Goals – stay in charge!

Virtual runner being supported by her club crossing the line at a running event

Training plans to smash your PB!

Run every day!

Run faster!

Run further!

As runners, so much of what we read is advice on being ‘better’ than we were before. This can undoubtedly be a good thing if it helps us hit the goals we’ve set ourselves. It’s human nature to want to progress, which might be why we’re the dominant species on the planet.

Running, in an athletics context, is all about measurable achievement, with the ultimate accolades being setting world records (running faster than anyone else in history), or winning World Championships or Olympic gold medals (beating everyone else in the world). This filters down from the professional, elite ranks, down to those of us who run recreationally

Even if we don’t necessarily think of ourselves as athletes, many of us want to beat our personal bests (PBs), or place higher in our age groups. Even runners who don’t participate in organised events may set themselves personal goals, for example: completing Couch to 5K; running further than we have before; doing our usual routes faster than the week before; running a different parkrun each week; or hitting a weekly, monthly or annual total mileage target.

The power of goals – positive and negative

At their best, these goals can motivate us to achieve things we may have never done before. The resultant feelings of satisfaction and the sense of achievement can offer great boosts to our wellbeing. This is just one of the reasons why running can be so good for you.

The flip-side, of course, is what happens when we don’t hit our goals. How do we deal with the feelings of failure? Also, what happens when we become so focused on our goals that the pursuit of them has negative effects on us – physically, mentally, socially and practically? Focusing too much on our running goals can sometimes lead to us neglecting other areas of our life.

Given that the start of the year is when most of us set new goals – and that a few weeks into the year is the point where many of us are already struggling to achieve them! – we thought now was a good time to look at how to maintain a healthy relationship with goal setting.

Why do you run? Is it to see new places? Here’s Anna Stoiljkovic at the Golden Gate Bridge, 2019

Don’t be afraid of amending your targets

Goals can be valuable, but they can also be problematic. For example, an initiative like RED January is a great, wonderful project that offers so many benefits to so many runners and has a great mental health message behind it. But you’ve got to be realistic. If you’re not already running most days a week, are you going to be able to cope with the step up to running every day?

To avoid injury, you should consider either dropping your daily mileage to compensate for the lack of rest days, or swap some of those runs for low-impact cross training. To their credit, the people behind RED January do encourage participants to take such an approach and offer advice on how to do so.

Never be afraid of stopping if you have to. Remember the bigger picture and think about long term gains, not short term training targets. It is much better to rest for a couple of days at the first sign of a niggle, than have to lose weeks of training coming back from a serious injury.

Stay in charge

As much as we all want to hit our goals, you’ve got to stay in charge of them. Don’t let your goals rule you. This can be tricky if you’ve set yourself a very specific, measurable, outcome-based goal. Instead, consider what is it that you can control, and base your goals on that. Make your goals about the process, or your wider aims, not a specific outcome. If you do this, then you reduce the risk of feeling disappointed if things don’t go to plan. Consider the following examples:

You want to complete Couch to 5K to get fit and improve your health

Perhaps you’ve been advised by your doctor to take up some exercise, or you’re aware that you’re at risk of developing some health problems, so you start Couch to 5K. At first things are going well, and you’re enjoying getting out and finding your feet as a runner. Then you roll an ankle treading on the dog’s tennis ball and have to stop running for a bit while it improves.

You start going swimming instead and your health does start to improve, but you can’t help feeling like you’ve failed as you didn’t finish Couch to 5K in the 9 weeks you’d hoped for.

If, however, your goal was to get fit and improve your health, then you would have smashed your goals and would be feeling justifiably pleased with yourself.

You want to finish in the top 50% of a race you do every year

For the last few years, you’ve been just shy of a top half finish, but your training has been going well and you’re feeling confident. Your parkrun results suggest you’re on track to run a PB and get a time that would have got you in the top 50% in each of the last few years.

But then, the organisers get a new sponsor on board and announce an increase in prize money. This attracts a whole load of super-fast elite runners who flood the top places. As a result, you end up with your worst position ever, finishing way outside the top half. Even though you ran a PB, you can’t help but feel disappointed. This is what happens when your goal is focused on a specific outcome (finishing in the top 50%).

Alternatively, if your goal had been to go into the race fitter and faster than ever, maintain your concentration levels throughout the race, and put in your best ever performance, then you would be over the moon to have run well and got a PB. The only difference is in how you frame the goal.

It’s 2018 and you’ve gone to Boston in the USA to run the marathon and get a PB…

…but the weather gods aren’t cooperating and the race is run in freezing temperatures, into a vicious headwind, and relentless sideways rain. This was the reality for the runners who took to the start line of the 2018 Boston Marathon.

If your goal was to run a PB then you would almost certainly have been disappointed. If, however, your goal was to push yourself hard, in a way that you could be proud of, then the terrible weather conditions provided the perfect opportunity to do so.

In the end, the 2018 Boston Marathon wasn’t won by the fastest runners, but by the toughest. You can bet they weren’t disappointed to have missed out on a PB.

The 2018 Boston Marathon. Eventual winner of the men’s race, Yuki Kawauchi, is in green.

Break it down

Big goals can be incredible motivators, but it can be helpful to break them down into smaller goals too. It might take years to reach your big goal, but if you have some smaller goals you can tick off on the way, then you will be better able to maintain that focus over a longer period of time.

Building a bullet train

The development of the Japanese bullet trains is a great example of this.

The big, ultimate goal was to build a train that could link the different parts of Japan in times that were far quicker than that allowed by the existing, conventional trains.

The current bullet trains now run at speeds of 150-200mph, which would have been inconceivable when the project was first proposed in the 1930s. To get to this point, rather than jump in and try and hit these speeds straight away – which would have resulted in failure or disaster – Japanese railway engineers have instead focused on lots of small, incremental gains, introduced as and when they’re ready over a long period of time.

Each part of the process was broken down and gradual improvements made to each of the different parts that made up the whole: designing more aerodynamic trains to cut through the air more efficiently; developing new engine technologies that can generate the power needed; improving track technology to cope with the extra stresses of trains moving at high speeds; developing braking technology to stop the trains safely; creating computer systems that can monitor everything precisely; and training drivers and staff to keep everything moving smoothly.

It’s taken a long time, with the top speeds increasing gradually over the decades, but now the Japanese railway network is the envy of the world with fast, efficient, safe, punctual trains connecting all corners of the country.

What does this mean for me?

You are not a bullet train, but the same kind of thinking can be applied to your running. For example, you’ve just finished your first 10km event in an hour and a half, but you’ve got a goal to cut that time in half and run 45 minutes.

This is a big goal, and there is no guarantee of success, but if it excites you, why not try it? To keep you motivated along the way, consider breaking it down into chunks and try to knock a bit of time off your PB each year, rather than all in one go.

Just by doing the same training you’re currently doing, over a prolonged period, you’ll probably improve as the cumulative effect of all that running builds up. The improvements will probably be larger at first, and then get harder to achieve as you get closer to your big, ultimate goal.

To keep progressing when the rate of improvement slows down, you may need to break your goals down even further. Are there any improvements you can make to your training plan, the different kinds of run you do, your pacing, your kit, your race-day breakfast, your concentration levels, or your running style? By choosing incremental goals like this, not only do you help improve your chances of hitting your big, ultimate goal, but you also build in opportunities to experience smaller successes on the way.

Remember to celebrate your successes. Here’s Josh Evans after the Berlin Marathon 2019

Focus on what you can control

In each of the examples mentioned above, the original goal was so specific (complete Couch to 5K in 9 weeks, finish in the top 50%, or get a marathon PB) that there is a high potential of ‘failure’ should something happen beyond your control (treading on a ball, loads of fast runners entering unexpectedly, ridiculous weather).

By re-framing the goals in a different way, each of the examples can be viewed as a success rather than a failure (improved health, ran better than ever, stayed strong in difficult circumstances). This illustrates the next point, which is to focus on what you can control – and in many cases, one of the only things you can control is your reaction to the result.

Choose your reaction

Are you going to get upset, or are you going to look at the positives?

Admittedly, sometimes our emotions are beyond our control. This is natural, but a lot of the time we can feel better about a situation just by changing how we choose to think or talk about it.

Rather than look at what went wrong, think about what went right. Their might be a whole heap of errors, but what were the successes? Even if it is only something small that worked well, that tiny chink of positivity can be enough to help you recognise your achievements and feel better about your result.

There is almost always something to be positive about in even the most frustrating of situations. Sometimes you just might have to work a little harder to find it.

Be happy and enjoy yourself

Finally, remember why you are running in the first place:

  • Is it to achieve a particular result in a particular race, or is it because you enjoy the fresh air and getting out in the countryside?
  • Is it to get a particular badge on Strava, or because running helps you cope with the stress of your job?
  • Do you do parkrun because you want to get a PB every week, or is it to enjoy the sense of community?
  • Do you want to see how far you can run in one go, or do you want to be fit enough to run around after your grandchildren?

Once you get to the bottom of what it is that motivates you to run, it is so much easier to see the bigger picture. And if your big, ultimate goal is to be happy and enjoy your running, then it doesn’t matter how you achieve it.

Whatever your goals, remember to smile! Here’s Phil Benham, Ray Graham, Benjamin Pantlin, Jacqui Ives and Sarah Richbell at the Lulworth Castle 10K, 2019
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