When I was in high school, I was a distance runner. I ran 6 days/week, 48 weeks/year, x4 years. I could run pretty fast for a long time. Then I got burned out. I had been planning to run in college, but by that summer I knew I couldn’t do it anymore. In the 12 years since (whoa, am I really that old!?), I have only run the occasional mile or two here and there. Throughout that time, I’ve always worked out at the gym at least a couple times a week and I’ve maintained a decent level of fitness. From time to time, I’ve thought about starting to run again, but whenever I make an attempt I feel slow and out of shape. This is in sharp contrast to my fond memories of running fast, endorphins flowing, surrounded by fantastic coaches and teammates/friends constantly providing encouragement and motivation. Going it alone is tough.
Three weeks ago I decided to step on the scale at the gym, as I’d noticed that lately some of my favorite and best fitting pants were no long fitting quite so well. Even so, I was shocked when the needle landed a good 5 lbs higher than the number I’ve been used to seeing for the past few years, which in turn is 5 more than what I’d consider ideal for me. So I ramped up the intensity of my gym workouts and set a goal of 4 days/week. Last week I ducked into the locker room in the building where I work to see if there was a scale (I don’t have one at home) to check my progress. No scale, but I did find a stack of back issues of Runner’s World left by one of my coworkers. I started reading, got inspired, and decided that running should be part of my plan. But how to overcome that blah feeling and keep going until I get in good enough shape that it’s actually fun again?
My answer: operant conditioning with a focus on positive reinforcement. I’ve been learning about it for the last couple years because I’m fascinated by dog behavior and training. I plan to use clicker training with any dog we get in the future. You can use the same principles to train any animal, person, or even yourself! The basic idea behind positive reinforcement is that by rewarding a behavior, preferably while the subject is doing the behavior or immediately afterward, the frequency of the behavior will be increased. An added benefit is that the subject will often enjoy doing the behavior more, too. Being healthier, losing weight, etc. are not good rewards because they can’t be delivered on time. I decided that listening to my favorite podcasts - This American Life and Radio Lab - while I run (and not at any other time) would be a good reinforcer for me. I also thought it would be helpful to eliminate any inadvertent positive punishment (discomfort, iPod falling out of my waist band) so I got myself a shiny new pair of Asics and a sporty pouch for carrying small items. I also dug out my digital watch and improvised a sport band for it out of a nylon bracelet and a piece of a sock (because the nylon edges are scratchy). It looks super classy. Maybe someone will get me a velcro watch band (this one please - in wave blue) for my upcoming birthday. Asking for a present via blog entry, that is classy too.
Yesterday, I warmed up and then ran for 30 minutes with a few bursts of speed mixed in, while listening to TAL #406. It felt good. I’m on my way!