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How to set goals

A conversation I often have with my runners is about their goals.  We all have many different kinds of goals, across a range of time scales and on differing levels of importance.  Some short-term goals could be:

  • I want to run my tempo session tomorrow at 6 minute/km pace

  • I want to plan my meals for next week so that I eat healthily

  • I want to run sub-27 at parkrun on Saturday

  • I want to keep an even pace for each rep in my 8 x 3 minute session

And in the medium-term:

  • I want to feel strong and confident when I race Black Combe fell race next month

  • I want to place in the top 10 at the Lakeland 100 in July

  • I want to manage my nutritional intake well at Manchester Marathon in April

  • I want to run consistently four times per week during my next training block

Or even long-term:

  • I want to develop the physical resilience to be a life-long runner

  • I want to win a Masters vest when I am 60

  • I want to run a Boston Qualifying time in the next five years

  • I want to run an ultra before I’m 40

But how do we choose an appropriate set of goals that are motivating and challenging but also realistic?  Goals need to be things that we feel are legitimately difficult (otherwise we’d probably already have achieved them) but they also need to feel possible – a goal of flying unaided to the Moon is so patently impossible that you’re unlikely to devote any time to learning to grow wings!  It is also helpful to have a spectrum of goals which includes not only different levels of outcome, but different types of goal.

Firstly, let’s tackle goal types.  Sports psychologists discuss three types of goal – Outcome, Performance and Process.

Outcome and Performance goals are similar – both focus on something which can be objectively measured, which for runners usually means the completion of an event, how long it takes us, or our placing in the event.  Outcome goals are to do with the result of the event – e.g. did we win the race, come within the top 10, or place third in our age category?  Outcome goals can be pretty stressful for athletes because they involve factors which are completely out of our control, namely the performance of other athletes, or even just who shows up to the race.  If our only goal is an outcome goal, we run the risk of having the race of our lives yet still being disappointed because we didn’t get the placing we wanted.  In my experience, this problem often afflicts athletes who are just beginning to challenge for high placings in races.  I have certainly negatively impacted my own performance in the past because I became more concerned with how I was going to place than concentrating on executing a good race.

Performance goals are subtly different from outcome goals, in that they are not based on our performance in relation to other people.  In a performance goal, we might be aiming to run a specific time, but we are not concerned with where that places us within the race.  Performance goals carry less stress generally than outcome goals, because they are not dependent on others’ performance, but still have the potential to be tricky if they are not realistic.  Just because we want that sub 4 marathon doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily within our grasp yet – which is why I am always cautious when an athlete wants to set a specific time-based goal to be achieved by a certain date.  Generally, as we come closer to our goal race and complete some race-specific workouts, it becomes easier to see what a challenging but realistic performance goal would be, and I encourage runners to set these with around four weeks to go to the race, rather than 20 weeks.

The other problem with outcome and performance goals is that they focus entirely on the endpoint of the event.  Particularly in longer races this can be problematic; we need to spend some time thinking about how we are going to enable the outcome, rather than trying to will it into being using only the power of our mind.  This is where process goals come in.  Examples of in-race process goals could be:

  • I am going to control the pace in the first half of the race so that I can speed up in the second half

  • I am going to take a gel every five miles

  • I am going to use positive self-talk if I feel myself beginning to worry about the outcome

Process goals help us because they keep us focused on things that are within our control.  Rather than worrying about the end result, we stay in the moment and concentrate on things that will make the desired end result more likely.

Why not check back to the list of goals at the beginning of this article; can you identify the outcome, performance and process goals here?  Now start to think about your own goals – do they fall into all of these categories, or more into one or another?  It is good to have a mixture.

Coming into a big race, I encourage my athletes to develop some A, B and C goals.  One of my runners calls these her ‘gold star, gold, silver and bronze’ targets.  The ‘gold star’ target is the performance of her life, resulting in not only a PB but also the placing she is aiming for relative to others.  The ‘gold’ target is usually a pretty ambitious time, with the ‘silver’ and ‘bronze’ representing time targets that are less challenging.  Sometimes the ‘bronze’ target is simply to complete the race.  Having this range of targets helps with not becoming discouraged mid-event if the wheels seem to be coming off a bit.  If you only have a single very ambitious goal then it can be tempting to throw in the towel if it doesn’t happen.  Being able to shift focus to e.g. the ‘silver’ goal helps us to stay invested in the race, and may also help us in the long run by developing resilience and the ability to push through tough times.

In addition to a range of outcome or performance targets, I ask runners to think about their process goals – what are they going to do during the race that will help towards their performance?  For another of my runners who struggles with comparing himself to others and getting swept away by competitiveness in the early stages of a race, process goals around pacing and fuelling strategies have helped him to win events by ignoring others’ strategy and focusing on his own process.

All of the above ideas can be applied to blocks of time, as well as to specific events; you could have a range of performance goals for the next year, or five years, as well as process goals which are the building blocks to achieving the performance you want.  Finally, remember that we run for pleasure!  I try to always have at least one goal which is about enjoying the event, to help me not get so wrapped up in performance that I forget that it’s supposed to be fun.

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