How To Build Good Cycling Habits (By Doing Little Easy Things)

In this post I’m going to help you build good habits, which you can apply to improving your cycling. And your life. You’re welcome.

Often when you want to achieve great things, you just need to repeat a series of simple actions many times. And repeat.

The trick is working out how to encourage (force? trick?) yourself into performing those simple actions until… one day you suddenly realise you’ve achieved your great thing.

It’s at this point that generally someone will say to you something like:

  • Wow I don’t know where you found the time to achieve so much
  • I could never do that
  • You’ve been so productive

They see the ‘afterwards’ and immediately think about the size of the elephant that you’ve consumed (not literally).

You, of course, remember that each mouthful was just a mouthful (not literally).


Building Good Cycling Habits

The range of situations that this allegorical mishmash can apply to is infinite, so let’s, oooh, apply this to cycling (what with this being a road cycling blog and all, and presumably you’re looking to improve SOMETHING!).

But let’s go even more specific.

As you may recall from last week’s post, I’m suffering from a bit of pain in the old knee. The symptoms will likely clear up with a bit of rest and restricting myself to very light exercise.

That said, it’s pretty clear that the underlying cause of the pain, plus the potential cause of all sorts of problems in the future, is a lack of flexibility, a lack of core strength and specifically a lack of adequate muscle control around my hips.

I need to do something where:

  1. 1. the exercises are boring (I assume);
  2. it’s not clear they’re doing anything; and
  3. the changes in how my body is (hopefully) strengthening are slow and difficult to discern*.

(* Like the lobster who doesn’t realise that the water in the pan is slowly heating up).

I’m king of the analogies today.

So how do I approach this?

Well, it’s time for my three-step system.

Yes, system.

Get Comfortable With A Lack Of Results

… or rather ‘quick wins’.

That’s generally what humans are looking for. Particularly if the place they’re looking is on the Internet (they’re probably looking for other things, but this is a family friendly show so….).

If we’re (I’m) looking to get big results from mundane actions, I need to accept that immediate results are not going to happen. In fact, I’ve got it into my head (perhaps misguidedly) that I should take perverse delight in not getting results.

A lot of habits fail to stick because we get disillusioned with a lack of success and we give up. If we make slow (if any) progress the key indicator of success then I’m winning. And I keep with the plan. Simples.

Focus On Results

Er, what? Didn’t you just say there’d be a lack of results…

Well, I’m going to focus on the results I can control and, more importantly, measure.

I have no practical way of measuring my core strength, the improved stability of my hip, my patella tracking better as I bend my knee.

I can, however, make a note on our family calendar (maybe an ‘s’ for strength or ‘c’ for core) every day that I complete my little sequence of core exercises and stretches. Cycling mediapreneur I may be, but we’ve not gone totally paperless in the Sportive Cyclist household.

I can see and then count how many s’s (?) I string together over time. Each day the sequence gets longer. Each day I can celebrate my progress (even if I’m not measuring an improvement in my knee itself).

The most famous proponent of this method is comedian Jerry Seinfeld.

As Seinfeld developed his joke-writing craft he instilled a daily practice where he would write jokes every day. When he successfully completed that day’s writing, he’d mark a big red cross on a large wall calendar. As the chain got longer he became increasingly obsessive about not breaking the chain.

‘Not breaking the chain’ has since become a mantra amongst lifehackers and productivity pests.

Daily actions breed habits.

Little Changes For Big Results

As well as breeding habits, daily actions breed big results.

I used the term ‘little’ above when referring to myself the sequence of strengthening exercises I’m trying to embed as a habit. This was deliberate.

The trick to getting yourself to do something every day is to make the measure of success extremely achievable. Almost embarrassingly achievable.

The argument goes: if the target is so easy as almost not to be worth doing, then you have no excuse for not doing it.

To the extent the activity involves any discomfort, whether that’s physical (cycling hard, stretching tight hamstrings, working under-developed muscles) or mental (“…it’s boring…”), you know that this discomfort will be brief.

With very little effort indeed, I get the opportunity to achieve my objective and receive the mini dopamine hit that comes from marking the ‘s’ on my calendar (with the added attraction that a series of ’s’s on our calendar confuses my wife).

As I discovered in previous ‘cycle every day for 35 days’ challenges, more often than not, my actual achievement each day would significantly exceed my measure of success (from memory it was a minimum 20 minute ride).

By setting the measure of success at an extremely achievable level, I’m more likely to undertake the activity. Once I’m doing it, there is a better than average chance I’ll end up doing more than I originally planned.

Alert: Beware The Power Of My (Productivity) Tool!

Of course, there is a danger with this ‘do more than the plan’ approach, particularly when I’m trying to rehabilitate an injured knee.

The aim isn’t to trick myself into doing too much, causing further injury or overtraining. This approach is all about building a habit where otherwise I could quite happily see myself forgetting all about it and essentially doing nothing.

When I start my training programme for 2018 properly (yes, I’m going to build and follow a structured training programme this year!), it will be prepared on the basis that I commit to doing the actual session (no more, no less) on the plan.

More on that another time. Gotta get the knee fixed first.

If You Find All This Habit Stuff Interesting…

… Then I really recommend reading ‘The Power of Habit’ by Charles Duhigg (that’s an affiliate link that should take you to the right Amazon store for wherever you reside).

It’s an easy-to-read, and easy-to-apply book on… erm, the power of habit?

I read it a few years ago, and wrote a little bit of what I learnt on this here blog. I’m going to give it another re-read and, once again, try to apply it helping us (me and you) build some good cycling habits.

In the meantime, please to enjoy Charles Duhigg’s TEDx talk on the subject:

Three Steps To Building a (Cycling?) Habit

So there we go, to build a system of habits that “guarantees” massive success (disclaimer: no guarantees):

  1. Accept and acknowledge that significant progress takes time (but that lots of little actions can cause massive change)
  2. Measure progress somehow (even if it is a random letter on outdated paper-based planning technology)
  3. Make your measure of daily success VERY achievable

I’ve been following the plan for six days so far. I’ve got six ’s’s marked on the calendar. I’m even inspiring others (my wife has started working her core as well).

What do you think? What little (positive!) habits have you managed to build in the past? What are you working on right now?

Let me know in the comments below!

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Monty - Sportive Cyclist
Monty is an enthusiastic road cyclist with only moderate talent. He started Sportive Cyclist in 2013 to record the journey to his first 100 mile ride, the RideLondon 100. Over time the blog has expanded to include training advice, gear reviews and road cycling tales, all from the perspective of a not-very-fit MAMIL. Since you're here, Monty would also like you to check out his YouTube channel. Also, Monty really needs to stop referring to himself in the third person.

3 thoughts on “How To Build Good Cycling Habits (By Doing Little Easy Things)”

  1. Already ahead of you on the productivity. Strava, Fitbit and MyFitnessPal work great, and all link to measure your exercise/fitness/calories. I was reading your email, 2nd time, because I had the idea that you were going to talk about stretching and core exercises. I’ve started to develop hip and lower back issues… anyhoo… I’ll do some research.

  2. Excellent advice and a basic principle in any “training” be it athletic, academic, artistic, etc.. I would suggest adding that it is better to do less, properly, than to over do it with sloppy form or whatever. The old “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” is brought to mind. I’ve too often seen people in weight rooms “going heavy” on a lift but using poor form to accomplish it. Are sure way to eventually (or immediately) sustain an injury.

  3. Nice article, but all yours have been.
    The bit about the lobsters is wrong. You boil crabs (crutacean ones) from cold, lobsters you chuck in boiling water. Nice world isn’t it.



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