Good goals are opportunities for successes. Each success helps invigorate you, and encourage you towards your next goal. This gives us some guidance on how to select goals. One part is, there should be a progression of goals. Rather than have one major goal, for instance 'run a marathon', you should have a number of goals that build towards the bigger one. In this case, it could be something like 'run a 5k', 'run a 10k', 'run a 15k', 'run a half-marathon', and then, finally 'run a marathon'. (I strongly recommend this if you're contemplating the 'run a marathon'.) Break down the big goal in to a series of stepping stones. That gives you successes along the way, and some positive feedback to encourage you.
A second aspect comes from considering the 'opportunity for success'. When I was racing regularly a few years ago, I ran the mile in 5:51. I was both happy and sad, mostly happy, with that time. The reason being, I had multiple goals for my time that day. The optimistic goal, which was probably achievable if I had paced myself better and not gotten some bad personal news a few minutes before the race, was 5:40. My realistic goal, something that I figured I should be able to reach if I didn't race particularly stupidly or get particularly tangled up in a pack, was 6:00. And my conservative goal, which should have been hard for me not to reach even if I had run stupidly and did tangle in a pack, was 6:10. Ok, I didn't get the optimistic goal (which was probably too optimistic, given the others). But I did beat the conservative and reasonable goals, so a success. And some feedback on how to race the mile better. That was my first mile race in over 20 years.
Results, though, are a little dicy as goals.
If your results goal is, say, to finish before someone else at the race, you're somewhat at the mercy of whether they have a good racing day too. It's possible that you run a great race for yourself, compared to your own previous times, but still finish behind the other person because they had an even better day. If you're an elite racer and your paycheck depends on what place you finish, you do have to pick some of these type of goals. Few of us, though, are in that position.
But, it turns out, even elite racers also set what I'll call execution goals. These are goals where you succeed if you do the kind of thing you planned to do. These can be 'run X km this week'. For me, at the moment, I'm happy with 10 km in a week. Or it's 'run 2 times this week' (my current one, next week I'm aiming for 3). These sort of goals have the virtue that they are very largely under your control. As long as I get out the door, or on to the treadmill, 3 times next week -- regardless of how far I go, how long I'm doing it, or how fast I'm going -- I meet this goal.
That's a good and important thing. 80-90% of the training for even an elite distance runner is simply getting out the door and covering ground. That's why they, also, have execution goals. Theirs will be loftier than mine -- elites often run 10-14 times a week, to my current 2. And I only plan on going up to 5. But I do have that eventual goal of running 5 days a week, regularly. 2 days is a stepping stone goal, as is 3. Given my rehabilitation (which is proceeding pretty well, knock wood), I can't be as aggressive about leaping to 5 days a week as I'd like. But doing a few weeks with 2 runs and not getting re-injured is my stepping stone, and reason for confidence, about going to 3 runs in a week. (My physical therapists are also crossing their fingers for me in this.)
In this vein, my note about the Running progression to get from walking 30 minutes to running 30 minutes sets one major goal and a number of minor goals along the way. On the other hand, different people will have different rates of progression through the list. For folks who are frustrated with what they feel is a lack of progress, I'll suggest the execution goal of getting out 3 times per week to do their exercise. How fast you go through the list depends on age, natural talents, and even things like weather -- that you don't have control over. But getting out 3 times a week, consistently, is how you will make that progress. May as well make it its own goal. And then bundle it in to bigger goals -- 5 straight weeks that you make your 3 times a week, 12 straight weeks, etc..
The thing is, if you do execute the 'get out the door and do your workout' part, the other aspects of your training and health concerns will follow. That includes that you'll move up the running progression. That, too, is a sign of a good goal -- it is the kind of thing that helps you reach other important goals. For a goal of improving your aerobic health and fitness, an eventual goal is 5 days a week and 20-25 miles (30-40 km) covering ground (walking or running). I'm actually aiming, myself, for 5 days and 45-50 km.
After selecting your goals, tell people what yours are. You might have to be selective about whom you tell. And it is typically better to mention your intermediate goals rather than the long-range. But tell people. It was amazing to me the support I got from people, some who didn't even know me very well, when I was training towards running my 50 km trail race. That support was a big help in keeping me getting out the door for my next training run, even when it was raining, even when there was occasional sleet.
- Do set goals
- Set longer range goals (months to years ahead)
- Set shorter range goals (days to weeks)
- Ensure that the shorter range goals build towards the longer range goals
- Tell friends some of your goals (typically the shorter term ones)
- Most goals should be execution goals (things you have control over whether you do them or not)
- If you set results goals (times or who you'll finish ahead at a race), it is a good idea to have multiple goals -- conservative, reasonable, and optimistic
- Periodically re-evaluate your goals
Also, for me at the moment, I can't put dates on any running goals. I know that I need to go from running 2 days a week to running 3 days a week, to 4, to 5. And I know that I have to progress from this week's 3 minutes running to 1 minute walking, to running 30 minutes straight. (Then to a typical run being 60 minutes, etc.) But I don't know whether my calf will simply re-injure, and what work load would cause that. So I have to explore the progression with caution. (Grr!) But I'm making progress. My treadmill running at the last physical therapy visit suggested either that I'm getting tired towards the end of my 32 minutes (and my running form gets worse), or that I need to keep the speed up on the treadmill (because my form gets worse when I slow down too much -- and I had tapered my paces for the last couple of 3 minute sections). I prefer the latter explanation :-)