A Psychological Model for Behavioural Change to Achieve your (Running) Goals

Goal setting may involve a behavior change – and that doesn’t come easily.

Psychologists James O Prochaska and Carlo Di Clemente bought a trans-theoretical model of behavior change back in the late 1970s. More often referred to as TTM, it understands and outlines the changes we go through mentally and behaviourally when trying to make healthier decisions in our lives, say to commit to running a 5k, a marathon, or adopting a healthier lifestyle that may just include running (because why else would we be here right?)

All joking aside, the model has been used to help people quit addictive behaviors such as smoking and alcoholism, so it’s pretty applicable in other areas of our lives, including goal setting.

What is the model of change?

The model simply highlights the five states of change, the thoughts and questions that are swimming around in your brain, and the perceived timeframe it would take to complete said phase.

Note there is a sixth thought process called relapse, which is not a stage in its own right; however, it will force the runner or individual to go backward on their journey to a goal or change in their lives.

Why is this model of change important?

Have you noticed that when you run for a hobby, it’s incredibly freeing? It’s fun and social or the cheapest therapy around, running solo and de-compressing after a tough day at work.

However, the moment we start to implement structure into our running, the fun can be quickly zapped, and you lose your ‘mojo.’ You become at risk of information burn-out with all the stats for your training sessions that once were blissfully bleeping away on your wrist now have you checking every mile split.

Running can quickly become a chore, and this is because of the way we perceive the exercise, the sport you once adored. You could start feeling disheartened that you’re not reaching your running goals. Injuries, illnesses, or unexpected events can set you back.

So understanding how behaviors change over time might be really useful for you, especially if you’re embarking on a new training goal – you’re not going to always want to do it, and this is why.

The five stages of behavior change for runners

  1. Stage one – Pre-contemplation.
    You might find it challenging to think of a running goal; likewise, you might also believe there is little to change in your running career or life.

    People held in this initial stage, the pre-contemplation phase, don’t intend to make any changes soon, so you’re looking at more than six months before the change would even be considered.

    Thoughts such as ‘Why should I run?’ or ‘I don’t need a running goal’ and even ‘I could never run a marathon’ are ever-present.

    But, if you’ve read this far, it’s safe to say you’ve skipped stage one and instead headed into stage two: contemplation.

  2. Stage two – Contemplation
    People at this stage are considering change but are yet to overcome some personal barriers that are beating down their motivation to start. Perhaps you’re considering running a marathon for the first time, but you’re stymied by your own thoughts.

    Does ‘I know I’ll need to run more, but I just don’t have time’ sound familiar? ‘I’ve never hit 26.2 miles before. Am I even able?’ ‘I know I need to lose weight, but I don’t have the money for a new kit.’ ‘I’ll start Monday’ (and then don’t, coming up with another barrier).

    It’s the hurdles you put up against yourself even though you want change to occur. This internal struggle can continue for a while – perhaps you keep putting it off to start at the beginning of the month or year?

  3. Stage three – Preparation
    This is the most rewarding stage of all, taking that first step to change. For us runners that can look like promising yourself, you’d start on Monday.

    Monday comes, and no matter what, you grab your running shoes, and you’re out the door. Break that down even further; it could be to simply tell a friend you’re committing to running once a week so you have some accountability.

    Better yet? Telling them, ‘I’ve entered that marathon I keep talking about.’ These little changes usually occur for a month or so, building into a new healthy habit. Excitement for the little changes you’re making feeds your motivation for more.

  4. Stage four – Action
    Building on your baby steps in the previous stage, this is reaching out to a running club or selecting (and committing) to a training plan set for your distance.

    It’s perhaps going from one run a week to two or three. Getting the children involved, they can ride their bikes while you run alongside them. These changes are usually quite quick to occur once you’ve initiated those baby steps. You’re well on your way to the goal you’ve set for yourself.

  5. Stage Five – Maintenance
    These changes are now sustained for a significant time beyond the six-month mark. The changes don’t even register as thoughts.

    Now, running three times a week has become a way of life. You may have completed that one marathon, and you’ve continued the momentum into another race or pulled a few friends along for the health-kick journey, seeing them through the previous four stages.

  6. Relapse
    It is not an official stage, but it is important to note a relapse can occur at any time, at any stage of your running journey.

    It means you’ve moved backward through the stages at some point, but that isn’t to be discouraged! It is totally normal to have dips in training load or motivation.

    Some people can only feel motivated once the race is entered; as soon as race day is over, it’s back to square one, and that is okay. At least you can understand why and not berate yourself.

    Thoughts such as ‘I can’t run with this hip injury, so I might as well not bother training at all,’ ‘my race training went so well, but I got ill at the end and had to defer my race place, I’m not going to run cause it made me ill,’ ‘I need some time off – I’ve lost my mojo’ or ‘I can’t hit these mile splits I set for myself, I need to rethink my goal’ all these are real examples and perfectly acceptable to take you a step back or two in the overall process.

Remember, running goals are a journey – progress is far from linear!

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