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Transforming Your Bad Habits Into New, Healthy Habits

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Out With The Old, In With The New

For many of us, the beginning of a new calendar year provides the perfect excuse to rethink the behaviors that aren’t serving us. After all, everyone has bad habits and self-sabotaging behaviors they wish they could change. Some of us struggle to stick with a healthy diet or an exercise routine, while others let the negative voices in their head call the shots.

Trouble is, changing bad habits and behaviors isn’t easy. We often start with the best of intentions, but then life gets in the way and we quickly become sidetracked. “Something happens where we get out of the rhythm of it, and instead of catching ourselves, we’ll swing the opposite way, and it becomes all or nothing,” says mental-skills coach Carrie Cheadle, M.A.

The good news is with some planning and practice, it is possible to overcome this all-or-nothing approach. You just need to know how. To help, we tapped three experts and asked them to share their top tips for kicking some of the most common bad habits that runners struggle with.

Make this the year you finally drop your bad habit—for good.

Bad Habit #1: Making Excuses

“I worked hard today, so I deserve to binge on Netflix instead of going for the run I had planned.” “One skipped workout isn’t going to make a difference.” Sound familiar?

If you find you keep making excuses to ditch your workout—or another good habit you’re trying to create—it’s time to identify or reconnect with your “why,” or your underlying reason for wanting to make the change in the first place, because right now, your brain is trying to convince you that your bigger goals aren’t important. “Your brain’s kind of tricking you so that you come up with a way to justify your actions,” Cheadle says.

If you haven’t figured out your “why,” or if your “why” is superficial (e.g., weight loss), try this exercise Cheadle uses with her clients: Get out a piece of paper and a pen, and write your goal or habit at the top of the page. Beneath that, write down the reason you want to achieve that goal or habit. Think of it this way: Why is that habit or goal important to you?

For example, say your goal is to drink more water, and the reason is because it’s good for you. Instead of stopping there and using that as your “why,” again ask yourself: Well, why is that important to me? Repeat this question-and-answer sequence two or three more times. As you dig deeper and deeper into your motivations for setting that goal, you’ll eventually land on a reason that really resonates. Suddenly, it becomes harder to make excuses not to get up and refill your water bottle.   

Another tactic you can use is to identify what Cheadle calls your “slippery slope,” or those moments and situations that make it easy to ditch your goal or habit that day. For some people, not writing their workouts on the calendar means they’re more likely to skip them, whereas other people have an easy time justifying a drive-thru dinner if they haven’t prepped meals at the beginning of the week.

Write down the potential challenges that could get in the way of you continuing with your habit, and come up with a game plan you can turn to when those challenges arise.

For example, if long days at the office make it likely that you’ll skip your planned workout, have a couple of shorter, more manageable workout options available. Tell yourself that you have to do one of those workouts no matter what, even if that means going for a 20-minute leisure walk instead of a hard interval run. This way you at least maintain some consistency.

Bad Habit #2: Skipping The Post-Workout Snack

Some days, the last thing you want to do after a long or hard workout is eat something.

You can blame your hormones for your lack of appetite: Research shows that intense or long cardio workouts in particular can cause levels of ghrelin (the “hunger hormone”) to drop, making food sound downright unappealing.

And if you’re trying to lose weight, you might feel that eating right after you just finished burning a load of calories is counterproductive.

However, bypassing your post-workout snack can spell trouble for both performance and weight-loss goals. Though you may not feel hungry right away, your blood sugar levels will eventually drop, and when they do, you’ll become ravenous, making you more likely to overeat. According to Tom Holland, C.S.C.S., exercise physiologist and certified sports nutritionist, having a small post-workout snack can help keep your blood sugar levels stable long enough to carry over to your next meal.

From a performance standpoint, your ability to recover from your previous workout and be prepared for your next will be compromised if you don’t give your body the nutrients it needs right away. “You have around a half hour or so post-workout to optimally take in carbohydrates and protein,” Holland says. After roughly 30 minutes, your body is no longer able to pull those nutrients (carbs in particular) into your muscle tissues as efficiently, which limits the recovery benefit of your post-workout meal. As a result, your performance during your next workout may suffer.

Pick out a tasty carb- and protein-rich snack that clocks in at around 200 to 350 calories, and have it ready in your fridge or gym bag. An apple with some peanut butter or yogurt with granola are two great options. Protein shakes and smoothies are easier to digest if you don’t typically have an appetite after your workout, but keep an eye on the ingredients and portion sizes; some options are high in calories—try to keep them within the suggested calorie range.

Bad Habit #3: Nixing The Warm-Up And The Cool-Down

You probably know that you should be warming up and cooling down at every workout, but if you’re anything like most runners, you don’t. After all, most runners lead busy lives, and the thought of prolonging their workouts by performing non-running activities can be overwhelming. As a result, the warm-up and the cool-down usually get the ax.

However, taking the time to warm up and cool down can go a long way toward keeping you healthy and injury-free. Even five minutes before and after your run can make a big difference, Holland says.

The purpose of warming up prior to your run is twofold: It signals to your body that it’s time to do work and gets fluid to your joints, which helps keep them lubricated and moving through their optimal range of motion. Head out with cold muscles and you’ll limit their range of motion, thereby increasing risk of injury.

Then during your run, your muscles tense up and shorten. If you don’t stretch and loosen those muscles after your workout, they can’t achieve a healthy blood flow, much less circulate nutrients and remove waste products that impact post-workout muscle soreness and recovery. And if your muscles get and stay tight for long enough, they can even throw off your natural running biomechanics, especially if you also sit a lot during the day, Holland says.

All of this is to say: Prioritize your warm-up and cool-down. In fact, make them harder to skip by building them right into your run or workout. “When I write a workout, the warm-up, the drills and the stretching are all part of the description,” says Colorado-based running coach and two-time Chicago marathon winner Lisa Rainsberger.

In other words, you’ll automatically allocate a portion of your workout time to exercise prep and recovery. If you start thinking of your workout as the sum of multiple components—as opposed to just the running portion itself—the warm-up and cool-down will soon become a given, Rainsberger notes.

Spend five to 10 minutes performing bodyweight exercises or drills before your run. Try bodyweight squats, lunges, cariocas, bounding and side shuffles. The longer or more intense the workout, the more time and attention you need to give to warming up properly.

After your run, take five to 10 minutes to stretch and foam roll. Hold stretches for 15–20 seconds, and focus on areas that feel especially tight. Make sure you ease into every stretch; don’t try to force your muscles past their comfortable range.

Over time, you may notice that prioritizing the warm-up and cool-down results in fewer injuries and reduced muscle tightness, pain and/or soreness “because you’re preparing your body before the workout, and then you’re taking care of it after the workout,” Rainsberger says.

Bad Habit #4: Engaging In Negative Self-Talk

Most runners struggle to keep their inner dialogue positive, and many let that dialogue get in the way of accomplishing their goals.

Think about it: How do you let negative self-talk sabotage your goals? Maybe you’d like to sign up for a local race, but every time you consider doing it you think, I won’t do well anyway, so why bother? Or, maybe you always give up when you reach a steep hill during a run because you don’t believe you can handle it.

The more you repeat these negative self-talk patterns, the more automatic they become. “Our brains are so adept at trying to organize information that it creates very strong neural pathways,” Cheadle says.

The first step to overcoming negative self-talk is to simply identify the situations when you’re vulnerable. Write down those situations as well as the thoughts that typically run through your head, Cheadle says.

Once you identify your usual negative thoughts, consider what else you could tell yourself in the moment to help you get through. “Think of it like your superpower,” Cheadle says, “and right now you’re using that power for evil instead of good. What would it look like if we used it to serve you instead?”

For example, if every time you approach a steep hill during a run you think, I’m never going to make it up that hill, you might replace that thought with I’m stronger than I think. I can do this! Write down that new thought and make it highly visible. Keep the thought on a Post-it note and stick that note where you’re sure to see it every day. You can also write it on the back of your hand before you head out for your run.

You don’t have to believe your new thought right away, but you do have to practice it over and over. Otherwise, you’ll revert to your old thought patterns the moment you’re under stress, Cheadle says. But over time (and with practice), your new thought will become more automatic.

Bad Habit #5: Only Running

When you get bit by the running bug, it’s hard to step back and consider what other activities you could be doing. “Most people get addicted to [running],” Holland notes. “They become runners and that’s it. And that’s a huge problem.”

If the only activity you ever do is run, you’ll miss out on the performance-boosting benefits that cross-
training can offer.

Resistance training, for example, strengthens the muscles that power your running, which can help you avoid running-related injuries caused by muscle weakness.

Your core, for example, plays a key role in keeping you stable while you run. Lack of core strength and stability can cause you to leak energy in other areas because other muscles have to kick in to support you. A study published in the Journal of Biomechanics, for example, reveals that weakness in core muscles known as spinal erectors can cause other muscles—especially those in your low back—to contribute up to 45 percent more force to compensate. Unsurprisingly, this can lead to low-back pain over time.

Meanwhile, lower-impact activities like cycling, swimming and yoga give you the opportunity to maintain fitness while giving your muscles the occasional break from running. Once you get into the habit of varying your training, you’ll likely see a change in how you feel and how you recover from your running workouts, Rainsberger says.

But don’t think you need to spend an hour in the gym doing cross-training
activities. In fact, you can fit in a quick and effective cross-training workout at home. Take your bike out for a spin, go for a walk with friends or string together a few bodyweight exercises that hit your major muscle groups (e.g., squats, pushups, lunges). Aim to perform cross-training activities two to three times per week.