As a coach, I am aware of how goal-setting can focus an athlete and create a little external drive. That is, of course, if the goals are appropriate. If a goal is too low, it isn’t exciting and can let an athlete off easy. If a goal is too far above an athlete’s current ability level it can be anxiety-inducing and also lead to poor results or poor self-confidence.
I’m not just a coach, I am also an athlete who makes mistakes in my own training and racing. I want to use my recent experiences with the marathon as an example for why goal-setting is an important skill and how the types of goals you set can drastically change your race game.
This summer I set my sights on California International Marathon (CIM). My good friends were racing it and a bunch of the teammates I train with at Run Boulder AC were also making CIM their A-race for the end of 2019.
When CIM came around I had created the somewhat arbitrary goal of three hours, which was a lofty goal, and I couldn’t seem to re-adjust it in my head even though I had plenty of evidence to prove it might be too big of a jump for me. I had yet to run under four hours in the marathon.
Here are the reasons I knew I wasn’t ready:
- I had taken every single running race this past year out too quickly, and to varying degrees I paid the price for it during the later miles.
- I had completed an all-out 14-mile run over Thanksgiving in Pittsburgh with my dad generously riding his bike next to me with fuel. When we discussed the workout he told me he had a route planned that we named the “No Excuses” route. I ran along the Panhandle Trail that goes from Oakdale, PA to West Virginia. It has no stops and no foot traffic to contend with. While I set a new PR for a half marathon during that training run, I had faded off my goal marathon pace in the final miles that day.
- My other, lower goal for CIM included simply running the entire race. Up until this point I had always walked some part of the marathon course. My marathon experience up until this point included:
- Marine Corps Marathon in college.
- Denver Rock n’ Roll Marathon in 2010 (I was completely untrained).
- At the end of my first Iron-Distance Race (Redman) in 2011.
- A trail marathon in Salida (again, vastly unprepared).
- At the end of my 2nd Iron-Distance Race (Vineman) in 2015.
- Estes Park Marathon (all above 7,500 feet in elevation) this has been my PR to date at 4:12 min. Even with that time, I was 7th female.
- Aspen Trail Marathon (same distance, but totally different otherwise).
A three hour marathon is an outcome goal, because it is results-based. My secondary goal, to simply run the entire race, is a process goal. What happened during the race? I took it out with the three hour pace group, which was a tiny-bit too fast for me, and I paid the price about half way through. I fell off my pace, my knee began to hurt out of nowhere, and towards the end I even walked a few hundred feet.
I could have written out how the entire race would go, play-by-play, as soon as I did the 14-mile run at Thanksgiving, and my coach-brain identified a problem, but my athlete-self decided to stick to my original goal. I even wrote a sticky note to serve as my bookmark that read, “I am a 2:59 marathoner.”
Now, in the grand scheme of life, this was okay. I still had a great time training leading into the race and I had a blast spending the weekend with friends. As a bonus, my good friend who had been suffering from injuries managed to both finish and qualify for Boston. Seeing her finish the race with such a strong resolve was the best part of my day.
If this was a bucket list, one-time goal to race a marathon, I would have perhaps felt that my performance was enough. However, I race regularly and as I mentioned above, I made the same mistake at CIM as I had made at races all throughout the year by starting too quickly for my current fitness level. I knew I needed to teach myself a lesson. So, I signed up for another marathon that was six-weeks out in Phoenix.
I went back to the drawing table with goals. My ONLY goal was to start the race conservatively and try to pace it more appropriately. Unlike the three-hour goal, which worked against my process goal of running the entire race, this conservative approach made it more likely that I would also succeed in running the marathon start to finish.
To avoid putting any more pressure on the race than what I listed above, I decided Kennett and I would only fly out a day in advance. I trained for triathlon up until the week of the race, putting in two consecutive weeks with over 17 hours of training volume, though considerably less running mileage compared to what I was doing leading up to CIM.
Phoenix was an easy race to show up for last minute. We didn’t even have to rent a car. We got to the hotel, I did a shake-out run, we relaxed, and then walked to dinner. I almost had a drink at dinner, and had drinks been free I absolutely would have indulged in one. I felt no pressure for the race because I was confident I could achieve my goals if I kept myself in check during the early miles of the race the next morning.
Phoenix was a flat marathon, but CIM actually had a net downhill elevation for its course. I say this because I’m not sure which race would be classified as faster, but I doubt Phoenix would be deemed significantly easier than CIM. Still, I dropped 15 minutes from CIM to my Phoenix marathon time. Yes, a 15 minute PR by simply changing my outcome goal to a reasonable process goal, which then changed how I raced. My fitness during the six weeks between races did not significantly improve and my running volume actually went down.
I still probably felt a little too peppy during miles 5-13, and next marathon I need to hold back just a tiny bit in those miles. I might also need to take in an extra gel during those early miles. There is always room for improvement.
Process goals are particularly important when an athlete is making big jumps in fitness. Arguably, I might be at a fitness level to run a three hour marathon. The trick is that I haven’t practiced what that pace might feel like over such a long distance. I still need to work on the mental game. For instance, at mile 23 or so of the race a woman passed me. My mental strength was weak at that point and I let her gap me by 30 or 40 seconds. However, in the last 0.2 miles I nearly sprinted back to her. Next time that happens to me, I know that I’m likely going to be strong enough to stick with whomever comes rolling by in those last miles. Each time I make a small change in my mental strength, my run time will improve towards that three-hour mark.
It helps to have both process goals and outcome goals. However, they should work in tandem as much as possible. At CIM my three-hour goal was detrimental to my goal to run the entire race because once I blew up my body shut down. Next time, I may have a time-oriented outcome goal along with the process goal of staying with anyone who passes me in the last six miles.
Not sure what your goals should be? Kennett and I are happy to help you out!