Some thoughts on goal setting, when the goal posts keep shifting

Yarra Bend trails

Yarra Bend trails. Photo by Matt Crehan.

Let’s not beat around the bush, 2020 was a prick of a year. We all know this, there’s no need to go on about it. But we also liked to label it as that – 2020. It was supposed to end on December 31st. It wasn’t supposed to be the start of a frustrating period with no known finish line.

Indeed, 2021 showed some promise for a while. Lockdowns ended. State borders opened. And from a trail running point of view, races started coming back (albeit a little different, with “COVIDsafe” protocols in place).

With Australia being somewhat isolated from the rest of the world, we were able to think that we could live in a COVID-free utopia, but that was never going to last.

Once again, COVID is back, and lockdowns and cancelled events have left us with the familiar frustration we felt in the year we were hoping to forget.

For many, the frustration runs deeper when we look overseas and see events like the recent UTMB that recently took place in Europe. It may seem like Europe is so far ahead of us in terms of opening up. But we have to remember that many countries paid a heavy price to be where they are now. Which means for now (although hopefully not for too much longer), we are stuck with our lockdowns.

So, what can we – as runners – do to stay motivated? Considering that the other weekend I was supposed to be lining up again for the Surf Coast Century, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts helping me get through these uneasy times.

Pic: Matt Crehan running with the doggos on Mt Tarrengower, Central Victoria, earlier this year.

There is a lot of content out there on goal setting, and I’m not going to pretend I’m an expert on it. But one method of goal setting that works for me is the concept of SMART goals. It is a structured approach that helps you come up with concrete goals that aren’t too “wishy-washy”. I find it helps me narrow down my pathway toward achieving them. Basically (and this is really simplifying and summarising here), SMART goals need to be...

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

Let’s look at it from a running perspective.

Specific might be a certain race – maybe you’re stepping up to a distance you haven’t run before.

Measurable might be a time goal (although I wouldn’t suggest this if you’re also stepping up the distance for the first time).

Achievable: You’re probably not going to break two hours in the marathon – don’t set yourself up to fail.

Relevant: How does this race fit into your overall running career goals? (Remember, we often over-estimate what we can achieve in the short term, and under-estimate what we can achieve in the long term).

And, finally, Time-bound: Well, this one’s easy right? Put race day in your calendar and work back from there. Job done. But, what happens when this race gets cancelled or rescheduled?

This is when the solid structure of our goal that provided us with a plan and all that certainty can come undone, and why maybe we need to consider broadening our goals. Or at least being a bit more dynamic with them.

Maybe the race is just put back a month, or six weeks, as is the case with Surf Coast Century. In which case, no big deal, that just gives us a bit more time to train, right?

But if you’ve been really focusing your training block on a specific timeline, this can be problematic. Or, what if during that month you are in lockdown and can’t do the training you’d like to?

Maybe, what we need to do is rethink the whole concept of our goals. Leaving them too specific leaves us open to disappointment when they are subject to the whims of our uncertain times.

I’m not suggesting we give up on our goals altogether – they can provide so much in keeping us the right head space while life may seem to be trying its hardest to destabilise us. But maybe our goals need to shift a little – perhaps focusing on intermediate goals, ultimately leading towards a big one.

For example, try setting yourself regular time trials. Not every week, but with enough frequency that you can see yourself improving over time. These little wins will go a long way to keeping you motivated through what may seem like a never-ending lockdown.

Or, alternatively, instead of “chasing kilometres”, try not focusing on the numbers whatsoever. This does not mean giving up on your goal. It can be quite liberating to run because you want to, rather than feeling like you have to hit certain targets.

There is certainly no one-size-fits-all when it comes to running motivation. The bottom line is, it can be helpful if your goals are resilient enough to accommodate change. Otherwise, what was once motivating could have the opposite effect when things start to unravel.

That’s why there needs to be underlying joy in the process. Otherwise, the speed humps we face along the way may be enough for us to give up. What’s the point in training so hard if we don’t get to race? Personally, I’m very race-motivated. I love the atmosphere of a race, lining up at the start line full of nervous anticipation of the four, six, or even 24 hours ahead. So, would I still run if races were gone altogether? Yes, absolutely. Getting out for some solo time of the trails, even urban trails, has become so much more important than ever before. If the last 18 months have taught me anything, it’s that running for running's sake needs to be the goal. Races are just the cherry on top.

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