less coffee and sugar, and more vegetables and water. I will need to carve out more time for cross training as well, especially for hip and core strengthening to prevent faulty running mechanics when I get tired on a run.

The challenge is daunting, but I am optimistic. I have been reading James Clear’s Atomic Habits, and he teaches the mechanics of why habits exist, how they form, and how to change them. He illustrates how tiny changes, when done consistently over time, have a profound impact on an outcome. In one example, he tells the story of the British cycling team’s launch from mediocrity to a world champion powerhouse within five years of hiring a new performance coach, who addressed everything from more stream-lined uniforms to the best pillow for each rider. Essentially, he was finding any area that he modify to get a 1% improvement, and letting improvements accumulate.

I doubt I need to get as picky as the British cycling team, but I can definitely benefit from making changes to many little things in my day. This includes using strategies to save time on house chores and making meals, and can include small changes like removing the YouTube app off my phone so I am not tempted to look at it as often.

James Clear breaks the science of habit change into four “laws.” In order to start a new, lasting habit, one needs to:

  1. Make it obvious.
  2. Make it attractive.
  3. Make it easy.
  4. Make it satisfying.

 To extinguish a bad habit, the law is the inverse: make the cue less obvious, make the action unattractive and hard to do, and make the result less satisfying. Then, patience—it can take a while for desired results to occur, but when the do, they’re noticeable. In a PT-related example, it takes 6-8 weeks of consistent strength training for muscles to actually grow in size and thus result in improved strength. (The first phase of strengthening, which shows improvement in 2-4 weeks, is related to the brain’s ability to coordinate and activate the correct muscle fibers.)

As a physical therapist, success in the rehab process relies heavily on patient compliance with a home exercise program (HEP). Adding a program into one’s agenda is itself the construction of a new habit. To help, I try to make the exercise program short and easy.  I can’t always make them attractive (clamshells are pretty boring), but I can try to piggy back them with a habit a patient already has and/or likes to do,  such as listening to a podcast or brewing the coffee. James Clear refers to to this as “habit bundling.”

There is more in the book than can be unpacked in this blog, but I hope this blog provides little nuggets of knowledge to guide readers in the right direction. As for my habits, I will let you know how it goes at squeezing in a few more miles in the week and getting more Zzzzz’s. The next training test—the River Bank Run—is just over 2 months away, and I won’t be able to skimp by on my current mileage!   

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