by Molly Hurford

It’s time to get faster, get stronger, go harder. But, should you even bother?

“New Year’s resolutions don’t work. From the scientist’s view, they just don’t. But why don’t they work? Having a goal, a new you for the new year, there’s nothing wrong with that,” says Simon Marshall. “But achieving the goal, that’s the problem.” Marshall would know. As a sports psychologist, coach and author of The Brave Athlete, he’s seen a lot of goals set, failed, reset and failed again. But he’s also seen athletes have huge successes. He also has some great advice for setting – and keeping – resolutions, from increasing your wattage to powering up hills faster to podiuming at your A race of the season.

Have a resolution and a plan

Most people have no plan for their New Year’s resolutions. Or the plan is simply things they’re going to do on Jan. 1. You know, that drunken New Year’s Eve declaration to whoever’s in earshot: “I’m going to wake up tomorrow and hit the gym to get started on strength training.” In the moment, setting that “resolution” feels fantastic: your brain is getting a hit of the feel-good hormone dopamine just for making a decision to “be your best self.” But unless you’ve sorted out a strength training plan, consulted with a strength coach or even just looked up a few cycling-friendly strength routines and put in your calendar to go to the gym every Monday and Wednesday after work, you’re likely not doing much after that initial gym session (that likely will leave you sore for a week).

“Changing behaviour long-term isn’t all white doves and red balloons,” Marshall says. “It’s habits you’re implanting in your life: routine behaviours that give you the best possible chance of meeting your goals. Know that the special sauce is in the small details. This might be a branding problem: how we brand these small changes that don’t seem so exciting, even though they’re what leads to long-term changes.”

Don’t get hooked on the fantasy

“Some new findings suggest that when you fantasize about an aspirational goal, it actually doesn’t help, and does make things worse,” Marshall says. Insert needle-skidding-across-a-record noise here. Wait, all that positive-visualization talk might not be helping? To understand this, we have to get deep into our brain chemistry. When we fantasize about reaching our goal, our brain chemistry reacts the same way it would if we had actually achieved that goal.

“One of the limitations of big, aspirational goal setting and having a visual dream board or journal is that when you focus so much on this big goal, you actually undermine your ability to meet the goal,” Marshall says. “The science of dopamine – the reward chemical in our brain – is the biological basis for wanting. Dopamine should be there to help strengthen intentions. The biggest spike, though, comes from anticipating the reward. Thinking about something pleasurable, like achieving your goal of smashing up a hill or losing that last 10 lb., gives us a microdose of dopamine. There’s nothing wrong with that, but unfortunately, it doesn’t help you when you’re in a tempting situation.”

“When you think about an audacious goal, your mind drifts to what your life would be like if you actually pulled it off. It’s like getting into a hot bath, and it feels amazing,” Marshall says. “But if you stay in that bath for too long, it gets cold and loses its enjoyment. Don’t deny yourself the pleasure of thinking about meeting your goal, but don’t let that be the only thing that you do about it.”

Make goals sustainable and achievable

There’s nothing wrong with setting a goal of a dry January. Ultimately, however, if you’re only setting short-term goals, you’re more likely to binge and revert to old habits afterwards. So aim for habits that are sustainable in the long-term: a New Year’s resolution should be something you think you can do for the entire year. Dry January is a great starting point, but at the end of January, then what? Most people end up spending February indulging on Belgian quads to make up for the few weeks off booze.

Achievable goals also make for sustainable goals. “If a goal is sustainable and can be worked into your daily routine, it will work better than setting something that would be an insane increase in your usual behaviour, like going from two hours a week of riding to 20. Going too quickly sets you up for failure,” Marshall says. If your goals are wattage-related, as many cyclists’ will be, plan to only increase by 2.5 per cent over the course of a four to six-week training cycle. If your functional threshold power is 200 watts, it will get to 205 by the end of the first month of training.

Focus on doing, not on ‘not doing’

It’s easy to start a New Year’s Resolution by saying, “This year, I won’t eat processed foods.” But Marshall warns that setting a “negative” goal just makes you acutely aware of what you’re missing. “We know when we’re thinking of the thing we’re trying to avoid, it’s going to be present in our head,” he adds. “You know, ‘Don’t think of pink elephants.’” Instead, focus on behaviours that you want to do, such as eating salad for one meal a day.

Know your obstacles

Make visualization work for you: instead of just fantasizing about the moment you pass your biggest competitor on the last lap of the race, think about the biggest obstacle you’ll face during that race, like getting through a hectic start and staying with the leaders. By figuring out the biggest obstacle, you can visualize your way into better habits and well-kept resolutions.

For example, if you’re planning to give up alcohol, rather than visualizing your svelte and strong new leg muscles crushing a hill by springtime, think about the obstacle of going out with friends to the bar every Thursday after your ride. Now, decide ahead of time to order ginger ale with a splash of cranberry or suggest going for dinner instead of a trip to the bar. Setting up this series of “if this, then that” reactions can help avoid decision fatigue.

Share your goals

When you share your goals, you’re not just doing it for accountability purposes: sharing a goal means that deep down, you believe that you can achieve it, and that it’s a good idea. “Goals that are shared are windows to athletes’ souls about their confidence that they can pull them off,” Marshall says.

“Each of us has a level of self-efficacy of whether we can pull something off. Self-efficacy is our perception that we can or can’t do something. Some cyclists will set goals that are only tangentially related to cycling, and not tell a coach even though they know that their new goal – like only eating 900 calories a day and intermittent fasting – will affect their training and should be shared. Deep down, they know it makes no sense. They know their coaches will know it doesn’t make sense. But they’re thinking this is a quick way to drop weight quickly. They’ll do that and then fast-track their way to leanness.”

If you’re not comfortable sharing any and all health/nutrition/training goals with a coach or training partner, ask yourself if you’re keeping it to yourself because you know you might not pull it off, or because deep down, you know it’s not a healthy goal.

Break up your resolution

Still want to make a change in 2019? If you’re going to set a New Year’s resolution – and you should if you want to – don’t just make a list of a few basic, broad goals. Start with those broader resolutions, and then break each into month-by-month steps. “Think about what you want to pull off by Dec. 31, and think about a monthly systematic plan to get there,” Marshall says. “Each month, set little steps, identify obstacles and figure out an implementation process that makes sense for your life, in order to get through each month.”

“I’m not a killjoy. I won’t say toss the vision board, burn the dream journal,” concludes Marshall. “Set audacious goals, but come back to the mechanics. Have that slogan on your refrigerator, but spend your time on what the four-week implementation for that goal is, and stare at that on a regular basis. It’s way less sexy, but what’s even less sexy is getting to the end of January and already having given up on your resolution.”

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