Setting Race Goals: Is Shooting for a Time Goal Preventing You From Running Faster?
One of the most difficult aspects of being a running coach is helping athletes set realistic goals. No one wants to be the person that tells a fellow runner their dream of qualifying for Boston probably won’t happen, or that they can’t return from an injury quick enough to run their goal race. Perhaps it’s a problem unique to my personality, since I believe in having stretch goals and that no runner ever really knows the limits of their potential until they try.
However, it is a reality that to be successful and happy in running, you need to have realistic expectations for your improvement and performance curve. The potential downside of having out of reach goals is that you train too hard, push your body before it’s ready, and lose motivation with your lack of progress.
As such, I caution runners against focusing their training on a goal time or a specific performance objective. That’s not to say you can’t have a particular time goal or performance in mind. Rather, it means that your training for that goal should be focused on the process of taking the next logical step to get fitter each day, week and month of the training cycle.
The subtle difference between training for a specific goal and training to improve while still having goals can often be a difficult concept for runners to comprehend. In this article, I am going to explain the idea in more depth and help you shift your goal setting and training mindset to stay injury-free and improve consistently.
How should you approach your performance goals?
In my opinion, training for a specific goal often results in injury, overtraining and frustration. Instead of listening to how the body responds to training and increasing pace or volume only when it’s ready, runners who train to a specific goal attempt to push on to faster paces and increased training volume without regard to the data and feedback their body provides. The result is inconsistent training and stagnant results. So, how should you approach your training and goal-setting? By focusing on the process.
Many runners have heard the phrase “focus on the process”, but what does it really mean? The idea of focusing on the process means concentrating on the steps you need to take to improve each day (the process) as opposed to focusing on the actual goal itself. While the difference between the two is subtle, it has important consequences. To highlight the distinction, let’s use the story of two runners who have the same goal, yet one focuses on “the process” while the other trains to a specific goal:
Training to your current fitness level
Let’s assume we have two runners who have a goal of qualifying for the Boston Marathon and need to improve their time by 35 minutes at their next race to do so.
Runner 1: Training to current fitness level
At the start of the training phase, athlete 1 assess her fitness and determines she’s currently at a fitness level 35 minutes slower than her goal time. She sets up her training schedule so that her mileage, long runs, and workouts are consistent with the volumes and speeds she’s been training at. After four weeks of hard, yet controlled workouts, she does a tune-up 10k. She runs well and her “estimated” marathon time is now 30 minutes closer to her goal. Each week thereafter, she cautiously increases her training paces when her workouts and tune-up races indicate she’s ready. She follows this plan, always keeping her training within her current fitness level. When race day approaches, she’s fit, healthy and runs a great race, recording a personal best by 20 minutes, but still shy of her Boston Qualifying goal. She takes the proper recovery time and then starts the cycle over. This time, her fitness starts a little higher and when race day approaches, she nails her goal time and achieves her Boston Qualifier.
Runner 2: Training to hit goal
Our second athlete is more aggressive and decides she’s going to “do whatever it takes” to qualify for Boston. She starts her segment and begins to push her easy and long run pace to get it closer to the times she’ll need to run in the marathon. On workout days, she pushes the envelope when she feels good and finishes each workout exhausted. The first few weeks of this plan go ok and after a 10k tune-up race, she realizes she’s only 25 minutes from her goal time. So, she starts doing her long runs with the faster group in her running club. All goes great until her IT band starts bothering her. After a few days of limping through runs she goes to a physical therapist and is told to take a week off. Reluctantly, she takes the needed rest. When she returns to training, she feels good but realizes she’s now a week behind in her training schedule and it’s crunch time if she’s going to hit her goal. So, she jumps right back into the hard workouts and long runs. Two weeks later, she starts to feel her achilles tug. Once again, a visit to the therapist confirms she needs to take a week off. This process repeats itself until race day, where she valiantly attempts to run the race but due to lack of consistent training, runs 40 minutes slower than her goal time. Once she recovers from the race, she repeats the cycle and unfortunately never runs much faster than her current personal best.
While these two examples might seem extreme, after working with literally thousands of athletes, I can assure you that most runners fall into the second category and the story isn’t that out of line with what actually happens.
Take the next logical step in your development
The second component of “focusing on the process” is what I consider to be taking the next logical step in your development. This step is related to training to your current fitness level, but is more focused on how you build your mileage, long run, and workout volumes.
This best example of this process is when coming back from an injury. Many runners who have to take a week or two off to heal from an injury immediately return to hard training in an attempt to still hit their goal time. They’ll take the risk of getting injured again if it means they can regain their fitness faster. The problem with this approach is that it often leads to subsequent injuries. Not only do they not hit their goal time, but now they are hurt again.
The better approach is to put your race goals on the backburner and focus on taking the next logical step in your fitness and training each week. Increase your volume only as much as your body is ready to handle and train to your current fitness level, not where you were or where you want to be on race day. Sure, maybe this logical progression doesn’t progress you fast enough to hit your goal on race day. However, you’ll have months of consistent training behind you and, most importantly, you’ll be healthy and ready to keep training hard for the next race. Unless you know when the next Mayan prediction for the world ending is, this won’t be the last race you run.
Keep this concept in mind when setting your goals for this summer or fall racing season. Train to your current fitness, always take the next logical step in your development, and keep your focus on the process. You’ll train more consistently, stay healthy, and make progress week after week, month after month.