Ode to Some of My Habits

On Mondays, I wake up at 5:55 a.m. I eat breakfast and do my activation drills. Then I head outside. It is still dark out, so I run to our neighborhood school campus, which is well-lit and alive with runners before sunrise. I know all the regulars and their loops. I know their workout days, long runs, and easy days. I know these things because they are always the same. You can set your watch by the running community.

You can set your hefty, brightly colored, ever-present GPS wristwatch (with optional heart rate monitor chest strap accessory) by the running community because runners are people of habit. We are so predictable that I sometimes wonder whether, if we all missed a day and did not run our loops, Earth’s gravity would shift the tiniest bit.

Habits

Humans are creatures of habit. Runners, in particular, are especially habit-oriented. We have routines and regular practices. We run familiar routes. We eat the same breakfasts on repeat because we know what fuels our training well. And we high-five each other about our commitment to regular bedtimes. Wait, I just realized that we’re nerds.

Habits can be awesome. They are helpful to us because they lessen the cognitive load of continually needing to deliberate and choose actions. You can see how this might benefit a runner. An example is that if a person repeatedly stretches immediately following a workout such that she forms a habit, she no longer needs to worry about forgetting or about struggling to sustain a desire to continually do so. She does it on autopilot, and the choice (or the deliberative work it took to decide to become a conscientious stretcher) is upstream of the habit. Likewise, if a person runs outside at 6:30 a.m. every morning, she will become accustomed to doing so. It is no longer a question of whether she will run because she has that impulse. The habit is her second nature.

Still, as glorious as our hyper-predictable lives are, we should check in and critically evaluate our habits every now and then. This is for three reasons:

Some of our habits are simply bad, like biting our nails. Others are non-optimal, like checking email multiple times before starting a project. If we really think about it, some of our habits poorly position us to reach our goals, or they are not clearly helpful. When I first moved to Kentucky, I ran a really horrible, slightly dangerous version of a loop near my home because it was the first loop I discovered. There is a much better variation of this loop available, but I was resistant to switching it because it was what I had always done. That is a bad reason to preserve a routine. Just because you have always done something does not mean it is a good thing to do.

One reason to take stock of and to evaluate our habits is that—by nature of them being what they are (repeated actions)—our habits are actions that are magnified over time. There was a moment earlier this year when I wondered with horror how much peanut butter I have consumed over the past two decades by dint of my longstanding breakfast routine. I have eaten a lot of nuts. (You are what you eat.) Habits have an additive impact, so you want to make sure you think about the consequence of doing the same things over an extended period of time.

Your character consists in the activities you are disposed to repeatedly do (1). Aristotle writes that a virtue is a hexis, or an active disposition. We build these dispositions by doing the same things again and again. We become just by doing just acts repeatedly over time, and these actions form our character. This is an important reason to evaluate our habits. It might be the case that you consider yourself a kind or generous person. However, if you fail to build habits of generosity or kindness in your daily life, then your good intentions are not actually in practice. Furthermore, if you are like me, it might be the case that your habit-oriented, structured routine might be an impediment to virtue. Sometimes the force of my routine makes me less inclined to notice people who need my time and attention. I am working on it.

Final Thoughts

In 2012, I finished my master’s degree, moved across the country, got married, and started teaching and coaching at a small school in Texas. As a routine-driven runner who fiercely guarded my time, in the first few months of my new life, it felt like a Mac truck had been driven through my habits. My 6:30 a.m. training runs were replaced by coaching. I would teach all day. Students would ask me to play four-square or soccer with them during lunches. I would grade and lesson plan until bedtime, and even my Saturday long runs were replaced by cross-country meets. My training became whatever I could fit in, besides pacing athletes during practice, and often I wouldn’t know in advance whether or when I could do my own workouts.

In short, it was an edifying time for me. Looking back, it was an incredibly rich time and invaluable for evaluating the habits I had in place. Until Texas, I hadn’t realized how tightly I guarded my own time and routine, and I realized that the habits that I had (while industrious) did not serve the end of shaping me into the sort of person I actually want to be—a person who sees and loves the people around me.

Runners are creatures of habit, and routine is incredibly important for training well long-term. But my caution is to make sure we are not immovable in those habits and leave space to see and respond to the needs of other people.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you have habits that help you be the kind of person or runner you want to be?
  • In contrast, do you have habits that you think hinder you in being or doing something important to you?

References

  1. Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics 1106b36-37
Sabrina Little

is a trail runner and ultrarunner for HOKA and Nathan Sports, and a Philosophy PhD student at Baylor University. She is trying to figure out whether it is more unreasonable to pursue mountain running in Waco, Texas (elevation 470 feet) or philosophy in the year 2018. Learn more about Sabrina on her website.

There are 5 comments

  1. Natasha Sankovitch

    Well-written, thoughtful, helpful essay. Thank you, Sabrina. I appreciate your insights. Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, talks about “habit energy” – that energy that pushes us to think, speak and behave in habitual ways that are not conducive to our well-being or the well-being of others. Step one is to become aware of those habit energies.

  2. Jason

    I so enjoy your writing…the best on this site! Would love to see you write a book on running and philosophy. George Sheehan is great, but it might be time for an addendum, and you’re definitely the person to write it!

  3. Keith

    Easier to not do quality sessions is the main problem, I’d say.

    As for the “habit” that helps me be a consistent runner? The “habit” is that it just is. There’s no CHOICE to run or not to run, it just is. So when there’s no option then there is no other thing to do than get the run in and keep things moving in the right direction. Three years in and still seeing gains from finally having lifetime miles.

  4. Meg Gayman

    I’ve had my habits shaken up this season by both a new schedule where I added in coaching and by injury that is being heavily treated via different professionals Which require a lot of appointments. It showed me that I can structure my time differently to get the work in, but that I likely have to do it alone, which goes against what I enjoy most out of running, individual effort in a teamwork environment. I look forward to getting back to my habits.

  5. Pierre

    Great post. However. Some calls them habit. I call it routine. As longer the distance the more you need routines. How to tight shoes, right gear. …. rest room visit

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