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Posted: June 6, 2004

Athletics: Analyze Your Motivation and Discipline

From Lore of Running-4th Edition by Timothy Noakes

Lore of Running

When starting out, beginners may not find running particularly easy or enjoyable. It takes great motivation and personal discipline to survive the first three months before running becomes a habit controlled by the subconscious. I suspect that this process is part of the subconscious programming that occurs in the central governor, discussed in chapter 2. It is in this learning process that the subconscious governor begins to discover the body’s capabilities. Interestingly, once the novice has been through this process, it need never be repeated. Irrespective of the duration for which you do not run, be it months, years, or even decades, you will never again need to go through this learning process; starting to run will never again be as difficult, regardless of how unfit you may have become. This suggests that the neural processes of running become hardwired into the subconscious, much as does the ability to ride a bicycle. Since this process takes time, one consequence is that many beginners often fall by the wayside, as they are unable to look beyond the glamour of running and are totally unaware of this unexpected demand of the sport.

I suspect that those who find it easiest to stick to a running program have previously exhibited self-efficacy and perseverance, are mentally healthy, and tend to succeed in whatever they put their minds to (Sallis et al. 1992; Du Charme and Brawley 1995). Having been successful previously in sport or, alternatively, having a reasonable measure of running ability is probably a very important determinant of who will most likely stick with the running program (Dennison et al. 1988). Other factors predicting adaptation to and maintenance of an exercise program include years of education and support from family and friends (Sallis et al. 1992). In contrast, it has been found that those who drop out are more likely to have failed previously and may have low levels of self-esteem (Lobstein et al. 1983). Indeed, studies have shown that cardiac patients who dropped out of exercise programs to which they had been referred after suffering heart attacks were more depressed, hypochondriacal, anxious, and introverted and had lower ego strength than did those who remained in such programs (Blumenthal et al. 1982b). Another factor is each person’s capacity to accept responsibility for determining his or her own fate.

At present, our knowledge of how best to help those likely to drop out of a regular running program is limited so that it essentially becomes an individual problem for each runner. What is important is that you realize your weaknesses and that you get others to help and support you. In particular, plan to run in a group of people who meet regularly and who will assist in motivating you. Unfortunately, many running clubs have not yet evolved a system whereby they guide novice runners through these first difficult steps. I hope that this will change in the future. John Martin and Patricia Dubbert from the University of Mississippi at Jackson (Martin and Dubbert 1984) suggest the following strategies to assist the beginner.

Goal setting. It is always important to set achievable, short-term goals in training (in respect to either distance or time run each day or week) and also to have long-term goals, like running in a fun-run, 10-km race, half-marathon, or marathon. New runners might find it useful to keep a logbook to help them set goals and to reinforce successful behaviors. (See Law 14 in the section describing Step 5, later in this chapter.)

Shaping. Shaping is a process in which a target behavior (that is, becoming fit enough to become a competitive runner) is broken down into a series of steps that eventually achieve the desired goal. Martin and Dubbert suggest starting with a simple, easily performed task. In running, the initial shaping goal during the first 8 to 12 weeks should therefore not be to become fit, but to develop the habit of regular exercise. Thus, some initial shaping strategies might include the following:

Allocating a certain amount of time each day for your running. This should include time to prepare for the run and to shower and dress after exercise. Usually, a total of 45 to 60 minutes will be required for a reasonable session.

Deciding what time of day is best for your running. Lunchtime is ideal but may be impractical. Afternoon is the next best but may result in you arriving home too late. Early morning may be the most practical as it interferes least with other aspects of your life, but it is also the most demanding: this is when the body, as a result of the circadian (24-hour) variation in exercise capacity, is the least well prepared for exercise.

Running with a group. Try to find others with whom you can share the joys and tribulations of the new challenge.

Reinforcement control. Any encouragement that reinforces the exercise habit will be beneficial—such as running in a group, experiencing the benefits of the exercise, and, in particular, enjoying increased physical fitness. Running is a social activity, and the more benefit you draw from that social interaction, the easier it will become to keep running.

Stimulus control. This method uses stimuli or prompts to encourage exercise—perhaps laying out running clothing the night before, wearing exercise clothes around the house, or always having exercise attire in the car. Associating with regular exercisers and discussing personal training and performances, as well as reading about running, can also increase the desire to exercise.

Associative and dissociative strategies. This concept is discussed in greater detail in chapter 8. In short, when running, either think about everything but what you are doing (dissociation) or concentrate purely on the activity and how your body feels as you run (association). In general, it is believed that competitive runners do best if they associate during races. However, it also appears that novice runners do best if they dissociate. As soon as they start associating—thinking about their running and how their bodies are hurting—they are less likely to continue exercising. Running in pleasant and varied surroundings, rather than on monotonous roads and tracks, helps the dissociation process.

Dissociation is generally easiest when the athlete is running at relatively low exercise intensities. But as the exercise intensity increases or fatigue develops, the mind starts associating naturally, especially when the run is either so hard or so long that pain intrudes. By running either faster or slower, novice runners will soon learn how to switch naturally between associative and dissociative mental states.

Coping thoughts. As a novice runner, learn positive self-talk methods (discussed more in chapter 8) such as “I’m doing well to exercise at all today since I wasn’t looking forward to it,” “I’m nearly halfway,” or “I’m nearly finished... let me notice what’s going on around me—that sunset is beautiful.” At first, it is better to be excessively self-congratulatory about your efforts. Stricter self-examination can be instituted once the exercise habit is ingrained.

If you are a highly dedicated person, then the problem is the reverse. Rather than doing too little, you are likely to aim too high, too soon. It is important to set realistic goals and to start gradually. Be aware that, in the beginning, the mind, heart, and lungs are infinitely stronger than are the bones, tendons, and ligaments of the lower limb, and a serious running injury is virtually guaranteed to befall anyone who starts training too intensively too soon.

Posted with permission from Human Kinetics Publishers, Inc.

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