Goals, Resolutions and Small Changes

Happy New Year. Only four days late, but not a great start when you’re writing about goal setting and resolutions. I’ve a ritual of setting my goals before the New Year arrives as if having them in writing by January the First gave them extra weight. This year there’s nothing on paper, no plans in my notebook, I’m still mulling the question over. At least that’s the excuse I’ll give for the weekend’s procrastination.

I’m behind the curve, most of you have set yourself the challenges for 2011 whether it’s racing new events, achieving new times or simply getting fit. There’s been plenty of interest on the long distance front, not surprising with the huge growth in UK races. An Ironman entry paid for months ago is far more real in January. Only five months for those racing in Lanzarote and not that much longer for the rest of Europe, seasonal excuses are losing credibility work needs to be done. As a starter for those looking for training advice I’ll point you to my simple Ironman training week.

Despite being a stickler for rules I’m not a fan of resolutions, they’ve always felt reactionary and too arbitrary. It’s good to reflect and look to improve, but resolutions tend to be a knee jerk response to perceived deficiencies. I’ve a poor diet so I’m not eating chocolate or I won’t drink in January. These aren’t necessarily realistic the latter has a time limit at least, but if unhealthy habits return in February it doesn’t serve much purpose. My rules for racing lean were a resolution and I’ve never strictly adhered to them for more than a couple of months at a time.

Goals will fill the bulk of my notebook, things I want to accomplish before the year is out. They’re written without much thought to how I’ll achieve them, but provide motivation and direction for the coming months. The long term is the most important aspect of the planning process, my plans stretch into 2012 and I’ve ideas through to 2015! I can’t make changes to my behaviour if I don’t know what those changes are working towards.

Writing goals is easy, it takes a moment to state “I want to break 9 hours for an Ironman”. Accomplishing them is another matter requiring commitment of time and changes in our lives. This is the point when resolutions come into play, we could plan to go to the gym three times a week, stop drinking coffee (never!) or stretch every day. They might help us on the way, but be sure to ask why the resolution will help towards the long term goal.

What we should focus on are the small changes we can make to establish habits that support our plans. What are the behaviours of a person capable of achieving our goals and how can we progress towards adopting them? Changing habits should be as progressive as our training plan. After time off training if we jump straight back into our highest volume and intensity we’ll at best under-perform and at worst suffer injury. Why should changes to our lifestyle be any different?

When someone who’s never exercised decides they’ll go to the gym five times a week are we surprised if they fail? The sudden change makes it much easier to slip, one week they only manage three sessions, it feels like a failure and there’s the potential for a negative cycle back to the couch. I went from zero to a couple of sessions a week and on to practically living in the gym over the course of the year. The path to fitness was slow, it took time to develop, but this established habits I carried forward.

The same resistance to change is true at the other end of the fitness spectrum. Athletes aren’t short on drive, but sometimes this focus acts as blinkers. I’ve found it hard to adapt my training to changes in my lifestyle. An inherent bias equating work with volume alone leads to familiar schedules stacked with hours of training. That’s why it’s important I consider the person capable of achieving my goal, are they just putting in the hours? Besides that need for progression places me a long way from having the option.

I spent December completing a daily run challenge, like a resolution I was committed to thirty minutes a day. Sure enough it improved run fitness (from a low starting point) and I’d not discourage similar games for those who regularly train (so long as it doesn’t interfere with overall training). Importantly I committed to a proactive approach of ten minutes stretching and massage after each run. Resolutions to stretch three times a week have always failed, but this small change in behaviour was easily managed. A minor addition to training that helped carry me through the challenge.

There’s no harm in setting resolutions, but be aware of their limitations. A month of running was manageable and more significantly led to longer term changes in training. Avoid hard and fast rules, I’ve tried them and whilst they work for limited periods of time, the best results have always come from small, gradual changes to my daily habits. For me the New Year is about setting goals and looking at how I need to change to achieve them. Genuine, incremental changes to behaviour will result in long-term benefits.

It’s all very well giving my thoughts on the process when I’ve not put my own goals in writing. There were sound reasons for the delay, a lot of time has been spent questioning my long term aims. It’s clear motivation has been lacking and I needed to get to the bottom of this before I committed anything to paper. Next time I post I’ll outline the two year plan.