How to Make And Break Running Habits

A while back, I wrote a story for New Scientist about the neuroscience of habits: how they are formed in the brain and why they are so hard to break. The context matters a lot with habits; when we’re in the same environment, doing the same routine, it can be hard to change things. One of the best times to break a bad habit or start a new one is during a major life upheaval: when you’re starting a new job, going on a trip, or moving. Since I’m making the big move from D.C. to Richmond, Virginia soon, I’m hoping to use the opportunity to change some bad habits.

I take a similar approach with each new training season. Maybe it’s not a major overhaul, but it is a fresh start. If you’re currently gearing up for a fall marathon, with a crisp, clean training plan in hand, consider adding one new good habit along with the miles and workouts. Dedicate yourself to it before you get too deep in the routine of extra long runs and carb feasts. I’ve found that if I can get through the first few weeks, my habit sticks around even through the monster weeks of hard training.

In the New Scientist article, I outlined a few tips for changing your habits.

1. Schedule it. It’s incredibly helpful to schedule your new habit into your day. Figure out a time you’ll squeeze in that core work. Will you leave for your run earlier and do it after? Will you do planks while you watch TV?

2. Be specific. Give yourself a clear order. Don’t say, “I’ll be better about recovery.” Say, “I’ll foam roll every day.”

3. Have a cue. Leave yourself a cue that will remind you of your specific habit at the scheduled time. Leave your foam roller with your running shoes, so you see it before and after your run. When I wanted to track my gratitude, I put my journal beside my bed so I would remember to write in it every night.

4. Move on from mistakes. If you miss a day, don’t give up on yourself. Slip-ups happen on the way to forming new habits, but if you accept it and get back at it the next time, you’ll make progress.

5. Be patient. Breaking bad habits or starting new ones can take weeks. One study found an average of around nine weeks, but there was a wide range.

A current bad habit of mine is skipping my drills. After my last injury, my PT gave me a new set to do as a dynamic warm up and, while I did them all last season, my dedication has dropped lately. The problem is that, rather than do drills on the sidewalk, I like to do them in our apartment building’s backyard. But more often then not, I’m running late and I can’t take the extra step to go back there. (It requires going down a set of stairs, out the back door, doing the drills, and then—geez, the effort—back inside and down more stairs to end up out front to start my run. I mean, seriously guys, it’s a whole ordeal.)

But soon, I’ll have my own yard. There will be no extra excursion required to do drills. (And I’m sure galloping around doing carioca drills will be a good way to meet the neighbors.) I’m using moving as motivation to get back into the habit of doing drills, but the start of the new season can be a good time for a change as well. Or perhaps watching the extremely dedicated competitors at the track trials this week will be a powerful motivator. Although one expert I interviewed said simply, “The best time to start is now.”

Do you have any bad running habits you’d like to break? Or good ones you want to start?

I'm a science journalist with a background in neuroscience and a love of running marathons and baking marathon-worthy feasts. I started out as an over four-hour marathoner but whittled my PR down to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Trials. I write about the importance of chasing big dreams and -- as I'm currently pregnant with my first -- getting ready to chase around a little one.

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3 comments

  1. Thanks, Tea! I’m so glad you mention slip-ups. Where I live in Spain right now requires a 20 minute walk down a mountain to go running. I promise it’s not an excuse either- just super inconvenient! The plus is that I run back up, usually in intervals and that has helped my hill training SO MUCH. But I often let the excursion down the hill get in the way of my workouts. And then I’m hard on myself. Soon I will no longer be living on this mountain haha! And I’m visiting the U.S. soon. Time to form new habits. 🙂 Good luck with your move!

  2. HA! The whole last couple of paragraphs is totally me. Pre-run dynamic warmup (takes 5 minutes), post-run drills (takes 15 minutes 2x/week). I feel like I never have time to do them. And running backwards around my condo parking lot confuses the neighbors for sure. Oh, and when I run early, I frequently just literally forget to do the warm up moves. But, I found recording the drills on my Garmin as a separate activity makes me more accountable for doing them, since I can see it there on my log. Or not, as the case may be.

    1. Ohhh, interesting idea, I hadn’t thought about recording it as a separate activity. Tracking your habits is another great tip and that’s an easy way to do it!