I’ve been thinking about how people get fitter and stay fitter, in fact how we get better at anything, whether that is developing skills, being more happy or achieving amazing sporting goals. It is all about creating and maintaining good habits. I thought it would be useful to share some of what I have learned from over 50 years in sport and my experiences as a professional running and cycling coach.
So, why do you get fitter by developing good habits? Getting fit for endurance sport is all about being consistent and building fitness step by step. Good habits and routine make you more likely to get something done as well as providing stepping stones to build on as you progress towards your goals. Doing similar things each day, week, month, means it is easier to see where things may not be going quite right, make changes and refocus, giving you the best chance of sticking with it and meeting your goals. Good habits also stop you having bad habits by providing replacements.
Developing good habits isn’t easy, particularly at first if you find the workouts difficult and there are other things that might seem more attractive. The things you need to do to get fitter and faster aren’t always the most interesting, but there are things you can do to help yourself along and the rewards are definitely worth it.
Why are good habits so important?
Getting fitter is about taking small steps, consolidating when you get to a new level and then building again with more small steps to reach a higher level. This takes time, hard work and discipline because consistency is probably the most important part of it and whatever you might read in magazines, or people might tell you, there is no magic way to get fit.
Fortunately, knowing this and keeping it in mind can be very empowering and positive. You can know that by just getting out each day for your planned workout, or resting when you have planned rest, and looking after yourself properly will lead you towards that new level of fitness. You don’t need to search for a ‘magic bullet’ or worry about whether you are doing it right because there are lots of ways to get fit and you just need to keep doing something progressive to make it happen.
By developing good habits that fit your goals and create a routine, you increase your chances of training consistently and just as importantly, recovering effectively in preparation for your next workout or event.
Take small steps
As with building your fitness, it is easier to develop good habits if they work with your existing commitments and form incremental steps towards the optimum.
Whilst it can be possible to make a snap change, these big changes are usually sparked by some sort of epiphany that shocks us into change. For example, stopping smoking because of a health scare or seeing someone else suffer a smoking related illness.
It is more usual to make an effective change by making small adjustments to what you are doing already. For example, getting up a little earlier to do your workout so it fits with your normal routine. In this example you would give yourself the best chance of getting up earlier by making sure you have good habits in the evening to improve your chances of a good nights sleep, or by adding a ‘power nap’ at some point during the day..
Think about your daily routine
Most people have a regular daily routine, which may be the same for each week day and different at weekends. Planning your training around this routine can help you create good habits and build your fitness.
Think about what you do each day and how it can work around your training most effectively. What time do you get up, go to bed, what do you do immediately after getting out of bed? What things do you need to do and when, and when is the best time to fit in a workout each day.
Also think about how you are going to fit proper recovery into your routine and how you will ensure you eat and drink enough of the right things.
Perhaps you can add an extra session into your week, or make one of your usual sessions more effective by shuffling things around to make yourself more prepared.
If you have a usual workout routine, think about what works and what things you have struggled with. If everything is scheduled, worked out and written down, you can review each week to see where you can make improvements, maybe add more recovery or emphasise different training sessions to focus on the important things. Also think about whether you are wasting energy on things that aren’t helpful, things that may be directly related to your fitness goals or things you do that are unhelpful to your goals or just unhealthy and wasteful.
Create mechanisms to promote good habits
What I call mechanisms are what I call things I use to influence me towards what I want to do. A simple mechanism is setting an alarm to make sure you get up at a certain time or do something at a certain time. Other mechanisms might be putting a sign on the fridge or kettle to stop you eating or sitting down for a cup of coffee when you should be going out for your workout.
Making small adjustments that make it easier for you to do your workout, eat properly or otherwise look after yourself make a huge difference to your chances of creating good habit. They make your good habits a consequence of other good habits and behaviours that eventually become engrained. Having good mechanisms can make the difference between successfully forming the good habits and not.
A mechanism I found to be very effective was using my commute as part of my training. I established a morning routine that resulted in me running or cycling to work and was careful not to research alternative options to getting home after work. This resulted in me being almost forced into my second workout of the day, which was usually the more intense and effective.
Using a commute to do two training sessions a day is also a great way of building some low intensity training volume into your workouts, which is almost always beneficial.
Why is a good routine important?
Good routines come out of good habits. Having a good routine and sticking with it as much as possible significantly improves your chances of building your fitness.
If you do similar workouts at similar times each week you can more easily understand when you get tired and when you are at your most fresh and ready. By making small changes to your routine you can ensure that you are doing your most important workouts when you are at the most ready and fit less intense workouts around them.
For example, if most of your events are on Sundays, it makes sense to have a representative, hard workout on a Sunday so that you are used to the routine that gets you ready for your event. This can then set the trend for other days of the week such as Monday and perhaps Tuesday, may be needed as a recovery day from your hard Sunday workout. If you want to get another harder, perhaps more intense workout into your week, it will need to give you enough time to be recovered for Sunday and therefore you can slot in your key training sessions.
Alternatively, you may like to do certain classes or club sessions on certain days and you will want to structure your week around those, to either be at your most fresh for a hard workout or if you find these sessions easier, you will want to use them as recovery sessions.
By setting up a routine and adjusting it step by step, you will be able to optimise your training week and build in appropriate progressions, week on week, month on month, etc.
You still need to be flexible and adapt where necessary
I believe it was Morrissey who said that “Plans can fall through and so often they do… ” in the Smiths song Accept Yourself, and there is nowhere that this is any more true than in developing and following a training plan for endurance sport.
Despite what we might want to think, we are not machines, we are human beings and subject to the frailties and complexities inherent therein. We get ill, injured, stressed, emotional and tired for seemingly no reason and we need to take this into account and quickly adjust our plans accordingly.
Good habits are more than just for workouts
Creating good habits that reduce your chances of illness, promote recovery and take care of your emotional health are just as important as those that help you get out for your workouts and push hard. This is increasingly the case, the harder you work and the fitter and faster you get because the harder you are working the closer to your limits you become.
Good habits such as going to bed and getting up at regular times that give you enough sleep, eating properly and avoiding too much of the wrong things are important and should be included in your routine and daily plans.
Conversely, building in some unstructured time to ‘blow out’ and reset is also important and the degree to which this is necessary is very individual. We are not machines and can’t make ourselves behave like them without something going wrong. Fortunately, unlike most machines, we are very good at repairing ourselves with sufficient care, acceptance and kindness.
When things go wrong
It would be very surprising for everything to go right all the time, in fact I think it would be impossible and totally unrealistic to assume there will be no problems with your training.
Accepting yourself in these situations is very important in helping things get back on track as quickly as possible.
If you only need a few easy days to get over a cold or a minor setback, you can just jump back into your plan where you left off.
However, if you need to take significant time off from your training due to illness, injury, or for some other reason it is time to take a step back and rethink. Once again, you are not a machine and you need to accept that you have to start from your level of fitness and health at any given time, you cannot force yourself to be where you would like to be, so accept, replan and create a new routine of good habits that refocuses on your goals is imperative to getting back on track.
Successful people don’t give up!
Successful people are generally the ones that keep trying and don’t give up, not the ones that are the most talented or privileged.
It is easy to convince ourselves that we aren’t talented enough to be faster, or that we aren’t built for sports but the reality is that most people succeed because they work hard, create good habits and routines and work through setbacks.
I have been involved in endurance sports for nearly 50 years, including periods of time training with, and coaching, world class athletes. During that time I think I have met less than a handful of outstandingly talented athletes and some of them didn’t achieve their potential. The most successful combined their talent with hard work, sacrifice and resilience to setbacks, keeping going where others gave up.
Most people are similarly talented and it is very unlikely that talent or your basic physiology is the main thing limiting your quest to get fitter and faster, and winning races if that is your goal. Even in the unlikely event that it is, getting fitter and faster is rewarding in many ways, so I suggest you stick with it, believe in yourself, accept yourself, create some good habits and see what happens.
Remember! There are no magic sessions
Hard work, time and consistency is what gets you fitter and faster.
A lot is written in the media about doing certain ‘magic’ sessions that are guaranteed to improve your performance over a given distance or event. In many cases, doing these sessions when combined appropriately with other training will lead to improvement but doing any session that progressively stresses your body to work harder and including the right amount of recovery between sessions will lead to improvement.
Keeping this in mind and not getting stressed about the details is worth doing. Worry about getting out training regularly, doing your best on any given day and you will almost certainly improve.
What metrics can help me monitor my readiness to train hard? Nowadays, there are many metrics that are claimed to monitor your readiness to do a hard workout and recommend the intensity of your training on a given day. In my experience, HRV (Heart Rate Variability) and resting heart rate, when measured with an appropriate sensor (heart rate strap or finger sensor, not a phone camera) give a good idea of trends in fatigue but aren’t good indicators of whether to train hard on a given day. This means that watching trends can indicate time to back off in general but not necessarily day to day. How you feel is still a very good guide and in general it is worth going out, starting your planned workout and if it isn’t happening, go home and rest. Be cautious.
Should I include periods of easier training in my routine/plan? Yes, you should definitely include easier periods of training in your plan. Your weekly routine should have easier days for recovery and to prepare for harder workouts. Even the best athletes often have at least one complete day of rest in their training weeks. You should also include easier weeks in your plan, which should typically be every third or fourth week, where you ease back significantly on your training and concentrate on recovery. It is during the easier periods that your body adapts and builds fitness, so if you don’t ease off a bit, you will just get more tired and may become very ill. It is also a good idea to ease off a bit if you are suffering from unusually stressful situations or long trips, and planning for these time with easier weeks can save on the need for unwanted time off later on.