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Goal Setting Considerations
By Art Liberman

In today's busy and complex world, we are often faced with many options and choices. Depending upon their relative importance to us, some decisions take a minimal amount of thought while others will require much evaluation and analysis. We may not even be aware that we arrive at some of the decisions we make in a very unconscious manner. So what you ask does this have to do with running?

Whether you are a true beginner, contemplating the first strides you will take, or a veteran marathoner, there are often host of options from which to choose beyond what route and how many minutes to run on a given day. Most runners would agree that their primary focuses are to enjoy their training, be consistent, and avoid injury. Doing so enables them to reap the benefits of the sport, some of which include improved cardiovascular fitness, weight control, mental well being, among many others.

Yet even the most experienced and dedicated runners will say that there have been certain times over the years when their motivation to train has waned, runs have become less and less enjoyable, and have occasionally experienced burnout. When these periods occur, it's helpful to take a close look at both one's current training program along with their present life-circumstances to determine the reasons why running seems more of a job than a fun activity. This evaluation is helpful in determining what direction one's running should take.

Sometimes, the stress and pressure one experiences can quite formidable such as major life change or additional job or personal responsibilities occurring in their lives. People handle stress and pressure in different ways. While some runners find it helpful to set a long term goal of running a marathon as an escape, others would benefit from keeping their running quite simple such as making the commitment to run three or four times per week for 30-40 minutes.

Fortunately, major life stressors that can have an adverse effect on one's running occur only occasionally. Still, goal setting is a helpful tool that keeps our running enjoyable and on track. There are a number of factors to consider when setting both short and long-term goals. There is overlap among several of the categories that are highlighted below. Still, taking these factors into account will help in determining if the goals you are considering are realistic.

Types of Goals

Process Goals - These types of goals involve activities that focus on mastering the task and increasing one's skill level. Examples of process goals include: Following a training schedule as closely as possible, improving your nutrition, reading as much as you can about the training principles, consulting with your coach regularly, getting more sleep to be as rested as possible, etc.

Outcome Goals - These goals relate to the finished product or stated differently, goals you hope to accomplish in the marathon. Examples include: Breaking 40 minutes for a 10K, running the second half of a marathon faster than the first 13.1 miles, defeating a rival, running a personal best at your favorite local race, etc.

Contemplating Goals

Timing (present life situation) - Be sure that this is a good time in your life to pursue a goal. For example, if you are relocating to take a job in another city, it might be best to wait until you settle in before training for a marathon. On a similar note, if you face a situation where you will be unable to train over the course of weeks or even months due to a responsibility such as a military deployment, it will be necessary to rethink your goals.

Gather training information - Take a look at two to three sources of creditable training information to understand the commitment (time and effort needed) to achieve your goal. Books, magazine articles, and Internet sites feature a variety of training programs. Be aware of "information overload" as too much information can be confusing, contradictory, and even overwhelming.

Enjoy the journey - First and foremost, make sure that the goal you are considering is something that you would enjoy working towards and accomplishing. If you are contemplating training for a marathon but don't enjoy running more than 30 minutes at a time, then you probably won't enjoy completing those all important long runs when you will be training for two and three hours at a time over the course of many weekends. Similarly, if you're considering entering an early fall marathon, realize that much of your training will occur during the summer months. This is an important factor, particularly if you don't enjoy training in warmer temperatures. If your goal is to improve your 5K personal best, realize that you will need to do some speedwork that will take you out of your aerobic comfort level.

Enjoy the destination - Is the outcome of the goal something that you would enjoy accomplishing? Is the payoff worth your time and effort? Running for a charitable cause, fulfilling a life dream and earning a medal, or traveling to a beautiful destination to run a marathon with friends can be powerful motivators to see your goal through to its completion.

Weekly training time needed - Be sure that you have adequate time to train during the course of the week based on the training information you've gathered. Be aware of the time commitment that will be necessary to achieve your goal. If you have a job or personal commitments that take up an inordinate amount of your time during the week, you perhaps would be better off not training for a specific event. Rather, make a pledge to yourself to run three to four times a week for 30 minutes just for fun and fitness.

Long-term training time needed - Prior to setting a goal, be sure that there is adequate time in the long-term. Look at the miles or minutes that you are currently running when considering the feasibility of running a marathon. If your runs are presently in the three-mile range, you will not be ready to run a marathon two months down the road. On the other hand, you will have adequate time to train for a 10K.

Natural ability - No one wants to have his or her bubble burst! Unfortunately, not all of us are born to be world-class athletes. Improvement comes quickly and relatively easily in the beginning for most runners. Although we may put forth our best efforts in training and racing, progress doesn't come nearly as rapidly or easily when you've been working hard over the course of months and years. Genetics, the natural ability we are born with, plays a significant role in determining one's ultimate potential.

Be sure that the goal is yours - Just because Joe down the street is training for a marathon and has urged you to join him, this doesn't mean that you should be sending off your application too! While running a few miles together a couple of times a week is enjoyable, you each bring to the table different life circumstances, ability levels, and current training levels. In other words, don't get swooped up emotionally and commit to a goal without thinking it through

Establish short-term goals leading to big goal - If you wish to run a marathon six months from now, then set some short term goals along the way to keep you motivated. While it's okay to think about where you want to be one or two years from now (or longer), focus most of your thoughts on goals of six months or less. Similarly, you can't train hard for more than three or four months at a time. Allow breaks in-between the attainment of major goals or peak events for which you are training.

Congruence of activities- "You can't always have your cake and eat it too!" To reduce your chances of incurring injury, be sure that the cross-training sports or activities you do will complement rather than take away from your goal. If you're training for a marathon, building your long run and weekly mileage to new levels, it would be wise to give up stop-and-go sports (basketball, soccer, etc.) and lateral sports such as tennis until you complete your marathon.

Congruence of goals - While it's great to have some short-term goals, it's important to understand that the training necessary to run a fast mile is quite different from running a marathon. If you want to include some shorter distance races into your marathon training schedule, plan your long run sequence accordingly so that you don't miss these important workouts. On a similar note, the high school and college athlete would be wise to forgo marathon training until their cross-country and track careers are over and instead, develop his or her speed to its greatest potential.

Three Tiers of Goals - Above all, make sure that your goals are realistic from the considerations mentioned above. They should reflect varying levels of difficulty with even the most challenging attainable. Using the marathon as an example, give yourself three opportunities to achieve success:
Acceptable - To successfully finish the race comfortably without injury
Moderately challenging - To break four-hours
Very challenging - To break 3:45

Be Flexible - Build into your plan flexibility to aim for less ambitious goals if things don't pan out the way you had planned. For example, if you become injured and can't continue training, you can cross-train instead. If there isn't adequate time to train for the race you originally intended to run, either select another event a few months later or register for some shorter events such as a 5K or 10K.

Record and/or Tell others about your goals - Writing your goals down in your training log or posting them on a wall that you see everyday can be highly motivating. Family members and friends will be more supportive and understanding of the commitment you've made if you've informed them of your goals.

Helpful tips for accomplishing realistic goals

Follow an appropriate training plan - Select a creditable training plan at your level as a roadmap to accomplish your goal and follow the advice provided. There's numerous information out there in books, magazine articles, or on the Internet from which to choose. Even if your training is going exceptionally well, avoid the temptation to accelerate your training.

Utilize time-management principles - On a weekly basis, it's helpful to make a list of your activities and responsibilities outside of work hours (carpooling, personal appointments, shopping, etc.). These can be included in a day planner or weekly calendar to identify available times to train. Oftentimes, many activities can be shifted so that your training can take on a high priority. By carefully scheduling your workout times, you are more likely to stay focused, determined, and committed to accomplishing your goal. Still, unexpected circumstances will arise from time to time. When this happens, simply revisit your planner to reschedule missed workouts as soon as possible. There are circumstances when it may be better to not try to make up a run to meet the weekly mileage total goal. An example of this would be to preserve a rest day prior to a long run.

Record your progress - There are a variety of materials to record important data from your workouts (mileage, cumulative time/pace, weather conditions, comments on how you were feeling, etc.). Whether you use a commercially designed training log, a wall calendar, or an Internet site, filling in the blank spaces can be highly motivating. If you have a personal coach, the accountability component of checking in with him or her to report progress is a very powerful means to keep your focus.

Don't be compulsive - Overtraining is counter-productive to accomplishing your goals. More is not always better. Listen to your body and back off when your legs feel fatigued or sore. Follow training guidelines like "the hard-easy concept" or the "10% rule" outlined within this site. Above all, don't be an "exercise-a-holic" or "mileage junkie", training as a means to burn a few extra calories on days when your schedule calls for rest. Planned rest days are essential both for keeping your risk of injury low as well as enabling you to progress to the next level of fitness.

Find a training partner with similar goals and abilities - While inviting someone to share your runs can be enjoyable, it's very important to keep in mind that motivation must come from within. Thus, don't over-rely on your training partner to always be there to run along with you. If an unexpected situation arises and your partner is unable to join you for a planned workout, run anyway.

Run within your limits - "Misery loves company" as the old adage goes. Whether it be at the track or during a long run, completing a challenging workout seems easier psychologically when you are part of a group. However, to minimize your risk of injury, resist the urge to run more miles than your schedule calls for or at a pace that is much faster than your present level of conditioning.

Make your workouts interesting - To stay motivated throughout your training, have a variety of routes in your neighborhood from which to choose, run in different parts of town, run for time (estimating your pace per mile) instead of a specific distance, or occasionally switching the time of the day you usually workout.

Tweaking your goals on race day - A variety of factors can have a negative impact your intended pace… weather conditions (warmer temperatures that what you expected), stomach discomfort, blisters, etc. On race day, take these into consideration, as it may be necessary to adjust your goal.

Use common sense! - Despite following sound training advice, an unforeseen injury can arise during your training or target race. Don't let your emotions override rational thinking by continuing to run. Doing so can lead to even more serious injury.

Reward yourself for your accomplishment - Upon reaching your short and long-term goals, treat yourself to something nice such as a massage, workout clothes, a weekend get-away, etc.

For additional reading relating to goal setting, check out Psychological Issues from this web site.

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