In our previous blog “Is it too late?” our first tip for turning your 2023 athletic year around was to set a goal. The need for a goal to precede success is fairly obvious. Without a specific goal there can be no focal point, and therefore intermediary goals and a plan of action cannot be established. Also, it’s necessary to have an idea of what success looks like in order to decide whether or not you have achieved it. Basically, you need a target before you can take aim.
Setting a goal, or goals, is often perceived as a quick and simple process. In fact, most of us become quite excited at the prospect of goal setting. This is especially true in the context of sport and training, as our goals are typically races and it’s difficult not to be inspired by the prospect of travelling to a new area and competing in an event! Yet somehow, we often find ourselves several months down the line still procrastinating the task of selecting a goal and consequently directionless in our training. But the truth is, goal setting and commitment to a long term goal can be daunting, so it’s important to make sure it’s worth your while beforehand.
As you may have guessed from our previous blog, I will be using the mnemonic acronym SMART in discussing the process of goal setting. SMART goals were developed by George Doran, Arthur Miller and James Cunningham in their 1981 article “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management goals and objectives.” Although their context was project management in the monitoring of forest carbon stock changes in Kenya, the SMART process is applicable to most scenarios and athletic goals are no exception. So grab a pen and paper to make a few notes on the psychology and process of goal setting!
In order to provide a real-life example, I will be sharing my own experience of choosing a significant athletic goal. My primary discipline is running, but all the concepts will be valid in your preferred sport too.
Smiling away during the Lesotho section of UTD 160 Photo: Xavier Briel, UTD
The first step of goal selection is deciding exactly what it is that you want to accomplish. Goals should be narrow for the most effective planning, so avoid generalisations. You need to know exactly what you are working towards, and why. Why is this objective important to you? In ultra endurance sports, your “why” is probably your most powerful mental tool, and having a valid answer is often the difference between completing a race and DNFing.
Another question you should ask yourself is who will be part of your team, both in training and on D-day. Mental, physical and emotional support are all key in helping you to achieve your goal, so create a team that values your “why”. Emotional support may be from a partner or friend, physical in the form of a physiotherapist, biokineticist or massage therapist, and a good coach will understand all the mechanisms at play in reaching an endurance goal and be able to guide your through the physical training, nutrition and hydration preparation, mental training, recovery and taper.
That said, your goal doesn’t necessarily need to be a race. It could be an FKT attempt (Fastest Known Time), FTP test, weight goal or any other target that’s meaningful to you and can be planned out with SMART.
In 2018, I decided I wanted to complete a very long run. In making my goal specific, I selected a trail run of 100 miles. In order to have a solid “why,” I realised that I would need to choose a mountainous ultra, so I opted for Ultra Trail Drakensberg 100 miler. Because mountains, particularly the ‘Berg, have always been intrinsically special to me, I knew my motivation to achieve this goal ran deep.
Specificity is a solid start, but quantifying your goal is necessary in order to monitor progress and know when you’ve reached the finish line. Here, process goals are possibly even more important than your outcome goal. Process goals are small, measurable targets along the way that allow you to tick boxes on a regular basis, see tangible progress in the right direction and keep your motivation on track. Having measurable process goals will also ensure that your outcome goal is realistic, or alert you to the need for possible adjustments.
My outcome goal of UTD 100 miler was already measurable in terms of being a race with a fixed distance. What I needed were measurable training targets as process goals. I decided to focus on the number of hours I would train per week, dividing it between running, strength and cross training. I would increase my volume over the course of 6 months, including dedicated recovery/ pull-back weeks, and aim to complete a 12 hour running week in the last block.
This is the point in the process for a serious reality check. Goals should be relatively attainable - not pedestals from which you inevitably tumble! So ask yourself this: is my objective something I can realistically accomplish? With the tools that I have, can I reach my goal? If not, what do I need to assist my process, or should I adjust my goal?
The best way to evaluate the achievability of your goal is to consider what you have done previously, what you are currently capable of, and how much more you expect to be able to do towards your objective in the available time.
For example, if I used to be able to run 8 hours per week, but for the last 12 months I had only been running 3 hours per week on the road, a successful mountainous 100 miler would probably not be realistic for the next year.
Somewhat counter-intuitive to being realistic, your goal should still be big and ambitious! After all, there is no adventure without the possibility of failure… Studies suggest that we should be succeeding 85% of the time for optimum learning and growth. So failure is part of the process, but don’t set yourself up for failure from the get go. At least give yourself a fighting chance.
In my case, I had been trail running consistently for 8 years with a few 100km mountain runs under my belt, so it was fair to say that my goal was relatively achievable. I knew that I had sufficient time and with appropriate training I should definitely be able to finish. But running 60km further than I’d ever run before would certainly challenge me, physically and mentally, on race day.
Depending on the nature of your goal, you may need to add specific outcomes other than just finishing. For races, these may be time or position-based, but you should be careful when setting outcome-based goals as they are generally binary and often not always in your control. For example, if the weather conditions are unexpectedly cold and wet on race day, a specific time goal you had might immediately be rendered unrealistic. If you aim to place in the top 5 but several of SA’s top athletes show up on race day, you could actually congratulate yourself on a top 10!
As I had never completed a 100 miler before I had very little indication of what a reasonable time for me might be, but I felt I needed more than to “just finish.” I overcame this obstacle by using the previous year’s finishing times of athletes that I knew and had raced against as a benchmark. I set a goal to aim for a sub-30 hour UTD 160km.
UTD 160 runners being led out by a local shepherd on horseback. Photo: Marzelle vd Merwe
Now this is the “big picture” question. Does the goal that you’ve set really mean something to you? Is it congruent with and does it meet your “why” requirements? Will it make a difference in your life whether or not you succeed?
In order for your goal to be truly significant, you need to be intrinsically motivated to reach it and ideally have more than one reason for embarking on the journey. Extrinsic motivators such as a bet with a friend, the opportunity to win prize money or that video clip you saw of David Goggins are almost guaranteed to fail you at the 11th hour.
Questions you ask yourself around your goal should be relevant, and they should excite you. Is it something you’ve been dreaming of doing for years? Will achieving your goal enrich your life and maybe even make a difference in the lives of others? Do you love being part of the community in which you’re setting your goal, and do they inspire and support you? Can you visualise yourself embracing the journey, highs and lows, to reach your destination? If you’re answering yes with enthusiasm to similar contemplations, you’re on track.
A 100 miler is something I’ve dreamed of since I first set foot on a mountain trail. The idea of moving constantly for hours on end has always appealed to me, and in adventure racing I’ve been through the night and honestly enjoyed it. I’m passionate about spending time in nature, mostly alone, and I enjoy exploring my own limits of the physical and mental. Running long distances enriches my life, making me feel alive and free. Doing so in the Drakensberg mountains, which I love so deeply, simply feels right for me.
Heading out into the night...goal in mind. Photo: Simon Pocock / UTD
In order for a goal to be realistically attainable, it’s necessary to have a time frame which is neither too lenient nor too demanding. As athletes, selecting a race-oriented goal makes this simple and there is already a fixed date and time. If you’re selecting your own time horizon it may be useful to do some research. Find out how long other athletes with similar goals dedicated to their journey, and then adapt that to better suit your personal circumstances. Discuss your thinking with your support team as well, as they may offer valuable, objective advice in this case. They will also be part of the process so it’s important that they buy into the various aspects, at least to some degree. Once you’ve established a total time frame, set up a realistic plan with intermittent time goals (measurable and time-bound process goals) to keep your progress and process consistent.
If you’re selecting a goal race, be cautious not to fall into the trap of bending your training. Try to refrain from entering a race first and then looking at your training calendar afterwards. Rather analyse your current training and potential races simultaneously, and then make a decision that allows for congruency and takes your time availability into account. If you have your heart set on a certain event but the time-frame is too short for the work that needs to be done, consider doing the race the following year instead. Set intermediary “B” races for training and to keep you motivated, as long-term goals can seem to lack relevance and it’s easier for commitment to falter.
As a coach of endurance athletes and especially ultra trail runners, I always recommend a generous time frame. Your best friend in training is consistency, and consistency compounds over time. If you have already been running consistently for a few years and have a solid base of fitness and endurance, then I’d recommend providing yourself with a 6-9 month lead up time for a 100 miler such as MUT, UTD or UTCT. This will provide sufficient time to build on your base, complete two or three strategic B races, train specifically for the terrain and conditions of your A race, and allow for potential illness or setbacks en route.
Working with many athletes over the years and having a passion for mental training, I’ve found that proper goal setting really succeeds in driving motivation and commitment. Athletes who embrace the process and take the time to set thorough and meaningful goals typically find that their motivation to train is relatively high and consistent. As a result, commitment, and ultimately success, naturally follows. SMART is a great tool to guide and assist you in setting a clear goal and providing you with the best opportunity to be successful in achieving it. Also, once accomplished, goal setting provides a place for reflection and to identify areas for future growth or change.
As you probably noticed, the steps of SMART are all interconnected and so you may need to revise certain aspects as you go along. For some of you it might come naturally to be very specific from the beginning, while others of you might only discover your goal a few steps down the line. You could be overconfident in your predictions and only realise after a few months of training that you aimed too high, or perhaps you were too conservative and the setbacks you anticipated never materialised. Whatever adjustments are needed though, it’s fine. This is your goal, and you can rerun the process until you are confident in achieving and proud of the target you have set. So just take the plunge and start planning your journey to achieve something of which you’ve always dreamed.
Photo: Zac Zin / UTD