Effective Motivation through Goal Setting

Nothing motivates a runner quite like having a goal to work towards. But how do we go about setting goals that really work for us individually, and allow us to get the best from our training?

Our goals are incredibly personal: a new runner might be focusing on running their first 5k without needing to walk, while a very experienced runner might be training for a sub-3 hour marathon.

So effective goals should of course be personal. And you may already be familiar with the concept of “SMART” objectives: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timely/Time-bound.

The essence of a SMART objective is making sure that you can achieve your goal (through hard work) and you will be able to tell when you have achieved it, at a particular date.

Best Practice Goal Setting

Personal: It is important to be committed to your goal. Ask yourself searching questions. Why do I run? What do I love about it? What will give me a great sense of satisfaction if I achieve it? What distance do I like? Do I get a buzz out of speed work? If you set a goal, simply because it is a goal that lots of people have (like running a sub 20 minute 5k) you will be less committed than if it is very specific to you and means a lot to you.

Having the end in sight: If you set a goal that is a very long way off, such as a year or more, then it will be hard to motivate yourself towards something that is so distant. Having a long term goal is fine, but you will need to set shorter term goals as milestones to guide you on your way. Typically a goal that is 3-4 months away is ideal, as you can set a sensible training program, with weekly mini targets, but retain that big motivational focus.

Visualization as a motivational tool: If you have a goal that really suits you, then visualizing achieving that goal will be a very powerful tool when you are finding your work outs tough or struggling to fit it all in one week. Go through the process of visualizing how you will feel when you achieve your goal (e.g. finishing that key race) as a test to see if it really is the right goal for you.

Not being goal-obsessed: You may have come across the phrase “focus on the process.” Although a motivational goal is key, we must not let this cloud our judgment when it comes to overtraining. As well as setting a realistic training programme, whether this is with a coach, a standard plan, or your own plan, it is essential to listen to our bodies continuously.

Feeling sluggish could mean we need to rest, feeling a niggle could mean we are at risk of injury if we don’t cut back. Keeping things in perspective can save months off with injuries. There is always next time!

Different Types of Goals

When thinking about variations on goals that you could set yourself it is really useful to consider the F.I.T.T. principle. These are the variables of fitness:

  • Frequency. Number of training sessions per week.
  • Intensity. How hard you work (e.g. speed within session).
  • Time. Duration of a session (e.g. 30 min run, or can be distance).
  • Type. Different types of sport that challenge different muscles (or speedwork vs. long distance runs etc).

To improve our overall fitness we must be progressing one of these variables within a training program. We can use this to help us to set interesting goals that motivate us, although there can be factors outside these areas that motivate us too. Here are some examples of interesting goals:

  • Do it longer (time): You’ve done a 5k now do a 10K. All very good up to the point where you have run the top distance you are interested in. Beginner runners can do this by setting a goal of being able to run non-stop for a certain amount of time, 10mins, 20mins, 30mins etc.
  • Do it faster (intensity): You are now confident over the particular distance you are interested in, but you want to go faster. Remember to pick a speed goal that is achievable. Don’t feel you have to say a popular or a round number, if you can do 5k in 25mins, then feel free to shoot for 23:30. If your goal is eluding you, set smaller sub goals, and watch your speed gradually increase.
  • Do it more (frequency): A goal to be able to run a certain number of times a week is a good one, especially for beginner runners. If you already run once a week, then running twice a week is a good option. Obviously if you already run a lot then this might not be the most sensible option for you.
  • Do something different (type): If you are wondering what the next challenge is, why not add an element of cross training into your program by trying a Duathlon, Aquathlon or Triathlon. Or if this doesn’t interest you how about adding strength sessions or yoga for 6 weeks and then measuring the impact on your PBs.
  • Do it for someone else: Many of us are motivated by running for charity, particularly when trying a new distance or challenge. This can also be a great team motivator.
  • Do it for you (weight loss/shape): It is okay to be running to be the size you want. A goal of losing a certain amount of weight or inches by a particular time is fine, or even maintaining your weight. Remember to recognize the achievement though, if this is the most motivating goal for you!
  • Do it better (technique): A goal of improving your technique can be an interesting one, it requires a bit of innovative thinking to be able to measure it, but what else are the videos on our smart phones for, if not for recording our running technique at a point in time?

Remember you might feel more motivated by certain types of goal than others, which is good because it helps you to focus. It is your goal. Remember why you are running and set yourself an interesting goal that you care about, rather than a conventional one because you think you should!

Tools to Help You

For extra support, have a look at The Runner’s Journal to help you set and work towards your goal.

We have a range of other training diaries and books to support goal setting, training and inspiration.

Chalkboard - my PBs - with example entries
And for that motivational kick, try putting your current PBs on your wall and aiming to beat them – have a peek at our “My PBs” Chalkboard.

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  1. Chris S says

    Great article Lin – I’ve always been very focused on achieving big but ultimately ‘conventional’ goals. The problem is they might just as well be someone else’s goals. This reminds me I should really be putting much more thought into challenges which are tailored and personal just to me… Cheers

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