The notion of setting goals in sports is not new; indeed, the topic has been covered ad-nauseam, which is why I am going to address goal setting from a fresh perspective. It is important to understand that everyone has goals. Some may view their goals as “reasons” for doing something, such as, “I am going for a run to blow off some steam from a hard day.” But behind that reason is ultimately a goal to have a sense of well-being, with running being the vehicle to achieving that goal.
Setting goals is a necessary step in the athletic process, as it anchors the way an athlete will go about their training. A potential Boston marathon qualifier will approach their goals differently than a novice runner aiming to complete the Carlsbad 5000 or Turley’s Turkey Trot, but both types of athletes have something in the future that is propelling them forward, creating a purpose to endure the rigors of training.
Without a goal, training can become aimless, a chore, an endless miasma of suffering and discomfort that cannot be reconciled. Furthermore, a concrete goal increases adherence to athletic endeavors by increasing motivation.
Every goal needn’t be far-reaching — sometimes your goal might be completely feasible and straightforward to achieve — and that is the beauty of goal setting: the possibilities are endless. But regardless of your level of ambition, you should have a goal in place. Something. Anything.
Broaden your perspective… but make your goals specific
The first step is figuring out the answer to this question: What is my goal? Athletes, predominantly, view their goal-setting task as creating a goal that is somehow related to their performance: “I want to drop a minute off my half marathon in Carlsbad,” or “I want to qualify for the Ironman 70.3 World Championships.”
Those are very reasonable goals. However, broadening your goal-setting repertoire to include training, skill development and good health ensures that you have a lengthy list of aspirations. Goals that cover myriad areas boost the fun factor and necessitate a well-rounded training block.
Research has shown that task-oriented goals focused on self-mastery reduce burn-out and anxiety. Goals of this ilk are particularly important after time off from training, especially if that time off was due to a prolonged injury or illness. And creating specific goals from the broad spectrum of goal-setting choices increases the likelihood of goal attainment.
After having four surgeries in a 12-month period, my goals changed from those focused on performance (e.g., “I want to qualify for the Olympic trials in the marathon”) to those focused on training (“I want to be consistent with my workouts for several months”), health (“I want to improve my core strength and stability so I am actually able to train consistently”) and skills (“I want to improve my run biomechanics, which suffered some glitches due to the surgeries”). I know that once I achieve these goals, I will be able to start setting performance goals that will match my level of health, fitness, and skills, one of which hopefully will be to run a decent time at the Houston Half Marathon.
Determine your commitment to achieving your goals and scale accordingly
In 2013, after a disappointing finish at the 2012 London Olympics, Gwen Jorgensen packed up her belongings and moved from the US to Australia to train with Coach Jamie Turner, a change that would put her on the road for nine months out of the year.
It was a risk, and while it paid off with a gold medal at the Rio Olympics, it also did not come without sacrifice. As USA Triathlon chief marketing officer Chuck Menke noted, “She took it to a whole new level in the last two years. Everything that she does — literally — is designed to help with her performance.”
An Olympian training to win a gold medal will certainly invest more time and effort in their goal than a novice runner trying to increase mileage from running around the block to running a 5K. Of course, both goals are important to the goal-setter, but obviously the sacrifices needed to obtain a gold medal will be higher.
When you are setting your goals, you must decide at the outset how much time and energy you can spend pursuing them. Are you willing to train three hours per week? Five hours? 10? 20? Are you ready to forsake late nights or activities antithetical to your goal?
You simply cannot set an appropriate goal until you’ve determined the level of energy you can dedicate to the achievement of that goal. Be honest; do not set parameters for yourself that you know are unachievable. During my time as a professional triathlete, I was also in school completing my doctorate and then once I graduated, I worked as a researcher. My goals were always set knowing that my capacity to travel to races was limited by my commitment to academia.
Create tiered goals that support your BFHG
I’ve always prioritized my goals using the traditional A, B, and C nomenclature, as do many other athletes. For example, Kate Grace, a track and field athlete who ran in the 800 meters finals at the 2016 Rio Olympics, recalls, “We did a dream goal sheet earlier in the year. I had my A, B, C goals and my dream goal, and I put in parentheses my dream, dream goal. But my dream, dream goal was to make the final of the Olympics.”
While ABC goal hierarchy is traditional, my view on naming my goals changed recently when I read an interview with Bruce Gemmell, coach of swimming phenom Katie Ledecky. He used the acronym BFHG — Big Fat Hairy Goal — to refer to the ultimate, audacious thing you dream most of doing. Wow, I thought, that is so good, I’m going to adopt it.
Once you’ve identified your BFHG, you can then create your lower-tiered goals that would lead up to it like rungs on a ladder, with the level of importance decreasing and the ease of achievement increasing as you make your way down the steps.
Sometimes you will reach your BFHG, and other times you won’t. Even the great Usain Bolt missed a goal at the Rio Olympics. Bolt won his three gold medals, but his highest tier on the ladder was setting the world record in the 200m, which he missed by a large margin. “I wanted to run faster. But my legs decided it wasn’t happening. I felt tired and I lost my form in the last part of the race,” Bolt explained post-race.
The benefit of tiered goals is that there is almost always a goal within sight, which either will increase your confidence if those goals are met, or indicate that your BFHG is really not within reach and that you may need to adjust.
The duality of goal setting and goal striving (i.e., “planning and executing actions that promote goal attainment and shielding those goals from distraction or disruption”) is constantly in flux, whereby goals may need to be reconsidered after the execution of the goal has already begun, based on the knowledge you’ve obtained through racing and training. If you understand partway through your mission to accomplish a BFHG that it simply isn’t going to happen, make an adjustment that is more in line with your potential.
Make it real by writing them down
I used to scribble my goals in the margins of my notes. In the midst of chemistry, English, and later in my academic life, statistics, there were times and placements I wanted to reach in my athletics.
Katie Ledecky, world record holder and multiple Olympic gold medalist, wrote her goals on her pull buoy in a code in which only she and her coach knew how decrypt. At every workout, Katie would see her goals, a gentle reminder on a daily basis.
A 2015 study found that 70% of participants who sent weekly updates about their goals to a friend successfully achieved their goal or, at the very least, were halfway there. This success rate dropped to 35% in participants who did not write down their goals.
Further success in goal attainment comes from not only writing down the goal itself, but also penning an action commitment plan.
In researching this article, I happened upon a fascinating urban legend regarding the Harvard Business School, which purportedly conducted a goal writing study. In 1979, 3% of students wrote down their goals, 13% had goals, and the remaining 84% had no specific goals. When the class was re-interviewed 10 years later, it was discovered that
“The 13 percent of the class who had goals were earning, on average, twice as much as the 84 percent who had no goals at all. And what about the 3 percent who had clear, written goals? They were earning, on average, ten times as much as the other 97 percent put together.”
The veracity of this study was debunked in 2011, but it is a lovely parable about the importance of writing down your goals.
- Every athlete, regardless of their ability or potential, needs goals.
- The pool from which you are establishing your goals should be broad, but the goals themselves should be specific.
- Determine how much time you have to allocate toward your goal.
- Create a tiered system for setting your goals where you rank your goals in their order of importance.
- Write your goals down — it helps.
 Mann, T., De Ridder, D., & Fujita, K. (2013). Self-regulation of health behavior: social psychological approaches to goal setting and goal striving. Health Psychology, 32(5), 487.
Joanna Zeiger, MS, PhD, raced as a professional triathlete from 1998-2010. She placed fourth in the triathlon at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and won the 2008 IRONMAN 70.3 World Championships. She is a seven-time Olympic trials qualifier in three sports — marathon, triathlon and swimming. Joanna still pursues her passion for sports as a top Masters runner. Through her company, Race Ready Coaching, Joanna trains endurance athletes to reach their personal best and instills in them the importance of having fun even when they are training hard. When she is not coaching or training for running events, Joanna works as a consultant in the field of biostatistics. Joanna’s book The Champion Mindset: An Athlete’s Guide to Mental Toughness will be published in February 2017 by St. Martin’s Press.