I have been running on a regular basis for most of my adult life. I started off running three times a week and this was relatively easy to fit into my life as a single young person with regular working hours. However, when I decided I wanted to get fitter and began training more, it began to get tricky, especially when my working life also became more complicated and I began to have more commitments both in and out of work. One of the ways I have found most helpful in ensuring that I complete my training is having a solid routine that I can use again and again. Spending time establishing this routine has been part of what has helped me train regularly even when my motivation has been low.
However, it’s all very well having a routine, but it’s not always that easy, especially when we lead busy lives with lots of other commitments. For some people for whom routine doesn’t come naturally it can be really difficult to just establish a good routine in the first place. Here are some ways that I have found helpful in establishing my routines.
Having a Goal
It’s very difficult to make yourself get off the settee and do anything without any real purpose. Having a goal with your sport will help provide purpose to each and every session you do. It doesn’t have to be a big goal, just something that is meaningful to you that you are going to have to work towards. It’s usually a good idea to try and make your goal SMART:
We need to know exactly what it is we are aiming for so that we can work out exactly what we need to do to get there. Saying we’d like to be able to run further is all very well, but does that mean we want to be able to sprint to the bus stop or complete a 100 mile ultra? Saying we would like to be able to run 5km is pretty specific; for those more advanced in running, saying we would like to run 5km in between 23 and 25 minutes is more specific again.
Our goal needs to be measurable, otherwise how will we know if we have completed it? Endurance goals are good because they usually provide some measurable stepping stones along the way. For example, if you can currently run 3km but want to be able to run 5km then you can set some stepping stones (or intermediate goals) along the way of running 3.5km, then 4km, then 4.5km.
Any goal we set needs to be achievable, there is simply no point me expecting to be able to compete in the next olympics (or any olympics for that matter); it’s far beyond what I know I am capable of. Deciding whether something is achievable or not can be difficult, so asking a trusted and knowledgeable friend can help. A good way of ensuring that your goal is achievable in sporting terms is to have some acceptance criteria rather than just a ‘pass or fail.’ If every athlete went into a race expecting to win it there would be a lot of disappointed athletes, but if every athlete goes in hoping for some a particular margin of time, or for a placing in the top end of where they usually finish in races with a stretch target of one or two places above this, then they are likely to succeed with the added bonus that they may achieve their stretch target. I like to think of it in terms of the (realistic) dream and the ‘happy with that’ margin.
Nobody is going to be motivated to get out of bed for something they feel indifferent about and goals need to be motivating to work. So having a goal that you really want and feel excited about is going to be one that you are willing to work towards. I’ve spend many years working with people who get into trouble with the law and when you ask them what they want it’s often not really different from what society thinks they ought to want, if we can tap in to what they really want that’s when we can really start to help them think about a better life for themselves. So, you might not be interested in doing a 5km race or a 10km race, but you might love to be able to run without stopping to the top of your local hill, sit on it in the sun and enjoy the view; well if that’s what excites you then that’s your goal.
The only way to really guarantee that we will achieve our goal is to give ourselves a time limit. My dad used to have a saying: ‘this week, next week, sometime, never!’ It’s very easy to put off doing something unless we have some kind of deadline or commitment. Racing events of course are by their nature time bound, but writing down on paper the day that you are going to complete your goal and perhaps sharing that with a friend can be all the commitment you need to keep you on track.
Having a Plan
Now that you have a goal you can start to develop a plan to achieve your goal. Having a plan no matter how simple, is a really good way to establish a routine and motivate yourself, because you know what it is your supposed to be doing. Before it becomes second nature, having our regular commitments written down as a reminder can be a really good way to establish a routine. It’s also a good way to keep measuring; we can look back at the end of each day/week/month and assess what we have completed to get to our goal and what still needs to be done. This is something that I have carried not only into training but into my life in general, so that I can think about and plan how my week is going to look, including my training.
Once you have a plan you have written out the routine that you want to do. Having a routine that is written down is a really good reminder of what we are hoping to achieve and helps us to remember what we are doing and when. Good plans tend to follow a basic regime in which the content of the sessions might change from time to time; a good plan to establish a routine might be planning out the days we are going to exercise with a goal for how long e.g.
- Monday: Rest
- Tuesday: harder session up to 45 minutes.
- Wednesday: Rest
- Thursday: Moderate session up to one hour
- Friday: Rest
- Saturday: Harder session up to one hour
- Sunday: Longer session up to 90 minutes easy.
Having a Micro-Plan
It’s all very well having a a well-thought out plan to get you from ‘couch to 5km’ or whatever, but if you still haven’t worked out how to actually get out of the door and start training none of it is going to happen. Having a micro plan to help you achieve the first step like getting out of the door is key to creating the routine and the only way it will become a routine is if you plan it (initially). Taking a bit of time to think how you are going to get out can signficantly increase your chances of doing your planned training instead of coming home flopping onto the settee and eating crisps all night so think about:
When you are going to train
When is the optimum time for you to get out and train; this can sometimes work well as part of another routine you already do (e.g. running to work/running back from dropping the kids at school). It needs to be a block of time that you regularly have and that rarely gets interfered with (e.g. if you are naturally an early riser you might find 5am is the time for your run, but equally I know people who have trained at 10 o’clock at night).
Make it easy
The easier you make it to get out the door the more likely it is it will happen. An example might be changing into your kit at work then not even going into the house but straight from the car to your training. Or if it’s a turbo session, setting up the turbo trainer the night before so that it is ready for you to jump on when you get in.
Make it hard to do the distractions
Think about the things that could or do distract you from your training and make it harder to do those things (e.g. hide the TV remote in another room, have your running kit rather than your pyjamas ready to change in to when you get home, make sure the kettle is empty and tea is prepared so you don’t have to spend time cooking before getting out the door.
Develop a trigger
Having a trigger for you to start your micro-plan is a good way to motivate you to do it. The trigger might be an alarm on your watch, a sign on your door or even what hypnotherapists like to call an anchor (clicking your fingers, saying ‘right, run time!)
Practise Practise Practise
Finally and most importantly, once you have your micro-plan in place, practise it; it will feel clunky and unfamiliar at first until all those neural pathways in your brain are well-established and coated, but the more you practise it the easier it will become.
In the end your micro plan might look something like this:
- Get up
- Lay out running kit on bed
- Go to work
- Look at plan at lunch time to check what session I am doing and that I understand it.
- Get home, and before I get out of the car say to myself ‘right let’s do this.’
- Get in and go straight to bedroom
- Put running kit on
- Get out the door
Now clearly the more you do this the easier it will become, but as with most things in life you can practise this in your mind as much as you like. Simply right down your micro- steps as above and read them several times out loud (‘I believe what I say when I hear myself speak it’). Then read them again, but at each step imagine yourself doing those things, imagine yourself getting up and finding your kit, laying it carefully on the bed, imagine yourself at your desk munching on your sandwich whilst checking out your training plan and so on. Practise it like this several times. By the time you actually come to do it you will already have practised it several times in your head and be very familiar with the steps.
Make Yourself Accountable to Others
A good way to make sure that you stick to your training routine is to make a commitment. A commitment can be something as simple as organising to go out with a supportive friend for a little session. You could choose to share with your friend why you want to be accountable to them or not, but the chances are if you have made a meeting time and date with a friend you are more likely to keep it. If that’s a regular meeting point this has the added bonus of meaning that on at least that day you are committed to a social event. Time spent with others can be a good way to break some of the unhelpful thought cycles we can find ourselves in when our mood is low.
Having shared goals (whether that’s just going out running together every Saturday) is a really good way to start to feel a connection with people. Often when we are suffering with low mood, we can feel very isolated from people so there is an added bonus of starting to feel part of something again.
Give Yourself a Reward
Establishing and maintaining a routine, however small or simple is an achievement; a positive reward at the end of our achievement is a good reinforcer for the behaviour. This can help when the bigger longer term goal seems a long way off. It’s also good practice to remain positive about our achievements however small and can contribute to increased self-esteem and better mood. We can give ourselves a physical reward or just enjoy the internal celebration of getting out and doing some exercise. Whatever the reward is, ensuring that throughout the week you have regular opportunities to reward yourself is like giving yourself a regular little dose of happiness.
When I first started running in the mornings, I had a percolator that I would set to go before I left the house, whilst the coffee was brewing, I went for a run knowing that when I got back there would be a lovely cup of coffee waiting for me. This meant that I had an immediate reward for my efforts.
Keep Your Acceptance Criteria Small
One of the things that can put us off from doing something is by setting unrealistic or very high standards; these might be based on old fitness levels of just on some imagined bar that we think we should attain.
Keeping our acceptance criteria small is a good way of ensuring that we will get out and train and feel good about it. So rather than saying that you are going to train for an hour every day, why not say, I’d like to get out 2-4 times a week for at least 20 minutes; if I manage half an hour that would be great; if I manage 40 minutes that would be fabulous, but if I only do 5 minutes that still 5 minutes that I have achieved. Something is always better than nothing; when I feel really low I often tell myself that I will go out for 5 minutes and ‘see how I feel,’ unless I’m really very sick, usually after 5 minutes I am enjoying myself and carry on.
Do the Same Route(s)
Often fear of the unknown can put us off from doing something, especially when mood and enthusiasm are low. We don’t know how hard it’s going to be, how long it’s going to take so we decide not to bother.
Whilst some people can find this boring, doing the same training route is actually a really good way to ensure that you know exactly what you are letting yourself in for and takes away that fear factor. You know you can do this route because you have done it so many times before; you know how it feels, and you know all the short cuts you can take if you need to cut it short. This is a trick I have particularly used in morning running (I’m not really a morning person) but a short well-known route in the morning is something I can manage because I can do it almost without thinking; I’m simply taking one routine (the training route) and placing it into another (the morning run).
Go at the same time each day
Doing something at the same time each day is really what routine is all about. The more times you do the same thing at the same time each day the more established this becomes until it feels odd not to be doing it. It also means that you have at least one goal in the day to achieve and a specific time to do it.
The more we practise doing something the stronger all the connections to this act become, including any feelings associated with it. So, if running makes you feel good and you do it again, the link between running and feeling good becomes stronger, if you do it again and again and again that link is even stronger still. Doing it at the same time means that eventually we come to anticipate the good feelings (a bit like you might crave a cigarette but with healthier consequences) so that our body starts preparing for the event at that time.
What if things get in the way of my routine? From time to time this is bound to happen, but a good way of ensuring that your training routine is disrupted less is to have other good routines in other areas of your life. Sometimes we can plan ahead for a disruption (e.g. a party, a holiday) and plan our training around these events rather than in spite of them.
What if it goes wrong? The chances are you will make some mistakes along the way, but that’s ok, it’s all part of learning. Accept the mistake then move on from where you are now by planning again with what you have learned from your mistake. E.g. you may have thought that you could go in and get changed but after being bombarded with questions about tea/homework/who’s turn it is on the xbox, you might need to think about going training before you get in the house!