What’s that saying? It takes three weeks to develop a habit? Or maybe it’s now 66 days? Whatever length of time it takes to develop one though, it takes just as long or even longer to get rid of it, especially when it’s a bad habit.
Depending on when you started running, you may have brought some not so great mental habits from your regular life to your running life. Such habits include black and white thinking patterns, perfectionism, crashing under pressure, and avoiding discomfort. For me, I’ve struggled with all of those things. As early as five years old, I can remember being afraid of slides, swings, and any type of movement that took me away from my “normal” state of being.
Many of us come to running as a way to cope with these habits. The same was true for me. The act of running itself was calming, centering, and a place to discard my mind of worries, even if only for a few hours. If we run for fitness and recreation alone, we probably won’t ever venture beyond running as self-care. It will merely serve its purpose as a coping mechanism, and a good one at that. But if the running bug bites us, and we start training and chasing PRs, our bad thinking habits that plague us in the rest of our life will creep into our running lives too.
I’ve been running for almost 20 years and writing about my experiences here for five. It seems the story is the same. I get into shape. I think I’m ready for a big breakthrough. I race. And while I may shave a few seconds off my times or a few minutes in the longer distances, the breakthrough never happens. Or so it feels that way.
This past weekend I raced a 5k on the indoor track, with the hope of running in the low to mid 21s. My winter training was filled with mini mental breakthroughs in workouts. I ran my fastest tempos yet and started to run speed repeats at my old fast paces. I was ready to go on race day.
I went out a bit fast knowing that, because it was a collegiate race, I likely had to if I didn’t want to be lost in no man’s land. Nonetheless, the first mile felt easy in 6:35. I was right on the heels of another runner and not in last place. I felt good.
Then at mile 1.5, the runner ahead started to break away. I told myself that as soon as the race started to feel hard, that was the point at which it was time to work. Why? Because I learned in my time trials this past winter that this is the point of a race when I tend to succumb to my old mental habits. Normally, this is when I slow down to avoid pain. So, I kept at it but the further she got away, the more the old voice came knocking at the door. At the two mile mark, two others passed me. Then another runner.
I didn’t answer this time. I was unaware of my pace as another runner passed me, but she didn’t leave me in the dust like the others. I stayed with her for that next mile. The old voice continued to knock though, telling me that since it felt manageable, she had to be going more slowly than I wanted to go.
With five laps left, I took off because I couldn’t tune out the voice. Now I was back in no man’s land and feeling like shit. Two laps to go and she passed me, this time leaving me in the dust for real. Had I stayed with her through the last lap, we both would’ve likely raced to a mid-21:00 5k.
Instead, as she took off and I had one lap left, the old voice shouted that I should just give up.
I’ll be running over 22 minutes again and ––
I tuned it out and ran as fast as I could, also wondering why I couldn’t hold this pace for more laps (I’ll tell you the answer in a bit). I finished strong, still under 22 minutes at 21:51. It was my fastest indoor 5k and second fastest 5k ever. Even though it wasn’t the time I wanted, I still crossed the line feeling satisfied by the effort. That triumph after the struggle is why I continue to come back for more.
The moral of the story? Old habits do die hard. I’ve been engaging in these thinking patterns and automatic behaviors for nearly 30 years. They will not go away over night or even in a few years. It’s only been a couple since I’ve recognized these patterns anyway. The best thing about this weekend’s 5k is that I was able to recognize when the old habits start taking place in a race. It was even quite interesting to see how automatic it is. I can now use this information and continue to apply it to my training and races.
If you think your mental habits are interfering with you performing your best, take note. Next time you race or do a tough workout, check to see if there are any automatic thought patterns you engage in. As soon as one occurs, say hi, and then do something different than you usually do in reaction to it. For instance, instead of slowing down, maintain the pace without freaking out. Or push through the moments of struggle, even if only for a few seconds. And outside of running, pay attention to those thought patterns too, and see if you are bringing them into your training.
The most important thing to remember when it comes to these old habits is that the little victories are what count. Just as the bad habits don’t develop over night, your breakthroughs happen as a culmination of the lessons learned. If we enjoy the process of learning, we’ll not only improve the habits in our running but we’ll improve the habits in our life.
What are some of your bad mental habits?