When It Comes to Running, Old Habits Die Hard

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.

Knock knock.

Who’s there?

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 –

SHUT UP!

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? 

I write about mindfulness, mental health, and the professional sport of running with the occasional poking fun at the sport. When I am not running, I'm either helping people as a counselor or trying to make them laugh as an amateur open mic comedian.

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14 comments

  1. Great post! I was a competitive runner but now I run for just fun. As I get older, my goals have changed. I am becoming less and less concerned about body and more concerned about staying active and healthy. I want my body to be able to do all the things I love to do.

  2. A bad habit that just came out of nowhere is a little voice that says “you’re to old for this fast running shit”. It’s not like I’m 100 years old- lol. I have been working on kicking its ass, but it’s a struggle.
    Congratulations on your indoor 5k. Those are so hard. I was excited to see you didn’t give up and pushed through. I’ve really enjoyed your mindful posts so much.

  3. I loved this. Congrats on your 5k! Indoor 5k’s are TOUGH. My biggest, baddest habit is when I start to hurt, I tell myself that the race doesn’t matter anyways… like, just get to the finish line and whatever happens “happens.” But ultimately, I know, if I slow up and succumb to the pain, and am a few minutes slower by the end, I will be mad at myself. I will be upset. I have tried to teach myself to only think positive through the race, saying “you can do it” or “one step at a time” over and over. I read somewhere to literally get through each step, one by one, and don’t think about what is coming in the next 15 minutes, hour, whatever. Just get to that next bush, catch that girl in front of you!

    1. Good tips! I struggle with the same stuff. It even happened in this race. I almost jogged it in, thinking my attempt at a fast time was over but glad I didn’t because I still ended up with an ok time. Thanks for the reminder :)

  4. My worst habit is probably deciding at the hardest point of the race that I actually don’t care that much and just want to slow down to make the discomfort go away. Somewhere I read the tip to speed up whenever that happens and it really works!

  5. First, congrats on the 5k! Second, I’d say my worst habit i bring from my life into running is getting upset with myself for not being as good as someone of similar ability or training. Just like I sometimes compare myself to other 26 year olds who already have a great job and family, I compare my training to other athletes I feel are similar to me. It can be destructive, so I’m working hard at keeping those thoughts at bay.

    1. Thanks, Ellie! It is challenging not to compare. Acknowledging that the thoughts are there and that they are just thoughts is a great first step. Keep up the good work…and training!

  6. Yes, yes, yes!!! I’m in the same position! I’ve been making many mini mental breakthroughs in my workouts this cycle. Even though they are making me more confident, I’m also becoming nervous for race day. What if I show up and my old voice tags along? The important thing is that this cycle I’ve confronted my fear of discomfort. I have proved to myself that I can face it and achieve my goals. I keep reminding myself that I can do that on race day too. :) Thanks, Counselor Ginger!