Once you have picked a target race, whatever distance or variety, you will inevitably start thinking about how you hope the race will turn out. Some people keep these thoughts in their heads, not wanting to cause any kind of bad luck jinx by revealing their true intentions. Others might state their ultimate goal, but they will setup an array of reasons, ahead of time, why it's probably likely that they will achieve a more modest result. A rare few will arrogantly declare their plans to achieve new heights of fame and glory. I like to mask my goals in the form of humorous jokes and trash talking.
In all seriousness, goal setting can be a valuable method toward achieving a performance breakthrough. Thinking back to my peak race results, there is a definite pattern of clear goals that I set well in advance of the race and played out in my mind over and over during training and while laying in bed at night. Of course, I still had to execute on race day and have all the cards fall into place, but I believe in the power of the mental setup.
I’d like to share a personal story of a goal set and realized.
My First Marathon
I had ambitious goals for my first marathon. I don’t know exactly what gave me the idea that I could bypass the need to “run one for the experience,” but I decided that I was going to qualify for the Olympic Trials in my first attempt. This meant running under the time standard of 2:47:00. I set this goal about 2 years in advance, decided on the 2006 Vermont City Marathon as the place to do it, and set about training for the distance and pace. I got kind of obsessive about it, but in a good way (I think). I read everything I could about the marathon, studied the course map, ran marathon pace workouts, practiced my fluid intake, and ran the race in my mind on many a training run. I also got in the habit of visualizing race day as I lay in bed each night, often falling asleep around somewhere between halfway and mile 20!
Well, I ended up getting a bad sinus infection in the days before VCM and decided to create a plan B. I was able to get a bib number for the Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, MN three weeks later; and although this was a little hard to process at first, I quickly began mentally preparing again. New race date, new race course, new competition, same goal, no problem.
I distinctly remember talking to my coach the night before the race and saying, “I have never felt more prepared for anything in my whole life.” I’d seen myself achieve this goal a thousand times in my mind. In my imagination, I had set markers for assessment: “If I’m still on pace and feeling good at 10 miles, it’s a good sign. If I make it to mile 18 on pace, I’m golden. It will feel so awesome to pass by mile 20.” When race day came and I hit these markers just as I’d envisioned, the psychological rush was powerful! I ended up running even splits (1:22:03, 1:22:03), finishing in 2:44:06, and accomplishing my goal. I knew it would take a lot of things falling into place, and I don’t discount that I had a little bit of luck, but I give enormous credit to a clear goal and a lot of visualization.
As you think about your own goals, it is good to keep in mind that there is more than one kind of goal. Try to focus on the things that you have the most control over. You have no control over how your competition is going to perform. You have no control over the weather. But you have total control over what you are going to do to prepare for these things. You have total control over the race strategy you choose, the mental messages you let into your head, and the breakfast of champions that you eat. Time and place goals, while common and worthwhile, are difficult to control, so keep these in perspective and make sure they are not your only measures of success.
I recommend that you do some thinking about, what I call, outcome and process goals.
Identify what you would be excited to achieve. What lessons have you learned from past races? Develop a mental strategy for how to improve in those areas this time around. If you have a time goal, learn the mile pace you need to hit and visualize yourself covering the race course at that pace. If you have your splits from past races of the same distance, take a look and see where you have the most room for improvement. What would it take for you to walk away feeling a sense of accomplishment?
In the short term, set daily or weekly goal(s) that will help keep you on track toward your outcome goal(s). For example, you might have a physical therapy routine that you’re supposed to be doing 3 times per week to stay injury free – your goal could be to stay on that routine. Maybe you feel like your runs have been suffering because you’re not staying hydrated enough during the day – your goal could be to drink more while at work. Try to think about areas of your training and life that might be holding you back and make a goal to improve in one or two concrete ways.
Whether through humor, side-stepping, or bold honesty, find a way to share these goals with others – a little accountability will do you good as you make your goals reality!