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There is no doubt that one of the most important steps in achieving improved performance in running or any other endeavor is in setting appropriate goals.
Without putting the right thought into your goals, it can be hard to maintain motivation in the face of adversity such as minor injuries, fatigue, inclement weather, or the general time conflicts that always provide a threat to your discipline. Additionally, without defining the right goal, it is difficult, if not impossible, to select or design an appropriate training plan, filled with the right types of workouts targeting the right level of intensity, and to be able to benchmark your progress against this training plan.
The Stretch Goal
While there are plenty of posts that discuss running goals (particularly recommended is Daniel McLaughlin’s post on the importance of goal setting), this post focuses specifically on a certain type of goal – the “stretch goal”. Roughly defined, a stretch goal is one that almost exceeds the boundary of reality for the individual who sets it. It is aggressive yet, if all goes well, achievable. While originating from business settings (and defined as a goal that cannot be achieved by incremental steps), the idea, like most metrics-focused concepts, also works well for runners.
There are several reasons why a stretch goal can help you achieve new heights in your performance. First, by setting and working towards a more aggressive goal, you increase your likelihood of boosting your results considerably more than if you set a smaller, more incremental goal (even if you don’t ultimately reach the stretch goal itself). Second, having such a radical goal forces you to rethink your entire approach to training, considering new types of workouts, increasing frequency, distance, and pace, and potentially addressing other areas such as nutrition, cross- and strength-training, and other helpful ancillary activities. Finally, setting a more aggressive goal can renew your enthusiasm for your sport by allowing, even encouraging, experimentation with new training approaches.
How to set your goal
To set an appropriate stretch goal, you must start with a good baseline – preferably a couple of “representative” performances at or near the distance for which you are setting the goal. “Representative” means that you were appropriately prepared and the races were recent (perhaps within the past year). If you are setting a goal for a marathon, you don’t necessarily have to have multiple recent marathons under your belt, but there should be at least one to build on, plus perhaps a half-marathon within the past year. It would be difficult to extrapolate from a 10K performance to set an appropriate marathon goal, if that’s all you have run recently. In that case, setting a half-marathon stretch goal may be a more appropriate choice. If you are making a small extrapolation from a shorter or longer race, there are plenty of calculators available on line from the likes of Greg McMillan that can, with a mixed degree of accuracy, give a prediction on your current expected race performance.
Next, find other runners either through personal connections of the plethora of blogs or online running communities such as Dailymile who have performed at a similar level and are setting (or, better yet, have achieved) significant improvements. This may take a bit of work, but this is the best way to understand what is “realistic but aggressive”. You can also play a bit with the running calculator tools to see how, say, a 10 minute improvement in your marathon PR will translate to the training milestones you will need to achieve, which may give a better sense of the day-to-day challenge you will face.
If you don’t know where you are going, you will probably end up somewhere else.
Next, choose the event at which you will achieve this stretch goal. This is necessary both to set a deadline and to identify other hurdles you may need to overcome (training in the winter, a hill-infested race course, etc.). You should allow sufficient time for your training, of course, but not so much that you lose the sense of urgency needed to begin your training program. The longer you wait before making a commitment, the more chance you give yourself to back down from it. And your goal should be simple – one race and one time goal. Try not to dilute yourself by focusing on multiple goals (stretch or otherwise) at the same time – keep the focus on your “A” race. Feel free to use other races as training runs, but don’t “stretch” to justify your participation in a race – if it doesn’t fit, you should omit.
Finally, it should pass the sanity test. Bounce the idea off of a few closer friends, preferably with some knowledge about running. If their first reaction is “are you kidding?” but they quickly come around to “well, that will be tough, but I think you can do it,” then you have set the right goal. Remember that “reasonable” is not the objective, but “achievable” is.
The first thing you must do is forget this was a stretch goal. You need to treat it as serious and achievable; if you use wiggle-words to justify falling short in your workouts (“well, I didn’t really ‘mean’ a 3:00 marathon”, or “If I get close, that will be good enough, there will be more opportunities”), your motivation will drop considerably and you may well fall back to “incremental” improvements at best. Next, make your commitment public (one of the seven non-training related elements for delivering a successful race performance); this would include with loved ones, via social networks, or by any other means that makes you feel more committed to achieving your goal.
When you move into designing your plan, you should obviously do so based off of the stretch goal time. Build from a stock training plan or modify your own – use whatever approach works for you, but preferably starting from something proven to fit with your lifestyle and capabilities. Again, online running calculators can come in handy for this. Yes, the target times for intervals, tempo runs, or the like may look aggressive – but that was the whole point. No need to stretch the goals any further, so long as you have set an appropriate stretch.
Next, you need to begin executing the plan. Don’t worry too much if you miss the targets early – you are, after all, going to have to make significant improvements to reach your goal, and they should not be instant. Focus on the metrics as you proceed, even building spreadsheets to track your improvement in interval times, etc. – don’t rely on gut feel. You may want to reevaluate your progress and performance and the mid-point of your training cycle and consider adjusting your goal (slightly) of your training approach if warranted. And finally, after the event, you need to look back and focus on lessons learned. Whether you reached your goal or not, you can find plenty of ways to learn from a race to help improve your approach and, hopefully, your performance the next time.
By setting the right stretch goal just once, you can significantly step up your performance beyond what you may have thought possible. This will give you the confidence to do so again, building a virtuous cycle of increasing goals and more focused training. You may not wish to set a stretch goal every time (so as not to dull their significance), but doing so on a periodic basis can help you reach your maximum long-term potential.