The power of habit By Louise Rudd.

Louise Rudd talks us through the importance of our habits and how they can impact our running

Habits – we all have them both good and bad. When you woke up this morning what did you do first? grab a coffee, go to the toilet & check social media (you know you all have so stop pretending to be horrified), did you brush your teeth before or after your shower?

Back in 1892 William James who was an American philosopher & psychologist stated “All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits”. This was backed up by a paper published in 2006 by Duke University that found more than 40% of actions people performed each day were not actual decisions, but habits.

I’ve bitten my nails for as long as I can remember, I remember starting to race at Trafford AC (then Stretford AC) 36 years ago and each week the same starting official coming over and taking my hand from my mouth in an effort to stop me biting my nails on the start line! It’s not a pleasant habit but it’s clear that my habit for exercise started young and that’s not a bad habit.

Ramping down
There are many books out there that try to analyse & understand habits, one I chose was The Power of Habit by Chales Duhigg. It looks at first at understanding then how you can change them. Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort, habits allow your brain to ramp down more often. How many times on a run have you arrived somewhere without realisng how you got there? It’s certainly one of the attractions of running is the meditative nature of it, just switching off.

The habit process is a three step loop. First there is a cue – this is the trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode & which habit to use. Then there is the routine – this can be physical, mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward – this helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.

You don’t have to make massive changes, small changes lead to small wins which lead to habit changes. How often have you said you want to stretch more? So start with just a few mins, don’t make it unmanageable, maybe decide that you will do it whilst watching the news or take a few mins before bed and stretch rather than scroll aimlessly through your phone. One habit I’ve learnt to incorporate is meditative breathing, just a few mins of deep breaths or big sighs even, just to slow down & relax, i’ve found it helps me to switch off if I need a break & calm me if I’m in a stressful situation. It’s taken a while to build the habit but as I saw the benefit (reward) it became easier.

Habits v Behaviours
As I’ve highlighted a habit is something you do repeatedly until it becomes automatic. Behaviours are your actions in coordination with your environment & surroundings. Social learning theory was suggested by Albert Bandura & it emphasized the importance of observing, modelling & imitating the behaviours, attitudes & emotional reactions of others. It considers how both environmental & cognitive factors interact to influence human behaviour & learning.

Children especially learn by observing what’s around them – it could be parents, TV, sports people, their peers, teachers. How the people around respond to the behaviour normally decides whether they continue to do it – punishment or praise. Us adults really aren’t that different. If at training you decide that you are going to be positive about sessions and people notice, it’s more likely you will continue. I guess the difference to a habit is that the habit has more intrinsic reinforcement whereas a behavior has an external reinforcement.

What about your inner chimp? Professor Steve Peters is not only a successful masters athlete but also a Consultant Psychiatrist who has worked with a number of sports teams helping them on their way to improved performances. Prof Peters states that the psychological mind is made up of three component parts:- The Chimp – the emotional machine that responds very quickly to a stimulus, it thinks independently to us & can trigger thoughts & feelings that can be either constructive or destructive. The Human – the rational, analytical part of the brain that processes information in a considered, factual way before eliciting an action. Finally the Computer – where information including experiences & learned behaviours are stored for future reference.

He offers ideas on how to best train your Chimp – the most obvious being through positive reward. He also suggests how to develop mind-sets in your Computer. Mind-sets are wired into our brains by consistent repetition of positive behaviours.

Self reflection
What habits do you have that are good? What habits do you have that you would like to change? What about your behaviours? Is there something that you would like to do differently? Can you train your Chimp?

Don’t underestimate the power of habit, it’s a multi million pound business! From us feeling the need to have those latest trainers to the latest food supplement that will boost performance. Companies employ people to look at algorithms to see how best to pitch something.

We are all still in lockdown in the UK as I type & a number of us may have a little more time to spare so how could you use that time more effectively? (Apart from making banana bread obviously). Could you add something into your daily routine that will help your mental & physical health? If you are sat down more now – can you add some hip, hamstring stretching into your day? If you think you are lacking omega 3 in your diet – could you plan a new meal each week to incorporate this?

Note it down
I’ve found that writing things down tends to help – it helps you reflect, it helps with positive reinforcement. I’ve been journaling for a while & it’s good to look back but just as important to plan ahead.

On the flip side is there a habit you want to break? The book profiled a lady who bit her nails & every time she had the urge to bite her nails she sat on her hands & eventually it worked! if you always set off too fast on your run – could you make a point of observing your surroundings just for the first mile at least?

What do you do on race day? I think we all have a process we go through. If you want to change it why not try writing down different scenarios? Not just of how the race could pan out but what you plan to do that day? For example, breakfast, what to drink, do you want to foam roll, stretch, have a bath or a shower, are you going to walk the course? If you get nervous – could a breathing exercise help with that? If you get overwhelmingly nervous – can you train your Chimp in order to help you feel calmer & more positive?

You build a neural pathway once you keep doing something over & over – it’s why, for example, you should perform drills to help you run better as they encourage better movement.

I’d love to stop biting my nails, I’d like to stop comparing myself to others, I’d like to enjoy swimming & do it regularly…. there’s a long list! I try bit by bit to make small, manageable changes. For me personally I love reading so reading about the theory first helps me to understand what I’m trying to do.

Hopefully the information above has given you some ideas & some motivation. Lets see what we can do in 2021.

Louise Rudd is a multiple world masters winning athlete with Stockport Harriers

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