Making workouts habitual and automatic is a key to staying consistent and reaping optimal results from performance training.
Once you make working out a habit, you no longer need to engage in the mental back-and-forth about whether you should go to the gym. Gone is the dependency on motivation, or "feeling like it." Your workouts simply become an indispensable part of your schedule.
Yet many athletes struggle to achieve this kind of consistency.
How to make exercise a habit? Here are 5 proven tips:
1. Anchor your workouts to something you're already doing
Want to improve the likelihood of making your workout by 200 to 300 percent? This simple trick will help you do just that.
All you need to do is attach the behavior you want to carry out (going to the gym), with something you are already doing. This is called "if-then" planning, or implementation intentions; its power comes from piggybacking your workouts onto something you do daily.
Here are a couple examples:
- When I wake up, I will go for a 5k run.
- When I get off work, I will drive to the gym.
It's simple, but this kind of intention is extraordinarily powerful.
One study found that a stunning 91 percent of participants were maintaining their workout schedules months later, compared to only 39 percent of those who did not establish an "if-then" plan.
2. Starting is job 1
How many times have you hesitantly shown up at the gym for a tough workout, and after a few minutes of getting warmed up, telling yourself, "OK, this isn't so bad?"
If you're like most athletes, probably quite a few!
The trick is to get started. From experience you know that once you get going, it's difficult to quit. The reason is that our brains are wired to complete tasks that we initiate. To start something and not finish it makes us go crazy.
Capitalize on this by making starting the absolute easiest part of your workout. Here are a couple of examples:
- Tell yourself: I will go to the gym and warm up, and then if I still feel like working out, I will.
- If your goal is to run 10k every morning, make the goal running around the block a couple times and no farther.
In both of these cases, the momentum and desire to finish will take you the rest of the way.
3. Sprint for the first few weeks
This goes against the conventional wisdom to take things slow and steady.
But in a study of habit formation published in 2009, participants made the biggest gains in automaticity during the first few weeks. The habit became fully ingrained in between 18 and 254 days, depending on its difficulty and complexity.
The first few weeks are when you see the biggest gains, but take comfort in knowing that they're also when you lay the groundwork for long-term success.
4. Simplify things
If you are having a hard time sticking to your workout routine, it's time to simplify.
You gain power by minimizing your options. Doing so helps you manage your self-control and discipline. Avoiding unnecessary decisions helps you save your willpower for bigger moments in your day.
Having to make repeated choices over the course of the day steadily decreases your reservoir of self-control. If there are ways to avoid cranking up your willpower for something in your life, take advantage of it.
Here are some ideas to keep things simple:
- Exercise at the same time every day to minimize the mental debate that comes with working out when you "feel like it."
- Do meal preparation the day before to increase the likelihood of making better food decisions over the course of the day.
- Lay out your gym gear next to your bed the night before a morning practice to ensure that the first thing you do in the morning is strap up to kick butt at the gym.
5. The occasional miss is OK
The trap of perfectionism is real, and very common, particularly in high-performance athletes. With high expectations comes a belief that things must go perfectly, or not at all.
Which is too bad, since the same habit formation study showed that those who were most successful in the long term in developing habits weren't perfect. There were moments where they slipped, screwed up and missed.
The key difference?
They got back on track right away. They didn't take it personally, and they didn't allow an occasional setback to derail all the progress they had made.
So relax. An occasional miss won't negate all the hard work you have done so far or prevent you from making further gains.
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