Discipline: Good and Bad Habits and Why We Mess Up

Have a coach help improve your good habits

It’s 9 p.m. on Friday. Mary got home from a long workweek several hours ago, had a quick dinner and showered. She’s ready for bed. She’s also excited about a club ride she’ll be attending for the first time early tomorrow morning. The crew is known to hammer from the gun. Mary knows she needs a good night’s sleep so she’ll be strong from the start. She sits down to watch one TV show to unwind before bed. When she finally pries her eyes away from the screen she realizes it’s midnight. Her good night’s sleep will be no more than six hours.

It’s a team ride in May. Joe has signed up for a mountainous stage race in early August. His training has gone well but he knows he’ll get killed on the hills if he doesn’t lean out by 10 pounds before the trip. He’s been sticking to a strict diet, and the pounds are coming off, but the crew is hungry when they roll into town after seventy miles. They stop at an ice-cream parlor. Before Joe knows what’s happening, he is scraping the last drops of a triple scoop sundae out of a plastic bowl.

Matt is at T-minus four days to his big race. As instructed by his coach, he’s followed the plan since last fall and tapered for a week. Today is scheduled as an easy day. Matt heads for the club ride, just to say “hi!” to his buddies before the start. Maybe he’ll roll out with them, but he plans to drop off if his heart rate gets out of zone 2. On the main climb, Matt finds that the training and tapering are paying off. He cruises only a few beats out of zone 2 half way up. Could he get over the top with the group? They accelerate, and riders are popping left and right, but Matt is right there with the leaders. Near the top they’re going full gas when Matt finally blows. He looks at his heart rate monitor to see that he’s just reached a new maximum, well above any zone he was supposed to see during the taper. He’s gassed. His legs feel like over-boiled noodles, and he’s thirty miles from home with three recovery days left before the race.

Do any of these scenarios feel familiar? If not, how about one of these? You rode on a sore knee or despite feeling a cold coming on. Maybe you skipped stretching even though you know it keeps the back-pain away. You left home without enough food or water for an unusually long or warm ride. Or maybe you attacked repeatedly early in a long race and contrary to your race strategy. Most racers have made one or more of these errors at some point.

We carefully construct plans and follow them diligently, but then suddenly we’re off the rails, doing things we would normally recognize as counterproductive if we thought about it. Most of the time, the derailment feels like an accident. It just happens, and you don’t notice until afterwards. Other times it’s deliberate, though looking back you might ask who was in control when the decision was made. We learn about how to train, how to eat, when to rest and so on. We know the requirements for athletic success, so we commit, but then the commitment fails at vital moments.

The ability to stick to a plan and do what’s right can be called “discipline,” “willpower” or “self control.” We used to assume that some people had it and some people didn’t. In recent years psychologists and neuroanatomists have delved deeper into these questions and have made some useful discoveries.

Have a coach help break your bad habits

Two Competing Brain Networks 

Scientists who study brain anatomy have discovered two distinct networks of nerve cells. One set of neurons is active when we aren’t particularly thinking about what we are doing, like when we’re daydreaming or quietly relaxing. This network has been dubbed the “default mode network” (DMN) or “task-negative network” (TNN).

A second network is active when we do things consciously or deliberately, the “task-positive network” (TPN), also known as the executive function network.

For cycling, the critical relationship between the two networks is that activation of either network suppresses the other. When you make deliberate decisions, you are not daydreaming and vice versa.

It’s interesting to ponder what happens when you actually do stuff like eat, watch a show or ride a bike while relaxing control and not being deliberate. When you consciously decide to follow the training, recovery or tactical plan, the TPN is in control. The sense of awakening to find yourself doing something you would not have chosen, like Joe, Mary or Matt in the examples above, means the default mode network had become active.

If you are like most athletes, you are now thinking something like, “Cool, I just need to keep the task-positive network turned up, and I’ll easily stick to my plans and do the right things. I’ll never screw up again.” You might even be thinking about training your TPN. Unfortunately, even though it can grow stronger, the TPN can never be permanently activated.

Have a coach help improve your good habits

Decision Fatigue and Ego Depletion

Psychologists have performed wonderfully designed experiments to show that the ability to make decisions is like a muscle, both trainable and fatigable. That is, as we make a series careful choices, we gradually become more impulsive, less and less able to consider later decisions. More mature people fatigue slower, but eventually we all break down. For instance, early in the workday many people can recognize which e-mails demand quick responses, but by afternoon these same people are taking care of trivia or goofing off while urgent messages sit unread.

Self-control, staying on task or doing what is right is a slightly different challenge than making value-neutral decisions but these practices also cause a gradual breakdown. If you’ve known people who are completely straight-laced at work and go nuts after, you’ve probably seen evidence of ego depletion, which psychologists define as the loss of self-control after multiple self-control challenges. Research shows that athletes are less able to persist in a difficult physical task shortly after performing a difficult cognitive task.

Sticking to a diet means deciding again and again what to eat and what to avoid. Eventually that leads to ego depletion or a breakdown of self-control. After a long enough time on a strict diet, you just can’t clearly think about what to eat any more. Then all of a sudden, the bag or carton is empty. Dieting is much easier if you are not surrounded by temptations and don’t have to exert self-control. Dieting while surrounded by yummy, high-calorie foods requires strong will power, which can be gradually depleted in that situation.

For some people, racing conservatively can be as challenging as dieting. It requires constant suppression of the instinct to attack. If you plan to sit in until the sprint and do so for the first half of the race but then start attacking or chasing attacks in the second half, you need more discipline.

Things That Weaken Discipline

Being disciplined in your athletic behavior uses up a sort of reserve. That reserve recharges itself when it is not being used. Different sorts of self-control draw on the same pool. That means that the need for discipline in daily life makes it harder to be committed to your athletic goals. Dealing with difficult coworkers, resisting junk food, not yelling at telemarketers or honking at jerks on the freeway all make it harder to stay on track in diet and training.

Things that cause fatigue also weaken discipline. If you train to exhaustion, you might have trouble sticking to the diet. Missing sleep, getting dehydrated or glycogen depleted, or drinking a couple of beers will make sticking to your plans very difficult. When you are tired, there is less energy available for self-control. The task-positive network quiets down, and the default mode network cranks up. Then you may find yourself having done something you know you should have avoided.

Activation of the default mode network doesn’t automatically lead to bad behavior. If there’s no junk food in the house, you’re unlikely to scarf it late at night. If you don’t see your Internet device on the way to bed, you’re less likely to be sidetracked before getting to sleep. If the chips are on the table though, or the iPad is glowing by the bedside when your default mode network is active, watch out!

Activation of the DMN means relaxing. It feels good, at least in the moment. Switching on the DMN is rewarding and therefore hard to resist. When your DMN is active and a chip appears, you are not thinking about whether or not you should eat it, just that you want to. When you do eat the chip, it tastes yummy so maybe you have another. Sleeping in when you should be getting up to meet the boys or girls feels wonderful. Most of the things the DMN lets you do bring pleasure, and that makes them insidious.

Default Mode “Thinking”

It is possible to trick yourself into thinking that you are being deliberate and in control when in fact you are behaving habitually and self-destructively. This is what is happening when you rationalize the same bad decision repeatedly. Some typical examples include: The athlete who needs to lose weight but regularly overeats because he or she “needs to recover”, or the capable sprinter who burns matches in race after race by “testing his or her legs.”

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The Default Mode Network is not the Enemy 

The most obvious ways to stay on track involve taking care of your body and mind. Consciously commit to your goals. Get enough sleep, reduce stress, eat well and stay hydrated. A positive attitude about the challenges you face makes them less fatiguing. All these things will help you stick to your plans. They help keep your decision making brain energized and your default mode network quiet.

You can also use cognitive tricks to keep the TPN in control. In many cases, eating becomes a habitual, DMN activity, but logging everything you eat makes you consciously aware of it again. Daily exercise will also be guided by habit unless you do something to make it more deliberate, such a making a training plan and logging your results. One trick I recommend for resisting the temptation to indulge in off-diet foods requires a handful of pennies. Start with the day with half of them in your left pocket and half in the right. Every time you resist a temptation, move a penny to your right pocket. If you give in, move one the other way. Count the pennies in each pocket at the end of the day. (Of course just staying away from places where you will run into temptation gets you to the same end with less challenge to your self-control and more of that vital resource left for other tasks.)

There is another approach to sticking to plans and acting like the athlete you want to be. I’ve already said that you can’t stay in executive function mode all the time. The TPN fatigues and the default mode network activates inevitably. In fact, the more you attempt to stay in executive mode, the sooner ego depletion occurs. Relaxing control does not make us behave badly. It makes us behave habitually. If you can turn your good behaviors into habits while the brain’s executive is in charge, then you will continue in those good habits when the executive fades and you enter default mode.

Training or stretching so consistently that not doing so feels weird helps keep up these athletic behaviors even when emotionally drained. Eat well for long enough and junk food becomes less attractive. Get to sleep early often enough, and you’ll lose the habits that used to keep you up. In short, if you act like an athlete consistently then being one becomes the default. When good athletic behavior becomes habitual, you can relax and stay on track at the same time. Strangely enough, when training and eating right become habitual, they also become enjoyable. As we noted above, the things you do while the DMN is active generally bring pleasure, even some things that were downright onerous previously.

One Day at a Time 

Habits strengthen the longer they are maintained. That’s why people who have been training for years find it so difficult to stop. That’s also why it is so important to get back on the wagon quickly. Make a habit of restarting as soon as you realize you have deviated from the plan. Early in an athletic career, everyone makes training errors or goofs their eating or recovery. If you get depressed and take longer breaks, athletic progress slows or stops entirely. However, if you can get back on track quickly, little is lost.

Taking Control 

There are many sources of good information about training, recovery and racing. You can easily get guidance from books, magazines, peers, websites or coaches, but following the advice continuously and long enough to benefit from it is much more challenging. It takes motivation and self-control. Most athletes find that it take six to twelve months for good training and eating habits to take root. Once they do, staying on track becomes much easier, though it can take similar amounts of time to settle into any new, further improved habits. If you’ve been trying to adopt a new diet or training idea for longer than that and are still having trouble staying on track, have a look at what might be depleting your self-control and strive to clean it up so you can devote the necessary energy to your training and other athletic behaviors. That might mean removing temptations, taking better care of your body or mind, or developing cognitive tricks for keeping the TPN in control more often.

Modern science has shown that although willpower really does vary from person to person, it is also trainable and that you can do things to support or undermine it. Being a serious athlete must include determining what boosts or depletes your self control and adjusting your life so you can maintain the athletic mind-set until you reach your goals.

Have a coach help improve your good habits


Scott Saifer, M.S. and the coaches of Wenzel Coaching don’t expect our clients to stick perfectly to their plans. We know that life and fatigue can get in the way, so we help our clients to get back on track as needed and to make adjustments to make it easier to stick to plans. Personal training plans start at about $100 per month. To inquire about working with Scott or another Wenzel Coach, call 503-233-4346 or visit our Get Started page.


This article first appeared in the July, 2o15 issue of ROAD Magazine