10 Guidelines for Effective Goal Setting

Monday, January 9, 2012 | By Adam Hodges, Ph.D.
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“The longest journey begins with a single step.”
—Lao Tzu

Whether we make formal New Year's resolutions or not, most of us find the beginning of the new year to be a time of reflection about what has passed and what we want to achieve now that we have a "fresh start". It's a time of setting goals and for athletes, many of these goals relate to training and racing. When properly implemented, goal-setting can play a key role in helping an athlete achieve desired results. Here are ten guidelines to help you set goals more effectively.

1. Set long-term, intermediate, and short-term goals.

Think of the goal setting process like climbing a mountain. Your ultimate goal may be the summit (long-term goal); but to reach the summit, you need to break the climb into segments (intermediate goals) and divide those segments into individual steps (short-term goals).

2. Keep records and evaluate progress.

Write down your goals and schedule dates for their evaluation. (TrainingPeaks can enable you to do this online through the Annual Training Plan - you can enter in season goals and annual training objectives). Feedback, whether through self-reflection or from another source such as a coach or training buddy, is an essential component of the goal setting process. The feedback you gain along the way will allow you to readjust your short-term and intermediate goals to stay on course for the long-term ones.

3. Set goals for both training and racing. Goals are not just for races.

It is equally important to include goals in your training as it is to have goals in your racing. Benchmark goals can help you monitor your progress on a regular basis, and daily or weekly training goals can help you stay focused on the training objectives of the moment.

4. Set goals that are difficult yet realistic.

Goals should be challenging. After all, if you can easily do something, there's little need to make it a goal. Yet goals also need to be grounded in reality. Goals too far removed from an honest assessment of one's abilities can be discouraging in the long run. Goals should keep you motivated. They should challenge you to step up to that next level of performance. You may not always reach a particular goal, but that's part of the process. It's better to reach high and progress than to aim low and never really test your capabilities. The most motivating goals challenge you without defeating you.

5. Devise goals that are specific.

Specific goals, rather than vague ones, will provide precision to your training program. Instead of saying, “I want to improve my marathon time” (vague), specify, “I want to qualify for the Boston Marathon next year” (specific).

6. Devise goals that are measurable.

Devising goals that are specific goes hand in hand with devising goals that are measurable. If you want to qualify for the Boston Marathon, for example, that can be measured—namely, you can compare your race times to qualifying times. Measurable goals often involve time targets, e.g. “I want to run a sub-3:40 marathon.”

7. State goals in the positive.

Keep your eyes on where you want to go rather than where you don’t want to go. Instead of saying, “I don't want to run slower than 40 minutes in the Memorial Day 10K” (negative), state, “I want to break 40 minutes for the Memorial Day 10K” (positive).

8. Keep goals under your control.

As much as possible, set goals that you have control over. This means focusing more on performance- and process-related goals than outcome-related goals. Performance goals have to do with achieving a certain time (e.g., breaking 10 hours in the Ironman, running a 40-minute 10K). Process goals have to do with how you compete (e.g., keep my cadence high during the last half of my IM run). Outcome goals have to do with placement in a race (e.g., finishing on the podium). While outcome goals provide long-term motivation and many long-term goals take this form, performance and process goals help us focus on what we need to do in the intermediate and short-term, such as in the moment of the race.

9. Own your goals.

Devise and write down goals that are agreeable to you, that you will commit to, and that you are willing to accept as your own. After all, these are your goals and should represent what you want to achieve, not what you think others want you to accomplish.

10. Involve a support system.

Let supporters like friends, family, and training partners know what your goals are so that they can help you stay accountable to those goals and provide encouragement along the way.

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