Habit: A Three-Year Itch?

Last year I was pacing the 10K at one of the local Kona Running Company events. I’d been assigned the “1st Time 10K” sign, and having lost the runners I started with, I was looking for some more first-timers to run with. About halfway along I came upon a middle-aged couple chugging along and asked them if this was their first 10K.

I finally did find one!
I finally did find one!

“Oh, no,” they told me, “but it’s been a while since we’ve run one.” They were running the race as a family event with their daughter, who was apparently some distance ahead of them. They were hoping to get back into running more, but told me it wasn’t much fun at present.

“That’s okay,” I said. “It took a while for me to enjoy running, too.”

How long was that, they asked me.

“About three years,” I replied. Three years from when I started running on a regular basis and began logging my miles. Back then, I told them, my attitude was often, “Man, I guess I got to go for a run today.” Now it was, “I can’t wait to run today!”

What had started out as just another exercise to keep fit just sort of took over. I study Aikido, I ride my bike, I go to the gym – but I am a runner.

What had happened during that time? What changed me from a reluctant runner into a dedicated (some would say addicted) one? I’m not really sure, but if I had to identify one key factor, I’d say it was this:

It became a habit.

Click here for "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Hobbits." (No, I'm not kidding.)
Click here for “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Hobbits.” (No, I’m not kidding.)

In other words, it was putting on the gear, lacing up the shoes, and getting out the door on a regular basis that did the trick. It was an instance of a new routine, triggered by a desire to keep fit, that my body and mind first resisted, then got used to, then craved. Maybe it did become a kind of addiction. Then at least it’s a beneficial one.

I wonder if too often we associate “habits” with negative behaviors and don’t give good habits the credit they deserve. Habits, after all, are one way we get through life without having to constantly analyze and decide what to do next. While animals are driven mainly by instinct, we can transform our instinctive behavior to suit our needs and desires. In other words, we’re able to choose which habits we keep and which we stop. I’m not saying it’s easy, but it is possible.

For example, one of the coaches in my running group told me how he quit smoking. “Whenever I had the craving for a cigarette,” he told me, “I drank a glass of water and went for a walk.” He’d replaced a bad habit with a good one, and today he’s an elite-level triathlete.

Some habits shouldn’t be replaced, however.

It wasn’t just willpower that made running a habit for me, though. Having a group to run with, especially in winter and bad weather, was a big help. So was the good feeling afterward of having done something good for myself. And the thrill of completing a new long distance or faster time at a race. If running and racing weren’t so much damn fun, it’s doubtful I’d be so into it.

And yet . . .

All this came back to mind due to a recent interruption of my routine. About an hour before my Monday session at Body Specs a couple of weeks ago, my boss called to request my attendance at an urgent call to a customer. I did so, but I had to cancel my session. The following week, I told my trainer (who I’m sure apprenticed at the Tower of London) how I’d felt about it.

My Lord, thou shalt do 50 reps with the 50 pound kettlebell!
My Lord, thou shalt do 50 goblet squats with the 50 pound kettlebell!

Back when I started, I told him, if I’d had to cancel a session, it would have been with some measure of relief. “But last week,” I said, “I was genuinely annoyed.”

And when had I started my torture sessions with Body Specs? About three years ago.

Chalk up another one to habit!

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