As we start a new year, it’s natural to take time to reflect on the year we leave behind. In 2016 I was left heartbroken; I was one of three Canadian women to qualify for the Olympics in the 5,000m, but Canada elected to take only two of us, leaving me at home, with no one competing in my place. While I was pleased with my personal athletic achievements, I finished 2016 with something to prove and big goals for 2017. The first was to run a competitive half marathon – which I did in the New York Half Marathon in March, in a time of 72:07. The second was to qualify for the 10,000m at the IAAF World Championships in London England, which I did in June by running a personal best of 32:07.94 and the third was to compete well while there – I came in ranked 29, and placed 20th in another personal best of 32:00.03.
Coming off a successful summer season there’s less of a fire under me than in 2016. As a result, my training over the past few months has suffered slightly from less decisive goal setting in the fall. So, as we approached the traditional New Year, I revisited my process for goal setting as others might be considering their own New Year's resolutions.
I approached my goal setting with the following five principles in mind:
(1) Take a measure of where you are at (process):
It’s impossible to reach new goals without understanding where your starting point is. Each year an athlete's performance has areas that went well and others that need improvement. It’s important to identify both so that you don’t lose touch with what worked while trying to grow from your mistakes. Consider your pervious year or season and write down 3-4 things that went well and 2-3 areas that need improvement. It’s not realistic to address more than this in just a year. Keep notes so you can revisit as time goes on.
(2) Understand the difference between outcome and process goals:
Outcome goals are achievement-oriented (i.e. run a given time, make a team) so are easy to measure, but are challenging, in that they can be impacted by things beyond your control. In contrast, process goals (i.e. increasing your running mileage in a year or sleeping more) can almost always be controlled. Both are necessary. Setting outcome goals gives you the motivation and focus to achieve your process goals. And achieving those process goals will pave the path towards your desired outcome goal.
(3) Keep your eyes on your long term goal (outcome)
This is your ultimate goal or dream, which should be “reasonably lofty.” For example: to run a marathon, even if it’s years out. My ultimate goal is to make the Olympics in 2020. Every goal I approach between now and then is essentially a sub-goal within this overall process. That’s not to say that the shorter-term annual goals aren’t important – life happens when you’re making plans – it’s more a reminder to be patient, and when there are setbacks, to focus on the big picture.
(4) Set medium-term goals (outcome)
These are your big annual goals. It’s important that these goals are measurable (run this time, at this race, or qualify for this team/event), but flexible. You can set an A+ goal for a best-case scenario where everything within and outside of your control works perfectly, but note that such goals are almost never achieved – I can only think of two times where I reached my A+ goal on the day. Also set an A goal, which is a more realistic scenario, but expect to hit this goal less than 50% of the time. Finally, set a B goal representing an achievable outcome that would leave you satisfied, but aware of areas to improve on. As a word of caution: Annual goals may feel far away, but will creep up quickly without a well thought out plan!
(5) Set short term goals (process)
Now the fun part begins! If you’re fortunate to work with a coach, then they may do most of the hard mapping for you, but it’s still important to be self-aware. In my case, my coach does the backbone work of designing the training and detailing the zones and paces I should aim to hit, but I try to re-visit my list of previous success and mishaps (step 1) frequently so can I approach my training with integrity and focus. I also try to set one weekly training-goal (at minimum, to accomplish my assigned training), and two to three daily non-training goals, such as consuming a recovery drink after a hard session, going to bed before 11:00, staying hydrated, or doing physio drills.
Goal setting is not about writing a few things down in a journal and putting it in a drawer. Your goals should be revisited frequently and considered as part of your training regime. Days of effective and well-planned training string into weeks, and weeks into months, so before you know it, you'll be well on your way to reaching your long-term goals!