The Gift Of Goal Setting

A look at the process and benefits of goal setting for running.

By on January 4, 2017 | Comments

We’re four days into the new year and you’ve probably come across at least half a dozen articles on resolutions and goal setting to go along with countless mentions by individuals on social media. There’s a reason for this. At least half of this combination really works for running goals, at least for me.

While admittedly a semantic distinction, I view a resolution in line of the dictionary definition “a firm decision to do or not to do something.” You’re in or you’re out, come hell or high water. The same dictionary might define a goal as “the object of a person’s ambition or effort.” You aim for something and work toward it.

The resolution bit? It most certainly works for a small cadre of folks whose mental wiring flourishes on an all-or-nothing approach. Perhaps, they can ride the all-in wave for long enough to change actual habit. (Some say such pattern shifts cans happen in 21 to 30 days.) Good for them! Three cheers, as well, for those who recognize they need to make a resolution to alter some sort of life-crushing situation, but those aren’t the sort of resolutions most folks are considering come the new year. For the rest of us, being ‘resolute’ can feel too stiff. If we falter, we fail, and the time we adhered to the resolution may be seen as a waste. That’s defeating.

Although I may be skeptical of resolutions as a means for meaningful change for the masses, goals have really come to grow on me. While out on my last run of 2016, I reflected on having failed to meet both my primary running goal for the year as well as each of a few secondary running goals. At first I thought, despite failing to meet all those goals, I had what I’d consider a good year of running. It didn’t take long to realize that, more likely, it was because of these goals that I had a good running year, even if I failed to hit them.

For instance, one of my secondary running goals from last year was to run sub-30 hours at Hardrock. That didn’t happen. However, that goal had me training with great consistency last winter, encouraged me to log a couple incredible weeks in May and June, and, come mid-July, had me in possibly my best ultrarunning fitness ever and, without a doubt, in the best-ever mountain-specific fitness. Coming out of my off season and back into routine running these past two months, many of those gains remain with me today and have me extremely eager for 2017!

It was only a few hours into the new year that I came across the following from Harvard professor emeritus and Pulitzer-Prize winner Edward O. Wilson, “[XX] is a goal—and people understand and appreciate goals. They need a victory, not just news that progress is being made. It is human nature to yearn for finality, something achieved by which their anxiety and fears are put to rest…. It is our nature to choose large goals that, while difficult, are potentially game changing and universal in benefit.”

I have a slight discontinuity with the above statement that comes from its goal being aimed at a society-wide issue, specifically biodiversity loss, rather than a wholly personal goal. In the latter case, I do think individuals are motivated by progress, when a concrete goal is in mind. At least I am. On the other hand, just making progress for progress’s sake, that can work sometimes, but it is prone to intermittent failure, from which reengagement is less likely unless there’s a finite goal.

What’s more, having an audacious goal can be much more motivational than a conservative one. The latter feels more like a pledge. For example, if were to tell myself that I’d run 1,800 miles in 2017, that would not get me out the door for a single run considering I’ve run 500 to 700 more miles in each of the past two years and 2,000 miles seems like a baseline for my running through the decades. On the other hand, if I shoot for 2,500 miles in 2017, that’d be more than I ran in either of the past two years (which I consider solid years) and more than I’ve run in a long time… maybe ever. Now, I hope I wouldn’t think about this daily or even weekly, but, at least for me, it would a helpful and motivating reminder to be consistent, to stay healthy, to not overtrain in the short term, etc.

Setting Goals

Now, this is a website and a column focused on running, but I’m going to zoom out here for a bit. We only have so much time, energy, money, motivation, and so on and have to divvy those resources up across our entire lives. As such, I go about my annual goal setting across my entire life all at once. Specifically, at the end of every year, I sit down with the Dreamlining Worksheet taken from Tim Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Work Week. (Note: For this exercise, you can ignore the cost/expense aspects found on the sheet.) On it, I quickly daydream approximately five things I’d like to have, five things I’d like to be, and five things I’d like to do over the coming 12 months. I then go on to star three to five of these items. These are the goals I focus on for the coming year and, indeed, often subsequent years, as well. Likewise, unstarred goals remain in the background and, if they’re accomplished without being a focus, that feels good nonetheless!

Still, it’s those three to five primary goals that I find I can consciously work on and work toward throughout the year. I don’t think about them everyday, but they’re back there in my mind. I also do pick up the handwritten sheet (or sheets, if I include previous years) to remind myself of what I’m working toward in a given year.

Whether written as part of an initial written goal or later developed in one’s mind, it’s important to develop the steps, the very actions that must be taken to reach ones goals. Building Rome isn’t going to happen unless you buy some marble blocks and hirer some engineers. I dive into a personal example of developing these intermediate steps toward a goal in the next section.

My 2017 Running Goals

In my dreamlining session last week, I ended up starring two running-related goals for 2017.

The first is quite amorphous on its face: Be a better runner. That’s ‘nice,’ but nebulous. Fortunately, it’s followed by the parenthetical (2,500 miles, 10 20-plus mile runs before summer, some ‘workouts’). As I reflect further about my year to come, I’ll surely come up with additional concrete aspects to flesh out a plan and act as more structured sub-goals. In the meantime, that 2,500-mile goal will have me aiming for steady, consistent running through the winter with an eye on running throughout the year; I hope that the long-run goal will get me out the door for at least two or three 20-plus milers before running the Moab Red Hot 33k in mid-February; and, hopefully, I can overcome my apprehension about injury and dip my toes back into the speedwork realm this month.

My second running goal for 2017 is more audacious: run sub-19 hours at Leadville. Okay, it’s out there. It’s near the fringes of what I think my maximum ability is having run 20:42 and 19:54 a while back. This is a goal that I’ve long thought possible, but improbable. It will make me refocus on running after a few years of training for Hardrock, which included lots of hiking at the forefront of my training. It will make me reevaluate my work and my travel with an eye toward more consistent training through the first seven months of the year. (No 113-mile March this year!) It will help me stay focused on keeping my Achilles and lower legs functional in the face of chronic tightness. I will have to either redevelop a long-race nutrition plan or gain confidence that my current approach will work well enough at Leadville after a couple rough goes stomach-wise in 100 milers the past few years. I will have to hone my drive and competitiveness (inward focused) to push those final 25 miles. All in all, one goal will help me work on improving many aspects of my running… whether or not I actually achieve it!

(This latter goal is entirely dependent on my getting into Leadville. With that in mind, I do have an additional race-focused goal written down, but it’s one or the other, so I’ll keep it under my hat for the moment.)

Ps. Starting and sticking with this column was one of my secondary (or at least non-starred) goals for 2016. Mission accomplished!

Call for Comments

  • Have you found goal setting beneficial? If so, how do you go about it?
  • What goals did you accomplish (or not) in 2016?
  • What goals have you set out for 2017 and what’s your plan for achieving them?
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Bryon Powell

Bryon Powell is the Founding Editor of iRunFar. He’s been writing about trail running, ultrarunning, and running gear for more than 15 years. Aside from iRunFar, he’s authored the books Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, been a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine, written for publications including Outside, Sierra, and Running Times, and coached ultrarunners of all abilities. Based in Silverton, Colorado, Bryon is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner who competes in events from the Hardrock 100 Mile just out his front door to races long and short around the world, that is, when he’s not fly fishing or tending to his garden.