Setting, pursuing, and achieving goals is important for any runner but the odds are unfortunately in favour of failure. In this post, I will identify 4 huge mistakes that will kill your running goals so you can be sure to avoid them. Ready? Let’s go.
What are goals?
Goals are essential in our lives. They motivate us to take action, guide us to where we want to go, and enable us to achieve our dreams.
What is a goal? Brain Tracey defines it as an ‘objective that you set for yourself and push yourself to achieve.’
People set goals for a number of reasons, but they always come back to two main principles. Focus on a long-term vision and short-term motivation for making this vision a reality. A long-term vision is how you see yourself in the future.
In the context of running, an out of shape middle-aged man whose just been given a health warning by his doctor might have a long-term vision for his running of being a decent weight, physically fit and engaged in regular running socials. His short-term motivations will be the goals along the way that are necessary for achieving this vision like losing a certain amount of weight by set deadlines or increasing weekly mileage by 10% for three months.
What are the 4 huge mistakes that will kill your running goals?
Runners set awful goals sometimes. Of course, this isn’t done intentionally but rather because of a lack of knowledge about what constitutes an effectively set goal.
There are many reasons for why set goals can be awful. They include being overly ambitious, being too vague (not SMART), not breaking overarching goals into sub goals, and not setting up systems to achieve the goals. I’ll expand upon each in turn.
1. Setting goals that are overly ambitious
Have you ever had a fellow runner tell you about some overly ambitious goal that they have, yet you know that it’s way out of their reach? This could be due to a number of reasons like their current level of fitness, weight, experience, or the sheer magnitude of the goal. I have. Unfortunately, setting goals that are overly ambitious is usually a route to failure in achieving that goal.
When you set a goal, you should make it challenging enough so that it stretches and pushes you beyond your current limits but not too difficult that it’s unattainable. For example, a beginner runner with a month’s worth of training experience who wants to run a marathon in a month’s time is a highly overly ambitious goal that’s likely to result in failure. A more realistic goal for such a runner would be to run a 5K in under 28 minutes.
When you set goals, be mindful that they are not overly ambitious. Otherwise, you risk setting yourself up for failure.
2. Setting goals that are too vague (not SMART)
It’s common around the New Year’s period for resolutions to be made to the vague tunes of ‘I want to lose weight’ or ‘I want to run more.’ Whilst these are good things to be striving for, there is a fundamental problem that makes them unlikely to be achieved. They’re too vague and they’re not SMART.
The main issue with vague goals is what does ‘losing weight’ or ‘running more’ actually mean in specific and precise terms? My definition of running more will be very different to someone else’s definition. These goals are vague so there’s no way of knowing whether or not clear progress is being made in attaining them. What’s more, there’s no indication of the detail in the goal so it’s not possible to understand whether it’s achievable for the person whose set it relevant to their current level.
Instead, goals should be set using the SMART acronym which is popular in the business world. This acronym provides a framework for setting goals with the following criteria:
- Specific – Detail what the goal is with precise language. What aspect of running does the goal relate to? For example, speed, distance, weight.
- Measurable – Make sure the goal is trackable e.g. miles run, or time achieved.
- Achievable – Make sure the goal is attainable relevant to your current level e.g. don’t set 1200 miles of running in one year as a goal if your current annual mileage is 300.
- Relevant – Make sure that the goal clearly links to the vision that you have for your running career. For example, if you wish to become a professional runner you will need a goal to reflect this vision.
- Time-bound – Set a fixed deadline for when you should aim to achieve the goal by so that you know in a binary fashion whether or not you’ve achieved it.
An example of a SMART goal for a runner whose annual mileage is currently 900, who has a vision of becoming an excellent marathon runner, would be: ‘Run at least 1200 miles between January 1st and December 31st.’
3. Only setting overarching goals and neglecting sub-goals
As you’re reading this blog post, I’m going to assume that you’re an ambitious runner who wants to crush your goals. But have you ever felt overwhelmed by some of your goals? I have.
Sure, the goal may be achievable at some point in the future but, for the moment, it seems like a mammoth undertaking and you don’t quite know where to start. If a goal feels overwhelming, there’s a high chance that it’s an overarching goal (assuming it is achievable according to the SMART framework we talked about above).
The worst thing a runner can do in these situations is to continue with the pursuit of the overarching goal without thinking about the sub-goals that lie beneath it.
Think about an overarching goal as being the summit of the mountain. Sure, the summit is the shiny achievement that you want to accomplish. However, there are many different steps and actions that you need to take before reaching the goal. We’ll think of these steps and actions as sub-goals.
These steps and actions include researching the mountain, equipping yourself with climbing gear, training rigorously, and then travelling to the mountain itself. These steps don’t stop there; you then need to ascend the mountain strategically by going from point to point, passing many checkpoints on the way. It’s only after having completed the many sub-goals that it’s possible to reach the top of the mountain.
Imagine if, instead of completing all the steps and actions we talked about above and just went for climbing the mountain. What’s going to happen? You’ll either probably die on the way up, get injured, or have an incredibly miserable time. All of these are the result of not having made progress in the sub-goals necessary for attaining the overarching goal.
We can apply this analogy to running. When you want to cross the finish line for your first marathon, this can be described as an overarching big goal. To make this goal a reality, you will need to set and achieve many sub-goals along the way. These might include ticking weeks off a training plan, running 15 miles without stopping in one go, performing conditioning workouts, adhering to a nutrition regime, and so on.
If you just go for running a marathon without having completed the necessary sub-goals, you’ll likely get injured or finish (if you’re lucky) with a big uphill struggle.
Don’t fall into the trap of pursuing overarching big goals without having a clear strategy complete with sub-goals for getting there.
To help you with setting sub-goals, I’d recommend giving the following YouTube video a watch:
4. Not setting up the necessary systems to achieve the goals
One of the biggest dangers in setting goals is only focusing on the result rather than the process.
If you only focus on the goal itself, saying that you will only be successful when you have achieved it, this means that you’re in essence all the time before that goal is achieved.
This can be incredibly demotivating, uninspiring and suck the energy out of you in the lead up to achieving your goal.
What’s more, when you achieve the goal there will probably be a huge moment of satisfaction and joy which will very quickly pass leaving you feeling hollow. The usual remedy? Setting another goal.
What you should be doing is setting up the necessary systems to achieve the goals.
Systems are all about creating a repeatable set of actions that are needed in order to achieve the goal itself. If you’re a runner, your goal might be to one day run a marathon, but your system is the way you train, learn about running, tackle your nutrition strategy and work on your form.
Systems can be described as playing the game, whereas goals can be described as winning the game. What’s good about systems rather than goals is that they can be easily adjusted so that they’re constantly improving, whereas goals are often only changed when they’re either achieved or not.
For example, if you find that you learn much better about running form via YouTube videos than reading, you’re able to quickly change your system and opt for more YouTube videos. This means that quick progress can be made in the present which has the benefit of motivating you to continue in pursuit of the goal.
Following systems allow us to focus on the present moment, what we can do now to improve our current performance, regardless of how small. Following goals, however, only focuses on the long-term outcome that you wish to achieve without thinking about the day to day disciplines that are required.
Whilst goals should be used to set a direction for your running life, systems should be set and used to make the day to day progress necessary for improving.
Don’t just focus on goals; ensure you set up the necessary systems to achieve them.