So when we enter a race we do so with some idea of what we want to achieve in it, whether that’s simply to finish or to podium. But how do we know if we can achieve that goal? Depending your unique psychology you may be someone who likes to be certain that you can achieve what you set out to do, or be fine with a level of uncertainty. Either way, for most people the concept of “failure” is not something we feel comfortable with, so how do we know if our race goal is achievable?

A lot of the answer to this question lies in the type of goals we set. When working with athletes this can be the most difficult conversation we have at the start of our journey, for me and for them. Here are a few things that I have learnt over the years help with realistic goal setting, which will help you build confidence in your ability to achieve and enable you to find success in each race.

  1. Know Your Capabilities
  2. Be flexible
  3. Have graded goals
  4. Have more than just performance goals
  5. Have process goals
  6. Identify what you need to achieve your gaols
  7. Identify where you need help and ask for it
  8. Create a Plan
  9. Identify and plan for obstacles

1. Know your capabilities

A key aspect of success in the goals you set is that they are realistic; this does not mean that they have to be easily achievable, but it does mean that you have put some thought into what you are able to achieve, even if it’s a stretch to do so. For athletes setting performance goals this gets easier the more races you do as you become familiar with how you perform from race to race and season to season.

So take a look at previous seasons and races and review your performance; think honestly about your best performances and whether there is room for improvement. In particular think about the performance in relation to yourself not in relation to external criteria. For example think about the time you completed an event in rather than whether you were first, third, twenty-third or one hundred and third. You cannot control who turns up to the race, but you can do things to improve the time you complete the event in.

Think about the time, resources and effort that it took to get to those best performances and decide whether you have the same, more or less for your future race goal. This will help you decide whether you can improve on your previous performances.

For any race it’s a good idea to make a list of the strengths and weaknesses you bring to that race so that you can think about whether you can work on these things. If you have done the race before this is a great way to find out about this, but an alternative would be to ask others who are familiar with the race, or check out the race course for yourself in training.

2. Be Flexible

Training rarely goes completely to plan; life happens, illness happens, injury can happen, so we need to be flexible. Being flexible means that we can have room in our plan to reassess and maybe change the way we got to the end goal. So for example when I planned to run a 50 mile ultra this autumn I had planned to do at lest one 30 mile and one 40 mile run, but…I got covid…so I then had to accept that the 40 mile training run was not going to happen, but did manage to do 40 miles in a block over a weekend.

Sometimes of course means deferring a goal, or depending on your preference re-setting your goals based on the new situation. I like to remind athletes when things don’t go according to plan that ‘we can only work with what we’ve got’ so doggedly trying to achieve a goal when you no longer have the strength, fitness or resources to do so is not going to ensure you reach your gaol. So keep a log of your training and if something does go majorly wrong in the plan take time to have a sit down and rethink about what might now be possible in the new situation.

3. Have Graded Goals

The easiest way to stress yourself and decrease you chances of success is to have goal which is ‘pass or fail.’ It can be easy to fall into this trap with performance goals, particularly if you are chasing a particular time. A good way to avoid this is to have graded goals with regards to performance; I usually do this with athletes by asking them:

What is your dream goal/stretch target?

What would be acceptable to you?

We can then say that anything between these two points will be acceptable in terms of performance. This could be a time, an age placing or a scratch placing, or even just a percentage improvement on a previous year’s results.

4. Have more than just performance goals

Regardless of whether we use the grading system or not, performance goals can provide quite a lot of pressure; and over longer events and to a certain extend require a process of things to happen beyond our control. For example you might look at the previous few results of a race and think that you can come in the top ten for your age rating and then it happens that there is a major world championships in the area the week after and loads of elite athletes enter the race resulting in the record for that race being reset and a higher level of athlete in your age group. Or that on race day the weather turns and means that everyone has to race more slowly in order to avoid injury on slippy descents.You can’t predict or control the weather or who enters your race or what fitness level they might bring so it’s good to have other goals along the way which can fulfil various criteria that you want to get out of the race.

I quite like the way TrainingPeaks encourage you to do this when you add an event to your annual training plan as it gives you several options for how to set goals including a section labelled ‘custom.’ This way when we are discussing a race together, the athlete and I can develop a number of goals in relation to the race which can help focus the athlete on other aspects of the race apart from the final result. This can provide a helpful way to keep focus and motivation during longer events. So here’s an example of some goals I set myself for a race in February 2023; I did this race last year when I completed it in 3 hours 15 minutes and was 19th woman and 4th FV50.

I’ve added goals around calorie consumption (which I got wrong when I did the race last year) and also a goal that I always like to have about how I relate to volunteers at checkpoints. This reminds me to be thankful of the opportunity to race and is an important aspect of my ethics when racing so I know it helps me stay positive and focussed. These goals are fully in my control and are not reliant on external things for them to be achieved.

5. Have some process goals.

A good way of knowing whether or not your goal is achievable is by having process goals to inform you along the way. Process goals are really goals which enable you to reach your overall target. Depending on who you are and whereabouts you are in your journey towards your goal will depend on the type of goals that you include, but they tend to get more specific as you get closer to your event. I usually like to add these goals for each phase of training so that when we get to the end of that phase we can tick them off and reassess where we are in relation to the main goal, or A Race.

Examples of process goals might be:

Aim to get out and train 5 times per week

Extend your long endurance session from 2 to 3 hours.

Increase your speed/endurance by increasing your Functional Threshold Pace/Power from x to y.

Develop descending skills

Within these goals I usually include some goals which are not performance related per se but which are important to get right before the race like:

Identify 5 ‘go to’ savoury foods that you can eat during the race

Identify 5 ‘go to’ sweet foods that you can eat during the race.

Identify and practise a skill that you can use to help you feel more positive when you start to feel negative during the race.

6. Identify all the things you need to do to achieve your goals

Once you know what your goals are you then need to identify all the things you will need to achieve that goal both from a performance and a resource point of view. Doing this is a key step in identifying your process goals but can also help sift out goals that you initially thought possible but realise later are not as you don’t have the resources to achieve them. So if you know that you want to run a 100km ultra race, you might sit down and think about:

How much training do I need to do?

How much time will I therefore need to train?

How much energy resources will I need to train?

What equipment will I need and how much will it cost?

What type of training do I need to do and if I don’t know can I find out?

How much will I need to carry during the race?

Will I need to repair myself or my equipment during the race?

How will I get to the start?

How will I get home when I finish?

7. Identify where you might need help and ask for it

A lot of endurance athletes (myself included) are fiercely independent; the hardest thing for us to ask for help to achieve our goals; this is a skill in itself and can require a lot of practice! But once you have identified what you want achieve, and in particular all the things that might get in the way of achieving it identifying the bits you can’t do alone is key. So it might be that you decide to consult with a professional to help you identify what you need to do in terms of training or it might be that you want a support team to help you on the day of the race, either in person or on hand at a distance. Or simply that you need someone to pick up your children from school on Tuesday and Thursday so you can get your training run in. Having people on your side and ‘in it with you’ for you goal is not only a helpful way to overcome obstacles but is a massive motivator both along the way and on your big day.

8. Create a Plan

If you don’t have a plan it’s really easy to lose focus along the way to your big event so creating a plan which includes all the process goals, what ifs, buts and maybes, as well as all the other practical things you need to achieve before your big day is really important. The easiest way to do this is using a calendar system where you can wake up each morning and see what you need to do that day to contribute to your goals for that week and that month. Online Training platforms usually have a calendar type way of organising training which is helpful. Beyond this you need to make sure that you have everything that you need to do in one place either by adding them to your training calendar or having one calendar with everything on it. That way you can see easily when obstacles arise.

I tend to use both the annual training plan and the week by week calendar to plan training for athletes so we can see a week at a glance but also see quickly what phase of the plan we are in and what we should be focussing on in that phase.

 

9. Identify all the obstacles you might face and plan for them

Whilst we can’t necessarily foresee all things that might go wrong, if we are prepared for some of the more predictable events they are less likely to de-rail our training and our race. Before any race I like to spend time with an athlete thinking about what could go wrong and what plans we have in place for these eventualities. Examples might include:

I get my period on race day – so we have a plan for how to deal with this practically and emotionally and spend time thinking about and logging menstrual cycles so that we can predict if this will happen and what to expect if it does in terms of performance and psychology.

I start to feel sick and can’t eat any more – so we develop a plan about ‘eating when you can’ and develop ways of getting calories in when things start to go wrong (drinking (soja) milk for example, or eating yoghurt, having calories in your drink).

I get lost/off course – do we need to think about practising navigation in the race? what’s the most sensible thing to do if you get lost, especially if there is no phone signal.

I get injured/fall – assess the gravity of the injury (if any), if you cannot move follow emergency procedure; if you can move without injuring yourself further get to the next aid station and assess what to do next.

I lose my head – develop some mental skills to bring you back in focus – body scan, mindfulness, positive things to say to yourself, people you can text/message ring for a mental boost, sit down and eat a sandwich – yes this works for me!

In addition to this it’s also a good idea to think about what obstacles there might be to you completing the preparation you need for your big event. The sooner we know about these things the sooner we can plan for them. A good example might be a big family event which means you can do little if any training for a week – if we plan this in we can have this as a de-load week and maybe even get a good focussed endurance block just before.

It might be day to day things like the children getting sick, or you getting sick or just the fact that you know it’s really hard for you to fit training in on some days if you are working. So we can work hard at developing a routine that works for you and increases your chances of getting the training sessions in.

Conclusion

Whilst we can never truly know the outcome of a race if we set the goals with some thought and identify goals that we have the most control over we increase the likelihood of those goals being achieved. With careful planning the chances of success increase yet again. Yet ultimately remaining open to change and being able to accept new situations as they present themselves and move on from that point means that we can continue to enjoy success in our sport.

Additional Questions

What if I keep under-achieving?

If you keep under-achieving it might be time to get some help either in setting your goals, planning or executing the plan. You could start with a consultation with a coach so that you can discuss past performances, future goals and how you might plan your training to achieve what you would like. You can find out more about how to get a consultation with one of our coaches here.

What if I have never done this type of thing before?

If you have never done the type of race you are going to do then it’s usually better to have some conservative goals which you can modify along the way as you hit your process goals. So if someone were to do bike packing event for the first time, they might aim to finish, but after one or two audaxes, they might have a better idea of how they perform in the race conditions and be able to think about a time goal.

Clare Pearson
Post by Clare Pearson
October 12, 2022
A professional endurance coach since 2018, Clare Pearson has worked with endurance cyclists and runners to help them achieve their goals. Clare specialises in endurance events, she loves to work with people to help them succeed at their own goals; whether that's a personal best, a completion, a podium or better emotional health. Clare will work with you to design a plan that fits in with your day to day life and helps you get the most out of each session.

Comments