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Good Goal Setting

We’ve all seen the Instagram and Facebook posts about achieving your goals. Some are in the “make your fitness goals your number one priority and to hell with the rest” vein, some are more in the touchy-feely-believe-in-yourself realm. And a lot of them are somewhere in between. Most of them are some kind of kind of generic quote on a stock photo background that doesn’t actually tell us what a goal is, let alone how to actually accomplish it. And quite frankly, a goal without a plan is just a dream. I think I saw that on Instagram somewhere.

This may not be the best, but it represents completing one of my major running goals: Getting my first Boston Qualifier before turning 35. This picture was taken 20 meters from the finish line of The Humboltd Bay Marathon. An awesome race.

The first step is to identify what a goal is and isn’t. A goal is NOT a nebulous concept of something we’d like to do someday. It’s not an item on a bucket list (although those can be good to have as well). A good goal has a couple of important parts: it’s 1) clearly defined, 2) challenging, 3) doable, and 4) normally takes place within a defined block of time. There are specific reasons to include each one of these parts in your goals.

Clearly Define Your Goal

Most of us make the mistake of having goals that are too nebulous in nature. How many times have you heard “I want to lose weight” or “I want to cut back on my coffee consumption”? While these can be good starting places, none of them tell us how much of an improvement, if we want to call it that, we’re looking for. We could cut one second off of our easy pace and we’ll technically be running faster. But that isn’t normally what we mean when we say things like this. A good goal addresses the root meaning behind these sayings to really get at what we’re intending to do. “I want to lose 10 pounds.” “I want to reduce my coffee consumption by one cup a day.” “I want to shave 20 seconds off my 5k PR.” Those are all much better goals statements because they let us know if we have succeeded or not. We may reach our goals. We may fail. But we won’t know if we don’t define where that cutoff point is.

A Good Goal Is A Challenge

In terms of running, a good goal should be a challenge. If it isn’t, you won’t prioritize the work required to get it done, and that’s one of the big motivators towards setting running goals: Goals can help motivate us to get out of bed in the morning to get that workout in. By making the goal a challenge to accomplish, we know that we won’t make it by skipping workouts, sleep, or having our nutrition go out the window. The goal helps us set the parameters that make us “good athletes”, and keep us disciplined when we don’t want to be.

It Should Be Achievable

While a good goal should be challenging, it has to be attainable. If we don’t believe that we are capable of actually reaching the goal, we won’t have the gumption to do the work. Because, what’s the point of doing the work if it isn’t going to get us there anyway? Striking a balance between challenging and doable can be tricky sometimes, depending on the type of goal it is, the kind of person you are, and where that goal stacks up in terms of your overall life priorities.

Give It A Deadline

Giving a goal a deadline can do a couple of things for you. First, it can give you enough of a sense of urgency to faithfully get the work in on a daily basis and stick to your training plan. The cutoff date also allows you to know when you’ve failed. This is important because sometimes we set goals for ourselves that we’re not quite ready for yet. It’s pretty easy to get in the rut of chasing the goal that is actually a dream (i.e. something we’re not ready for yet), and we never get around to the post-analysis. This post-analysis is really important in terms of long term goals. It allows us to go back, analyze what we did, how well we did it, and the impact it had on us. By failing to meet our goal by the deadline we set for ourselves, it can actually help us reach that goal sooner by allowing us the freedom to go back to the drawing board. Or pursue a different goal that actually means more to us.

Two Kinds Of Goals

There’s really 2 kinds of goals: the Pie-in-the-sky goals that are closer to dreams than anything for most folks and the stepping stone goals that we use to get there.

Pie in the sky goals are defined by our imagination. They are the things that scare us a bit. The grand adventures that we’re not sure we’re capable of achieving. They are the things that keep us excited about the training. It could be snagging your Boston or Kona Qualifier. It could be running a sub-20 5k. It could be completing something as epic as the Badwater 135. The important part here is that these bigger goals are the end game that we build our training towards. These goals may take a while (i.e. years or decades) to accomplish, but they don’t have to. They allow us to give our training structure. And that is important for setting up the stepping stone goals.

Stepping stone goals are the little steps we take along the way towards our pie-in-the-sky goals. These serve the purpose of keeping us motivated in the short term, as a multi-year training plan can get to feel like a serious slog. They also help us break that larger plan up into manageable chunks with clearly defined training objectives. By breaking the bigger picture into smaller pieces it provides us with feedback data more frequently, allowing us to refine the training process to better meet our actual goals. If the Pie-in-the-sky goal is to earn the right to that Ironman tattoo, completing sprint, Olympic, and Half-Ironman races in specific times would probably be our tangible stepping stone goals. We could further break this down to clearly defined numbers such as training paces, lactate threshold, anaerobic threshold, VO2max, turnover rate, etc. This is one of the reason serious athletes can get to be number junkies. All of these variables play into the bigger picture of whether or not we can execute our pie-in-the-sky goals.

By intentionally setting up stepping stone goals to build on each other, we’ll know when we’re ready to move on to the next phase of training. Most of my clients have some kind of performance related objective when they walk in the door, even when they don’t think of it that way. Instead, what they say is “I want to complete a marathon” or “I want to run a PR”. But almost all of them have to start at the foundational level working on technique and base building, even if they’ve had several years of running experience. So the first stepping stone goal would be something along the lines of “run for 1 hour without getting the heart rate over X”, or “successfully complete workout x with good mechanics and not be beat up the next day”. Once we get that squared away, then we’re often trying to reach a specific base weekly volume of easy training to build the aerobic engine needed for endurance athletics. Then we start working on an actual training block focused on a specific goal time for a specific race/race distance. This isn’t the case for everyone, but it’s common enough to illustrate the point. A lot of folks have been exercising for a long time without really training, and in order to reach an actual goal we set up progressive stepping stone goals that feed off of and into each other. Assuming we don’t want to get hurt, we have to make sure we meet the basic assumptions of any training plan (like the one you’ll use for that goal race).

The hardware from that first trip to Boston. It was amazing. Brutally cold, windy, and insane. But it fit the bill of the big pie-in-the-sky goal. I still get all choked up thinking about it.

A good goal should scare you enough to get you to do the work, but doable enough that you believe you can do it. By clearly defining what the goal is, it enables us to break it down into smaller chunks and work on the individual pieces that lead to a higher chance of success on race day. It allows us to better plan training to address the weak links in the “fitness chain” so that we can get fitter, faster, with the lowest risk of injury. Besides, most of us don’t have unlimited time, so we have to get as much out of the hours we spend in training as we can. Good goal setting allows us to do that. So what’s your pie-in-the-sky goal?

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