There is plenty of scientific evidence to support the notion we do best when we have a goal. This seems to hold for all elements of human endeavor in such varying activities as sports – achieving a time or score, or in the arts – completing a written or visual piece of work every two weeks, month, or what may be appropriate. Whatever, the key is focusing on the end result, not the process. If the end is clearly in mind, the steps to get there become apparent.
A key question, then, is where to set the bar. Research suggests that if it is set too high or too low one defeats the purpose of setting the goal: to maximize output or potential. Running is a perfect example for exploring this phenomenon. Let’s look at two common scenarios: (1) setting annual race time targets; (2) returning from injury.
Many runners sit down at the start of the year and map out a tentative race schedule. This may be driven by a club or series schedule, races in a particular location or time of year, or ones that have been enjoyable in the past. For recreational runners, this mapping typically includes various distances and hopefully leaves sufficient time to allow for recovery.
The art in establishing these targets is where to set the bar. An analogy is the high jump. If a high school senior as a junior cleared 5.0 feet, would it make sense to have a goal of 6.0 feet? Maybe, if the prior year was their first year, they have grown 3-4 inches, or done specific strength work. More likely they are setting themselves up for failure. They could go through the season frustrated and feel the 5′ 6″ mark they do achieve was a poor effort. Consider instead if they set a goal of 5’4″, a solid 7% increase. Then the 5’6″ jump, a 10% increase, would be a cause for celebration. This simplistic example suggests setting attainable goals. To do this, we need to honestly assess ourselves and the constraints facing us, such as time limits to train.
Let’s look at masters runners. It’s common to feel we “coulda-done-better” had race conditions been favorable, we optimally tapered, or had not been coming off an injury. Any or all might be true. But if we hold those things constant, we are still a year older and a visit to the 2020 age grade tables (www.howardgrubb.co.uk) will tell us how much we might expect to lose in speed for any given distance. Taking that into account, we do need to consider weather, tapering, injury, etc. as we put pencil to target times.
This is essentially a Goldilocks exercise: enough of a challenge but not too much. Many runners say, “I’ll just let it happen.” And while that may work for some, it is unlikely they will achieve their optimal time. Goal setting is powerful stuff! Done right, it leads to a sense of personal satisfaction, which bleeds over into other areas of life. Done wrong, it can leave us essentially walking on the treadmill when we intended to run or setting the level so high that we are forced to reduce the speed and feel deflated. Neither is a good result.
Returning from injury involves a host of issues including the type and extent of injury, the amount of time off, and our age. If we needed to take six months off, we clearly cannot expect to bounce back in a month. Trying to do so often leads to re-injury and a repeating cycle. A goal can also speed up recovery. When I was 64 I had a prostatectomy. As I was going under, my last thought was I was going to run the 5-mile Race Against Cancer seven weeks later. My surgeon was a runner and understood my mindset. He cleared me to run after four weeks and I ran that race in a credible time and had a strong season of racing.
There is plenty of gray area in this topic of goal setting. But it should be done thoughtfully and for running, reviewed throughout the year. Things do happen and we’re foolish if we don’t acknowledge that. But setting the bar too low can lead to a so-so racing experience, which can then lead to a further decline in speed. Too high and we don’t enjoy the racing when we’re always falling short. As with all things balance. Goldilocks!