For runners, setting goals is just as synonymous with the new year as Auld lang syne, fireworks and the inevitable hangover on Jan 1st; dreams of spring marathons and summer races taking the edge off winter training. Unfortunately, just as setting goals is a new year ritual, so too can be falling off the bandwagon. In fact, Strava have gone as far as calling January 12th “Quitters Day” as it’s the day on which most of us give up on our new year goals. But this needn’t be the case. Effective goal setting can be a powerful tool to provide motivation and direction to your training, keeping you on the track to ultimately becoming a better runner. In today’s Marathon Monday, we’ll take a look at what makes for effective goal setting, and how you can implement the technique within your own training.

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Types of Goals

First, we might want to understand the different types of goal that you could set. Goals can refer to training or racing, and to outcome, performance or process. It’s important to understand the nuances of each to set the right goals for you.

Outcome Goals
At the elite end, many runners will set outcome goals based on finishing positions. Gwen Jorgenson famously announced to the world that she aims to add Olympic marathon gold at Tokyo 2020 to an already impressive CV. While these types of goals are effective motivators for the elite, the issue is that they depend on being better than other people. A runner with an outcome goal could run the race of their life and still not meet their goal if a competitor is better on the day.

Performance Goals
To avoid that exact scenario, most runners will set performance goals. For racing, this likely refers to a goal time we want to achieve, but the same could be true of a training goal (e.g. I want to run this 5 mile tempo in 30 min). Generally, these goals provide us with control, because they rely solely on us rather than anyone else. Because these goals are set relative to ourselves and our own performance, their achievement gives us a sense of mastery for which we are innately driven to strive.

Process Goals
An often-underused type of goal is a process goal. This doesn’t relate specifically to and end outcome or given performance level, rather to the strategies or techniques we employ during our training or racing. For example, you might take the same 5 mile tempo referenced above, and set the goal that you will stay ‘relaxed’ throughout the run. Or you might set the goal of negative splitting your next race. As a side note, process goals can be effectively combined with a performance goal. For example, in my most recent race I set myself the goal of negative splitting (process goal) on the way to my goal time (performance goal). Note that I actively chose not to set an outcome goal as it would be too far out of my control.

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The Goal Setting Process

It can be difficult to know where to start with goal setting, a problem which often leaves us setting generic goals, with no clear picture of what ‘success’ looks like. For example, many runners will set the goal of doing ‘more strength work’ in 2020. But what exactly does that mean? How do you track progress towards your goal? Is it achievable? Or even too easy? Fortunately, the SMARTER framework is a simple and effective way to set your running goals for 2020. Let’s work through that now with the example of strength work for runners.

Specific: the first step to effective goals is making them specific. Substitute ‘more strength work’ for a specific number of sessions each week, with specific content. You should make this specific to you, but an example could be ‘2 gym sessions each week, targeting squats, deadlifts and lunges, supplemented with bent over and cable rows for upper back strength. Heavy weights (70% 1RM) for 3-5 sets of 5-7 reps.’ This way, you know exactly what your goal is, and there’s less room for negotiation with yourself over the definition of ‘more’!

Measurable: you need to know if you’re achieving your goal as you progress. By setting your specific goal, you can clearly assess whether you are hitting the gym twice a week for these sessions or not. You can also track your progress as you start to build the weight during each session too.

Agreed: making a goal agreed, or making yourself accountable for the goal, can be hugely motivating. The motivation that comes from being accountable to someone is often one of the main benefits many runners find from working with a coach. More than this however, those who know your goals might be able to help you achieve them either directly (maybe they know something about strength training and can train with you) or indirectly (perhaps they can help you free up the time to train).

Realistic: any goal has to be achievable. The inevitable failure to achieve an unrealistic goal will leave you demoralised and demotivated, and ultimately back where you began. If you haven’t completed any strength training throughout your running career, setting the goal of training 5 times per week is probably unrealistic, but planning to build up from once per week to two sessions each week is an achievable target you can work towards.

Time bound: setting a time frame across which you plan to work is an important part of the specificity of the goal. Using the example above, it would be reasonable to set the goal of completing your strength session once per week for three weeks, then by 10 weeks to be up to 3 times per week. This gives another way of measuring whether you’ve been successful with your goal, and provides some motivation towards achieving it by setting a deadline.

Evaluate: setting goals is one part of the equation, but following up on them is just as important. You need to assess whether or not you’ve achieved your goals, and if not then why not. At the other end of the scale, have you smashed them? Were they even a little bit too easy? Evaluating your goals allows you to…

Re-adjust: much like your training plan, your goals should be flexible. There is always a danger that goals become controlling, and everything we do revolves around them. For example, runners may be tempted to train with injury because they feel that is the only way to achieve their goal. It’s important in this instance to be flexible. If there are valid reasons for failing to meet your goals then sometimes it’s just as important to accept those. Conversely if your goals haven’t challenged you enough then it’s time to up the ante and set yourself more demanding goals next time round.

This simple framework can be applied to any goal you may want to set, whether related to training or races, performance or process. Hopefully now you have the skills to set your own goals for 2020, and make sure you head into the new year ready to achieve your running best. Need a hand with your goal setting and your planning for 2020? Be sure to get in touch!