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Naughty dogs, new tricks, and how marathon training is like public speaking

If you’re reading this with your ‘lockdown puppy’ on your lap, you may be one of thousands of owners whose pooches are proving problematic. Recent research by the Royal Veterinary College reveals that many dogs which were acquired in lockdown now have a range of behavioural issues such as jumping at strangers, tugging on the lead and separation anxiety. Apparently, it’s because they missed out on socialisation and puppy training in their early weeks and months.

The pleasing news, according to experts, is that it’s never too late to teach them good habits.

So it’s off to puppy finishing school for you……..

Alternatively, you might give them a copy of Atomic Habits by James Clear (though they’ll probably chew it to shreds) https://www.waterstones.com/book/atomic-habits/james-clear//9781847941831?gad_source=1&sv1=affiliate&sv_campaign_id=863943&awc=3787_1708864675_edb0121977ad9677e93f3008d65e5a91&utm_source=863943&utm_medium=affiliate&utm_campaign=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.octer.co.uk%2F

This excellent, well researched and highly practical book, offers a step-by-step plan for building better habits and eliminating bad ones. Whether your goals are around fitness, health, sport, career, relationships or not jumping onto the sofa, it’s all about making tiny changes to our daily behaviours. These ‘atomic habits’ ultimately lead to significant, positive outcomes.

I’ve found this book especially helpful over the last six months because I’ve taken on a rather ambitious challenge – to run the London Marathon. So have approximately 57,999 other people but many of them are already runners. I don’t run; I’ve never run, in fact I’ve always hated running so for me this is an enormous undertaking, mentally and physically.

It has taken me further out of my comfort zone than I imagined possible. And I’ve had to engage in very many new behaviours and acquire very many new habits. James Clear has been most helpful. He’s taught me about ‘habit stacking’ whereby you pair a new activity with an existing one. For example, while I’m cleaning my teeth, I stand on one leg, barefoot, to exercise the muscles in the feet (important for running, apparently. Who knew???).

He reminds us to concentrate on the ‘system’ rather than the ‘goal’. Interestingly, Dr Steve Peters also proposes this in The Chimp Paradox. He refers to it as ‘process’ not ‘outcome’. This simply means concentrating on the things we have to do now, this morning, today, this week, which are part of the plan, and which will help us towards the goal. If we endlessly stress about whether we will succeed in the goal (a brilliant presentation/a successful pitch/Olympic gold/completing 26.2 miles) we will end up paralysed into inactivity by worry and fear.

I’ve definitely been struggling with this recently because, with 8 weeks to go to Marathon Day, I’ve picked up an injury. I can’t run at all. The physio has given me exercises to do several times per day, and while I am the definition of an optimist, I simply don’t know if I’ll make it to the start line, let alone the finish. It’s hard not to catastrophise about potential disappointment/failure/sadness/embarrassment on 21st April.

James Clear also teaches us that the small changes we implement will appear to make no significant difference until we cross a critical threshold. Patience is key. I’m holding on to that through every set of ‘fire hydrants’ and hip thrusts!!!

It’s also become apparent to me that there are huge similarities between marathon training and public speaking. My approach, when helping others to become confident and skilful presenters, is very practical. It’s about a rigorous preparation process and attention to detail; anticipating potential setbacks and having strategies for dealing with them; stepping out of our comfort zone, embracing new ideas and techniques; managing nerves and negative thoughts; rehearsal and commitment.

On this unfamiliar 8 month journey from my couch to Greenwich Park, I am embracing so many new and strange things – ice baths, bone broth, protein shakes, warm ups, cool downs, body glide, energy gels (yuk), deep tissue massages (ouch), playlists and podcasts, and hours and hours and hours of (you guessed it) …………………….running.

So, whatever you’re working towards, however far out of your comfort zone you’ve strayed, let’s make a plan, let’s stick to the plan, let’s stack those habits and put one foot in front of the other. Good luck.

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