Open goal or own goal?

For many people, the commencement of another New Year doesn’t just remind them that time is passing by far quicker than they thought and confirms the obvious, that they really are getting old. It also marks a time of the year when the masses devote themselves to having another go at making a big change all wrapped up in some fat resolutions. The majority of these resolutions always seem to relate to diet and exercise but it’s hardly surprising when they more than often resemble the same good intentions from the previous year. Nonetheless, every January the number of people who sign up to Dry January, Veganuary, start a new diet or weight-loss programme, join a gym or commit to running an extremely a long race seems to only grow.

You would think that with the oft-quoted statistic of 80% of New Year’s resolutions being broken by mid-February, it simply doesn’t make sense to even try. Rather than actually making any traction in achieving the goals set in your resolution you would be closer to be scoring an own goal (against yourself). So why do people still willingly choose to tackle something difficult in their lives in the shape of a publicly declared intention even when they know that the failure rate is so notoriously high? Can it be that one of the most common aftereffects of an indulgent festive period is selective memory loss? Or is it just a force of habit that compels us to jump on the annual bandwagon of new beginnings even if only to commiserate with others along on the same journey?

For whatever reason people continue to pin their hopes onto New Year’s resolutions to mark what they hope will be a permanent change in their lives, you may have already guessed that I am a bit of a sceptic. But this does not mean that I do not think that deciding and even sharing with others that you are going to make a healthy change in your life is good. Undoubtedly, committing to the said change to coincide it with the commencement of a new year makes it psychologically easier to do. However, announced resolutions that are based on a specific goal to achieve (or not) are often not very realistic and therefore, almost always doomed to fail. Surely it is time to dump these New Year’s resolutions altogether and to replace them with far simpler, less target-oriented ambitions. In other words, instead of making resolutions that are strictly defined by whether they are met or not, make your goals closer to intentions. So ditch unachievable resolutions for good but resolve to make changes through more open goals to work towards.

For example, one of the most frequent New Year’s resolutions around is to embrace all things vegan for the month of Veganuary. Since the popularity of eating vegan has grown exponentially over the years it is now much easier to eat a varied vegan diet than it was in the dark days of early veganism. Nevertheless, not everyone who signs up to Veganuary will last the entire month even if they bought the t-shirt and were fully committed to the cause when they first set out. My sources tell me that cheese is apparently a particular downfall for some…

Now I am in no way trying to dissuade anyone from signing up to a full-on Veganuary or at all suggesting you that should quit anytime soon. Nonetheless, you cannot escape the fact that the resolution to eat a vegan diet would be far easier to stomach if the resolution wasn’t so absolute. You either go vegan or go home. But if instead of spending your entire January adapting brilliantly or failing somewhat miserably to veganism, you aim for the simpler goal of reducing the animal products in your diet, surely your chances of succeeding would be higher. Clearly, it’s less effective to only reduce your reliance on animals rather than making a 100% commitment to veganism, but since this open goal involves a less drastic dietary change, it would be far easier to achieve. And I would argue that any change that is made easier to adopt in your life will be more likely to stick. In effect, you may actually find that you can reduce your animal intake further for even longer.     

Another of the top New Year’s resolutions is to lose excess weight. And this should come as no surprise when the rates of obesity and overweight in the UK continue to remain stubbornly high. But unrealistic New Year’s resolutions to follow a restrictive diet or to lose a magical number of kilos by a particular date are prone to failure. Despite the relentless promotion of ‘New Year New You’ diets in the media, the fact that they come around every year should be evidence enough that they don’t work long term. Rather than putting your faith in a resolution to follow someone else’s dubious regime set yourself the open goal to eat a healthier diet.

Spend the time to actually look at what you are currently eating and drinking. Is it healthy and balanced or are your portions out of whack? Identify where and how you can realistically make changes in your diet that are only personal to you. Once you know where you’re going wrong, the key to your success is then in making small adjustments to your diet over time and adding more healthy changes when you can. This will help you to adopt healthy habits that become a life-long way of eating rather than simply following a temporary eating plan. As a result you will achieve long-lasting good health rather than only reaching a number on a scale.  

Of course, after diet, exercise frequently features in many people’s New Year’s resolutions. And to many, the urge to sign up to run in some future event seems to be irresistible. Now there is nothing wrong with having high expectations of completing some epic event that you’ve always dreamed of. And many people find that signing up for a race in a New Year’s resolution helps them to get fit and stick to a training plan. But as with diet, if your resolution is unrealistic, you will risk fatigue and injury and lower your chances of actually making it to the starting line.  

If you are out of shape and want to get fit, then make that your open goal rather than focusing on a specific race. Look at what exercise you are already doing and be honest with yourself about what you can do with the time you have. Being realistic will make it easier to adopt regular exercise as another life-long healthy habit. Better to work up to running parkruns and building up your distance over time rather than announcing to the world over a glass of champagne that you are running your first marathon this Spring.

If you are already fit but want to push yourself further, the same rules still apply. Don’t make the mistake of making a New Year’s resolution to run a ridiculous new distance or event. Instead make an open goal to work towards running the distance without setting a make or break deadline. It is better to listen to your body and spend the time you need to build up your strength and endurance to run an event when you are comfortably ready rather than being dictated by a race schedule. Even if it takes you a year longer than you planned to train for an event, you will be doing it when you are stronger and fitter. And as a runner I can tell you one thing that is for certain. There will always be other events and races in the future.

Now although it is no secret that I am no fan of New Year’s resolutions, I am still always asked by others what they are. After the past year of literally running several thousands of kms training for half marathons, marathons and an ultra, I finished 2021 slightly injured but with a newfound passion for mountain biking. After careful consideration, I have started the New Year by avoiding resolutions and instead have set 2 open goals. My first goal is to fully recover and to find a way back to walking and running again. I don’t care how long it takes to do it or how far I will run just so long as I keep going forward. For my second goal, since it is always better to start where you are at, I am going to try to clean my mountain bike more often than I currently do (which is not often). After all, it’s better to be realistic than disappointed by unmet expectations…

As for my diet, I resolve to coming up with plenty of more great recipes starting the year with this one for Apple, Wensleydale and cranberry drop scones. They make a nice breakfast or teatime snack and are also great to refuel with after some sport.

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