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Goal setting: finding what excites you!

I was talking with a fellow runner today, discussing upcoming race plans. We started talking about fall marathons and he asked if I was going for a specific qualifying time, to which I emphatically said no. Maybe a bit too emphatically! Time goals have been troublesome for me in the past - partly because of the way I used to set them, and partly because they’re not the most motivating kind of goal for me - and so I now focus more on other types of goals. Appropriate goal setting can play an important role in your experience preparing for and running a race, so it’s important to consider what will work best for you. Below, I talk through different kinds of goals and some things to consider as you set them for yourself.

First, I want to talk about two different types of goals: process and outcome. Process goals are focused on specific actions you can take to get to a specific outcome; they focus on implementation and capacity. For instance, if you’re training for a marathon, you might make it a goal to go to bed by 10pm the night before your long runs so you have energy in the morning and can implement your run as planned. If you’re working on base building, you might have a goal to run at least three times a week in order to build your endurance. Outcome goals are the things you want to achieve, like finishing a new distance, hitting a specific time, or setting a new personal best. You may want to complete your first 10k or qualify for the Boston Marathon.

Both process and outcome goals have their place, but it’s easy to be too fixated on outcomes and forget about the process. Saying you want to run a specific time is great…but beyond the mindset work of believing you can achieve it, that goal really does nothing to actually help you run the time. I can’t write the Great American Novel if I never sit down to write, and I can’t finish a marathon without putting in some mileage. 

My advice on outcomes goals is to “set it and forget it.” You want to run your first half? Decide on the race, get your training plan, and focus on implementing the plan, rather than thinking about how long or hard the race might be. Get the miles in, do your strength work, eat and sleep well. Race day will come, as they inevitably do, and you will have spent your energy in the right place. 

What about hitting a time goal, like that needed to qualify for a specific race? Well, first we need to look at your past performances to see if this is in range. A recent race or time trial can help determine if you could realistically hit the mark needed in the next training cycle or if it might take a longer time frame. Then, we use the recent race or time trial to set your training paces and execute your training. You will build fitness throughout the training cycle, which will allow us to determine your goal race pace closer to your race (2-6 weeks out, depending on the distance) based on recent training, a second time trial, or a shorter race done as a tune up. 

By setting both process and outcome goals, you create a good balance between what you want to accomplish and how you need to act to get there. This applies to both race day goals, which I’ve largely focused on so far, and non-racing running goals. Both have their season in a runner’s life! Non-racing goals might include running consistently a certain number of days each week, completing a mileage challenge, enjoying each run you take, or running in a new place each week. It can be easy to get caught up in chasing times, but that can sometimes lead to burnout, so non-racing goals can be a great way to bring some joy and spontaneity back to your running. 

Three women smile and run
Enjoying my running is always on my list of goals...even when I'm soaking wet!

The way I set goals and the types of goals I set have evolved over time. When I ran my first marathon, I had a coach that suggested I could run a certain time early in the training process. This number got in my head and lived there rent-free until I was so intimidated and lacking confidence in my ability to run it, that in hindsight it’s hardly surprising the race didn’t go as planned. Over time, and with a new coach, I stopped setting goals so early in each training cycle. I’ve also shifted to focusing more on process goals, including maintaining consistency in my running schedule, working on my mental strength, and strength training consistently (that last one is a work in progress!). Shortly before a race I’ll have a time goal identified, but it is usually in the form of the pace I want to aim for, rather than thinking about the time on the clock at the end. For me, this draws my attention to the execution of each mile and gives me concrete steps to hit. I can also take the opportunity each new mile presents to reset my mind or build my momentum, depending on how I am feeling at the time. 

It took some experimentation for me to find the types of goals that excite me, and I encourage you to play around with different types of goals as well. The ability to flex into different goals is really helpful, especially as you go through different seasons of life. When I was returning to running postpartum, for instance, I had to lean heavily into process goals and completely forget about most outcome goals, particularly time-based ones! When I got back to regular running, I really enjoyed setting “new” personal bests (that enjoyably also turned out to be overall personal bests!) without any pressure. I also use different goals for different types of running - I like going for speed on the roads and pure enjoyment on the trails. For most of us, running fast times isn’t how we pay the bills, so I encourage you to enjoy working towards whatever goals you set. Otherwise, what are we doing? 

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