Goal Setting

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Sgt. Jerrod Fields (US Army) works out at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. A below-the-knee amputee, Fields won a gold medal in the 100 meters with a time of 12.15 seconds at the Endeavor Games in Edmond, Okla., on June 13. Photo by familymwr.

Setting goals can be valuable for runners, but it can also be destructive. Having a goal can give us Motivation to achieve more and to achieve the right things. However, there's a dark side to goals, as we tend to focus on achieving the goal, rather than the underlying objective. For instance, having an annual distance goal can inspire us to run more, but it can also lead to less recovery days and more Toxic Miles. A goal can also be corrosive if it becomes unobtainable, leading to discouragement. So, I'll look at some of the options for what metrics to use as goals, the time frame for the goals, and how to review them.

1 S.M.A.R.T. Goals

There's plenty writing about having goals that are SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely), so I won't repeat much here other than to say to do a web search for "SMART goal setting".

2 The "Why" of Goal Setting

Before you consider what goals to set, it's important to work out why you're setting goals. While a goal should be SMART, a rationale is more general and higher level. It's frequently not measurable and it may not be realistic, but it's something you're striving for. Trying to be a better runner is a rationale, but it's rather vague and doesn't give much direction. A better rationale would be to improve speed or endurance, or to complete a race. It might be to run your first 5K, qualify for the Boston Marathon, run 100-mile race, or get a Strava segment crown. (A rationale of improving your health or losing weight could inform your goals, but it can be tricky to work out the best approach.)

3 Metrics

There are lots of metrics you can use for running, and most of them have pros and cons. Here's a selection for your consideration.

  • Volume. This is the classic running goal, of "run X distance this year", and while it's normally distance, it can also be time. It's a rough measure of training load, and it's easily comparable between runners. It doesn't allow for different intensities of running, so that hard interval session and that easy run could add the same distance. It doesn't allow for elevation change, so hilly running counts the same as the flat. (Running streaks, where you run every day, are a type of volume goal, but one I fear tends to lead to more Toxic Miles and can prevent appropriate rehab from injuries.)
  • Race Times. By focusing on better race times, we can measure real world fitness, which makes this seem like a great goal. This can work well if you're doing a 5K Parkrun every week or so, but it's less effective for longer distances or less frequent racing. The biggest problem is that it's a goal that measures achievement, but doesn't measure training very well, so it doesn't direct your training plan.
  • Elevation. If you live somewhere hilly, elevation can be a good goal in addition to distance. Most of the issues with a distance goal applies to elevation as well.
  • Grade Adjusted Distance. This combines distance and elevation to give a compound goal, overcoming the issue of hilly and flat running. However, it doesn't cover intensity and it can also inspire more Toxic Miles.
  • Intensity. A goal of a specific volume of high intensity training can counterbalance the volume goals like distance. If you have a good heart rate monitor, then time in various heart rate zones can work well. Unfortunately, I've found that a single session of bad heart rate data can overwhelm the good data, so the monitor must be good and/or you have to be willing to prune the data. (Knowing your Maximum Heart Rate is critical, and you may need to adjust it with fitness changes.) If you have a Stryd Footpod, then using Running Power can be an alternative to heart rate. The two measure slightly different things, as very short intervals can produce a lot of power without a sustained high heart rate, and a 3AOT can produce a sustained high heart rate without high power output. A simpler alternative is to set a goal of a given number of higher intensity workouts per week. I don't like that approach as it gives no sense of the overall load, as a simple Fartlek session becomes the same as a mammoth Medium Intensity High Volume Intervals session.
  • Endurance. Measuring endurance is trickier and should focus on the longer runs. For instance, running 21 miles three times in a week is likely to be dramatically different to running 9 miles a day. You could have a goal of running a specific number of runs over a given distance, such as "25+ runs over 20 miles". This is nice and simple but doesn't reflect the benefit of longer runs. A more complex approach would be a total of "500+ miles of runs over 20 miles", which would ignore anything shorter. (This is better but doesn't allow for the increase in difficulty as the distance increases. A 25-mile run is more than 25% harder than a 20-mile run. Some type of exponential weighting is left as an exercise for the reader.)
  • DOMS. Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness might seem out of place in a goals section, but the stress of DOMS is a key aspect of endurance training. Having a goal for DOMS training would focus on downhill running but would also allow for some DOMS stress on the flat. I'm not sure of the details, but it seems like the vertical oscillation of the body on the flat, which is greater downhill, would be a useful metric. You could estimate how far the body has dropped for each run and sum it up. (There's an interaction with downhill speed, where going faster produces more DOMS, but it's not clear to me how to incorporate that.)
  • Eddington Number. While the Eddington number is typically used for cycling, it can equally be used for running. It's defined as "the maximum number E where you've run at least E miles on at least E days." It gives an idea of endurance but has a "cliff edge problem"; if you've run exactly 25 miles on 25 days, to get to the next number you must start again with 26 mile runs. (The Eddington number can be used in Km, and with Grade Adjusted Distance.
  • Rest Days. Instead of focusing on the training, it can be useful to set a goal for the number of rest days you take. You could define a rest day as no exercise, as no running, or running less than a given distance at an easy pace.
  • Training Monotony. A goal of keeping your training monotony low would help keep your training and recovery in balance. This metric is calculated by runalyze.com, but you could calculate it yourself with a spreadsheet, as it's simply the average training load divided by the variation in training load (standard deviation.) You could have a goal of keeping your average training monotony under a specific number or having it below a specific number for a specific number of days.
  • Rehab/Prehab. In addition to obviously running focused goals, including rehab or prehab as explicit goals may be valuable. Building up strength for stability muscles or overcoming limited range of motion may be just as important as a volume goal. You could either set a goal for number of sessions per week, or a change in a particular strength/range of motion. (Sessions per week goals lend themselves to habit tracking apps like coach.me).

4 Time Frame for Goals

There is a tendency for runners to set goals for a calendar year, which isn't a great period. It's very long, and only has one review/reset point. It can be divided into monthly goals, which improves things, but not all months are the same length. A better approach is to use a rolling 30 day and rolling year to set, measure, and review goals.

5 Reviewing Progress

It's easy to set goals and then forget about them. To make review easy, you should look for an approach that automates the calculation of your progress, and ideally notifies you regularly. Strava has some goal tracking built in, as do other platforms. Having your goals public, along with your progress can provide greater incentives and support.

6 Coaching and Goals

A benefit of a personal coach can be help in setting goals and maintaining accountability. A lot depends on your personality and approach to running, as some runners benefit from a coach where others find it frustrating. If you're looking for a coach, then discussing their approach to goal setting can be a useful way of understanding their coaching style.

7 Success, Failure, and Reset

Injury and life get in the way of running, so coming to terms with changes that make your goals unreachable is worth thinking about beforehand. Likewise, exceeding your goals can lead to a "what now" moment that's best planned for ahead of time. Having calendar year goals makes success and failure conditions harder to cope with. If you have a rolling 30-day and 12-month goals, it should be easier to reset the goals if you're doing better or worse than expected. It can be that you just need to tweak your existing goals, such as increasing or decreasing by X% is all that's required. On the other hand, if you have an injury, your goals may have to change dramatically to focus on rehab and return to training.

8 Importance and Measurability

As Elliot Eisner said, "Not everything important is measurable, and not everything measurable is important." Some things, such as having fun on a run, or getting into the zone (flow state) can't easily be measured, they are important.