It is a marathon: lessons about behavior change taken from the first three miles.
Written: 09-21-2017

It is marathon week, so I figured we could use the overused sports analogy to discuss changing our behaviors. Everyone has heard the saying,

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint”.

It has been used in everything from motivational posters and financial planning commercials to company culture documents. The lesson to individuals is that it is wise to manage your effort overtime, make logical choices to get to the next step, opposed to trying to accomplish everything in a single day.

The problem that I have with this advice is that at every marathon I have ever done, during the first few miles, the participants of the marathon forget it themselves. If there was ever someone that should understand this principle, it would probably be the marathon runner on race day. I still remember doing a marathon with a bunch of first time marathoners. We had trained for several months and were prepared to have a great day. I taught the value of having self awareness and pacing early in the race. I warned of the desire to do something you had not prepared for due to the crowd of runners. Despite that coaching, after the race started and we hit the 0.5 mile mark, one of the runners looked at her Garmin watch and saw that her average pace was slower than she anticipated. She decided to run faster and was already anxious about her finishing time.

I yelled some words of wisdom as she ran ahead. The good news is that she crossed the finish line, however the second half of the race was more difficult than it needed to be.

Why does this happen so often? What lessons can we take away from this observation and apply to our desire to change our behavior? I have a few key reasons that this mistake is so commonplace:

1. Lack of self awareness:

When you show up to the start of a marathon, in an ideal situation, you will be in the best shape of your life. Your fitness is at its peak. When you combine peak fitness with the proper pre race recovery, you set yourself up for new and unusual feelings at the start of the race. What feels like easy running, might have been a steady effort run just a couple weeks ago. You can be running at a tempo pace, but convince yourself that you are really holding yourself back. I see runners make the mistake, thinking they are running easy, but discover 13, 15 or 20 miles later that they were just unaware of what to expect in those first few miles.

When you are trying to change your behavior, it is critical that you maintain a high level of self awareness. The ability to fall back into your previously established habits is easy. Where I see this most often, is early on when you are having success with a new behavior. You have established a routine to follow that allows you be successful, then you enter an environment that breaks that routine. It may be a family vacation. It could be a Thursday night happy hour with co-workers or dinner out with friends. In these situations, extreme self-awareness is important. Understand what decisions you are making and why you are making them.

2. Have objective measures.

The discussion so far has been about the inability to maintain good judgement using subjective observations. This is why it is important to define some objective measurements that allow you to monitor progress and identify success. In the marathon, this means knowing what pace is acceptable and what is just fantasy due to early race happiness. In your behavior change project, it allows you to be accountable.

When you are trying to implement a new behavior, let’s say it is adding an exercise routine, our memory of what we did and what actually happened can be misaligned. People will commonly tell me that they were successful adding exercise to their week. Then when we review what they actually did, they may have completed the routine 1 or 2 times. That may be fine if the goal was to include exercise 1 or 2 times, but more than likely the misalignment is a function of the effort it took to complete those sessions. The effort was high, which makes the recall of what actually occurred to be overstated. Whatever the goal is, make sure there’s a way to measure and track your progress.

3. Take on one challenge at a time.

Early in the marathon, it is tempting to start thinking about ‘finish times’. Most of us show up to the race with some expectation of how we want the day to finish. However, when you are running miles 2 or 3, your finish time should be the last thought in your mind. It is important to run the mile you are running. It takes discipline of thought, but successful marathoners are good at this.

As you begin a behavior change project that leads to a happier and healthier life, it is easy to think of all the habits you need to change. You may need to eat differently, exercise more, manage your stress, along with many other lifestyle changes. The desire to change all of them at once can be tempting. But, it is an approach that often leads to failure after several days or weeks. If the goal is to create a happier and healthier lifestyle, then approach it with the knowledge that it can take a lifetime to create those behaviors. When you gain this perspective, understand that you will be most successful when you work on one habit at a time. Focus on something manageable and immediate, then reassess and take on the next behavior.

The saying, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint” is an overused analogy. It is used so often that I wonder if it has any value in our every day conversations. However, as I think about all the mistakes marathon runners make during those first few miles, I see the value keeping that mantra alive. As you work through your behavior change program, maintaining the perspective that you have a lifetime to develop your ideal lifestyle, will reward you will success, happiness and health.