With the 3rd Millennium upon us, it seems appropriate to dream grand dreams, reach for the stars, or at least set a goal to reach a personal best. The problem when reaching for the stars, however, is knowing how high to reach. How much can you realistically hope to improve in a few weeks, a few months, a year?
Achieving goals involves both physiology and psychology. Your physiology determines how your body responds to the demands of training. This places limits on how quickly you can improve in a given period of time. Unlike a machine, however, we do not come equipped with a list of specs that detail our aerobic capacity, heart stroke volume, maximum speed, etc. Each of us is unique in our genetic makeup and training history, both of which profoundly influence our ability to improve as a runner. So, no one can predict where your limits fall. While your physiology sets the limits to your performance, your psychological approach largely determines how close you come to reaching those limits. As always, the body and mind are inextricably linked.
Sport psychologists have conducted dozens of studies showing that goal setting leads to improvements in athletic performance. Goal setting helps you channel your mental and physical energy towards a purpose. Focussing your efforts on a set goal allows you to develop a plan to fine-tune your training to reach your goal. A clear goal will also help you to focus your effort during races. Let’s take a look at 5 guidelines for setting motivating goals that will help you reach your full potential as a runner.
1. Set specific and measurable goals. Vague goals such as “to become a better runner” or “to train harder” do not focus your efforts. To provide motivation, there can be no question afterwards whether or not you reached your goal. An example of a specific and measurable goal is “to run sub-6 minute mile pace for 10K by the end of the summer,” or “to run a minimum of 50 miles per week for each of the next 6 weeks.” Both a target and a time for achievement are clearly stated.
2. Set goals that are challenging yet achievable. An easy goal will not lead to greatness or even provide the motivation to roll out of bed on a rainy morning. An outlandishly hard goal, such as the good high school runner who says he wants to win an Olympic gold medal, will not provide direct motivation to get out and train. If that high school runner can not realize success until he earns an Olympic gold medal, then running will become a frustrating endeavor with little reward. Set a goal so that with intelligent training you have a realistic chance of achieving it within a time frame that provides motivation for your training.
3. The fitter you already are, the less you will improve. The unfortunate fact is that the longer and harder you have been training, the closer you are to your genetic potential. The closer you are to your genetic potential, the smaller the improvements you can make. If you have been training diligently for 12 years and have run a 33 minute 10 K, then a challenging yet realistic goal for 2000 would be to break 32:30. Chances are that you are already fairly close to your genetic potential, and that any further improvements will be hard won and measured in seconds rather than minutes. An individual who has only been running for a few months, however, can expect to improve in larger chunks. In the first year of running, it is not unusual to improve performances by 10% or more.
4. Do not expect quick results. Performance improvements take time. When you increase the volume or intensity of your training, at first you just get tired. Training provides the stimulus for the body to improve, but improvements take time. Additional fatigue occurs before the positive adaptations to training, and at first your running performances may actually get worse. The third week of increased training is typically the worst. Allow a minimum of 5 weeks after modifying your training before you expect to see a small improvement in performance. If you are training for a 10 K, give yourself a minimum of 10 weeks to prepare. For a marathon, allow a minimum of 15 weeks to prepare.
5. State your goal in terms of performance rather than outcome. Examples of performance goals are “to run at least 5 days per week until the 4th of July road race,” or “to run the half marathon in April at 5 minutes and 45 seconds per mile.” An outcome goal is “to win my age group in the half marathon.” With a performance goal, you can develop a plan to reach that goal. Most of the necessary ingredients to achieve your goal (e.g. dedication to training, eating correctly) are within your control, which improves your self-confidence. With an outcome goal, however, major aspects of reaching your goal are out of your control. In the example of winning your age group, there are other runners trying to win your age group too, and you cannot influence their performance. Outcome goals, therefore, can lead to anxiety and frustration.
This article is a contribution from Peter Dickson Pfitzinger, an American former distance runner, who later became an author and exercise physiologist. He is best known for his accomplishments in the marathon, an event in which he represented the United States in two Summer Olympic Games: the Los Angeles Olympics and the 1988 Seoul Olympics.