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The psychology of making and keeping New Year’s resolutions

We talk to Speed River's sports psychologist about setting and sticking to running-related goals and resolutions.


Dr. Kimberly Dawson is a professor of sport psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont. Kim also works with one of Canada’s top running clubs, Speed River.

New Year’s resolutions are something that attracts quite a few people to try running for the first time. Also, many seasoned runners find themselves vowing to finally run that full marathon or run more over the next twelve months.

But as many of us are well aware, sticking to those new year’s resolutions can be tough. Canadian Running reached out to Kim Dawson and asked her how it is that elite athletes set and go about achieving their goals, and how recreational runners can apply those strategies as well.

Canadian Running: Many runners, particularly those new to the sport, make new year’s resolutions along the lines of losing weight through running, running more consistently or training towards a goal race. What sort of advice would you give to runners about setting these sorts of goals?

Kim Dawson: Goals are not magical. Just saying or establishing any goal, regardless of what it is, will not translate into success unless you use your goal to serve two very specific purposes. First, a goal should motivate you when the times get tough and you’re questioning why you are devoting your time and energy to your endeavour. They make you refocus and recommit.

First tip: Talk to yourself regularly about what your goal is, why it is important to you, why you value it, and how attaining it will enhance the quality of your life. Second, and most importantly, having a clear objective must make you find the successful action strategies necessary to achieve that goal.  For example, if your goal is to lose weight, you must first identify the physical running program that will lead to weight loss. Not all running programs will contribute to this equally. You must then commit to the program and plan ways to regularly schedule the new running behaviour into your existing schedule.

A goal is mechanical. It must change your behaviour in some way by increasing your desire to find effective strategies, exert effort in the behaviour, and then persist when the going gets tough.

Second tip: Make an effective and realistic action plan for HOW you will achieve your goal. The goal itself is largely arbitrary. For anyone to reach goal attainment, it is the identification and the commitment to the necessary behavioural changes that is crucial.

CR: A lot of new year’s resolutions are sort of lofty and could be considered long term goals. Talk to us about the importance of establishing more immediate goals in the context of being successful in the long run. 

KD: Again, goals must direct and change behaviour in order to be successful. Behavioural change strategies should be established for both the short term and the long term.

Running programs should always involve realistic plans in terms of the frequency, duration, and the intensity of each running session.  Start by addressing just one of these elements.

For example, I’ve been running sporadically for the past year. For the next four weeks, I will run three times per week and keep the duration (20 minutes) and intensity (easy pace) the same. After I’ve established this behavioural pattern, I will then change one of the other elements (duration or intensity) for the next four weeks.  Once established, I will manipulate another variable again.

True behavioural change based on goal setting happens over time and gradual action changes. Changing too many things too fast will sabotage your good intentions. Commit to the fact that this is a life long running endeavour.  You’ve got time to implement the changes.

CD: It seems like many struggle to stick to their new year’s resolutions. Why is this the case? And would this suggest that setting new year’s resolutions isn’t perhaps the wisest way to approaching achieving a goal?

KD: Individuals tend to evaluate goals as all or nothing.  Running is viewed as the same thing.  They either run or they don’t.  Any behaviour should be viewed on a continuum.  When you are initiating a behavioural change such as increasing your running, you should visualize yourself starting on the low end of the spectrum and moving up.

Unfortunately, people jump into too much, too soon, and it is unsustainable in a realistic life change plan. Hence, the number of people that gain back all of their weight after a too restrictive diet or an individual who stops attending a gym because they went every day for the first two weeks after they bought their membership.

I’m a big fan of behavioural economics which means you use the same behaviour to serve two or more functions.  For example, if you like to watch TV, run on a treadmill and watch your favourite program. If you are social and looking to meet new friends, run with one of the many running clinics that exist. If you can make a behaviour serve two purposes, there is a higher probability that you will maintain the behaviour.

Also, in your behavioural planning evaluate when your new behaviour will be challenged (e.g., exams in school, deadlines at work, pregnancy, injury, etc.). Make a plan to “drop down” at these times and not out. Being proactive and anticipating obstacles will help you successfully navigate through them.

CD: You deal with elite level athletes on a regular basis. What sort of advice or strategies about goal setting and the challenges of seeing things through do you use with these athletes that also would translate well to recreational runners?

KD: The first thing that we will do will be to reflect on the past year.  We’ll establish what each runner was satisfied with and what still remains unaccomplished. We focus on the process of running and know that the outcome that we desire will follow if we can identify the right mental and physical training program for each individual.  We call this “Total Running.”

So, the first thing that we do is to figure out what action plans worked and what didn’t.  I encourage them to pay attention to all the details necessary to find success such as nutrition, sleep, stress control, training, mental preparations, etc.  We evaluate their competitive success but I’m more concerned about their day to day physical and mental training for the competitions. We evaluate both preparation and performance.  They have performance strategies which they develop in their preparation to compete.

We’ll finish off with an evaluation of their winter season goals and their long-term objectives. Many of the runners are starting another 4-year cycle until the Olympics.  Another major focus is the Worlds this summer.  We take it all into account, but again, our greatest focus is on every day mental and physical training.

The runners have learned that mental training for competition is just as important as the physical component. We set both mental and physical action plans for the future that will lead to goal attainment. I encourage recreational runners to follow the same protocol and focus on the process of their running program. By getting the process right, you’ll get the outcomes that you are desiring.

Note: An original version of this article was posted in January 2013.