In my Sports Psychology class at UVM this fall, we were able to choose a topic for a research project on goal setting. Of course, I jumped at the chance to do this for senior runners! And for this post, I’m drawing from my project write-up.
Goal setting theory (GST) is used to improve performance in many endeavors. In sport, GST has been applied to both teams and individuals, with clear links to building skills and task achievement. Goals have been broadly grouped as subjective or objective. Subjective goals could include “I want to keep running” while an objective goal might be “I want to run competitively until age 80 and maintain a 70% age-grade standard”. Objective goals can be subdivided into process, performance, and outcome goals. In sport, objective goals should be: (1) moderately difficult to achieve; (2) both short and long term; (3) specific; (4) feedback looped. An oft-used acronym to critique goals is SMART, which stands for Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, and Timebound.
It’s no secret we senior runners encounter constraints not faced by younger runners. These include various physiological changes that begin to appear in our 30s but accelerate with aging. These include changes in: (1) Muscle and muscle fiber: we lose muscle mass and strength as well as motor neurons, which form the nerve network; (2) Hormones: decreased growth hormone, testosterone, estrogen, and epinephrine affect our bodies’ ability to repair, maintain bone density, and accelerate blood flow; (3) Oxygen delivery: A decline in V02max and our ability to absorb oxygen leave muscles starved for oxygen, causing us to fatigue more easily.
We probably don’t need or want to be reminded of these changes! However, putting them out of mind can result in unrealistic goals, which might not only be missed but also lead to injury. Maybe this accounts for, in part, roughly three-fourths of us who raced at age 30 dropping out by 60. Cumulative injuries and chronic illness contribute to this, for sure, but for many of us, we lose motivation not being able to adjust to slower times.
If we’re going to set goals, we need to define “performance.” Fortunately, we have a readily available standard with age-grading tables, maintained by World Masters Athletics (WMA) and updated every five years: https://usatfmasters.org/age-grading/. We see many races now providing race results using these tables as well as actual net time. These tables are based on world-best times for each age and are statistically adjusted for outliers. A race time for a particular distance, gender, and age is converted to a percentage. Overall, a 60% AG% captures about 25% of runners in a typical large regional race. The beauty of this system is each runner decides what his/her targeted performance standard is in setting their goals. Informed by prior results, the strength of this system is it’s age adjusted. For example, a 50-year-old male running a 21:04 5K would achieve a 70% AG%, whereas that same runner at age 65 running a 23:47 5K would maintain his 70% AG%. Thus, age-grading works well for performance goals.
My paper presented seven goals for a “typical” senior runner: four process goals, two performance goals; one outcome goal. The presumed subject was a runner in New England who is healthy, who races 15-18 times a year, and participates in the USA Track and Field – New England Grand Prix series. These goals would be developed with significant input from the athlete, with dialog about the feasibility of such goals and the effort needed to meet them.
- Train six days a week. Determine time of day that can be consistently followed, based on the athlete’s work schedule and other commitments.
- Four days of run training each week averaging 30-35 miles per week. After each run allow time for stretching. Include variations in speed and distance. Overtraining is a mistake made by many senior runners, either in number of days or mileage.
- Perform alternative aerobic exercises (e.g., elliptical, deep water running, StairMaster) on non-running days that simulate, in part, the running motion.
- Include strength-training targeting all major muscle groups three days a week, in particular focus on the core and lower extremity.
- Run 15 to 18 races ranging from 5K to half marathon distance in next 12 months, including six races in the USATF-New England Grand Prix Series (GP Series). Racing is best spread out over the year, with two or three peaks reached for key races.
- Attain a desired age-grade percentage standard in 10 of these races. Whatever percentage is selected, it should require the athlete to “put the hammer down” in a majority of their races.
- Finish in the top three (or whatever is feasible) in the athlete’s age grouping in the 2022 USATF-NE Grand Prix Series. Account for runners who are “aging-into” their age-class.
In that the senior runner is more likely than a younger person to encounter interruptions in their training due to injury, it is paramount to take a periodic look, as often as once a month, at progress made and make adjustments, as needed. This is especially true of goals #2, #5, #6, and #7. Goals must be attainable. Once a runner is not confident they can reach current goals, they are more likely to lose interest in trying to attain them.
The paper assessed the seven goals using SMART criteria. They are all specific; each is measurable; given the athlete is presently healthy, these goals are actionable; they are realistic assuming the runner in the prior year ran no more than 20% fewer days and miles; finally, all seven goals are timebound, in part due to them being cast in a yearly training plan. The importance of a training log cannot be overemphasized as that is the book of record of training activity, not only for the goal year but also for purposes of reviewing progress or lack of it in prior and subsequent years.
Setting training and racing goals is both an art and a science. It is a skill that can be learned and refined with experience. Enjoy setting your goals and putting in the effort to meet them!