20 February 2010

Setting goals for your workouts

One of the more important things coaches do is set goals for their athletes.  If the coach is more of my type, it's a matter of helping the athlete choose good goals.  I'm writing here on the principle that you're your own coach. 

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
That last item is perhaps the least pleasant.  We usually, or at least I do, set fairly optimistic goals.  So, much of the time, when we re-evaluate it is to delay the date we're going to do our spectacular goal.  Still, if you don't do the re-evaluation, you wind up in the position that to meet your goal of running 1000 km in the year, you have to run 500 km in the last 2 months -- which is an invitation to injury.  (Pretty much a demand.)  Often, I take this as a chance to insert more intermediate goals.  The goal of running 50 km per week might fall after running 45 km per week, rather than 40 km.  Or, if it turns out that running 15 km is near the limit of what my injury currently permits, then I'll make the next goal 15 km of running plus 60 minutes of other aerobic activity (swimming and biking don't bother my calf), rather than be annoyed that I'm not reaching my 25 km per week goal.

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 :-)


Arthur said...

just wanted to say I appreciate your posts on this; I've taken up running (nominally 3 days a week) for the last 2 years, and it's had a huge impact on my health and energy level. I had heard 5 days would necessarily risk injury though - I do some sort of weight training on days in between runs...

Robert Grumbine said...

Glad to hear of the good effect of taking up the running! (It is a positive impact, right? :-) )

I've never heard that 5 days a week running would necessarily risk injury. At least not in any sense that 4, or 3, or 2 days aren't also risking injury. Elites are running 10-14 times per week, so 5 can't be a magic figure of doom. Many of my friends, including some in their 70s, are doing aerobic exercise (run, walk, bike, swim, tennis, ...) 5 days a week, so, again, it doesn't make sense to me for 5 days a week to be the onset of doom.

But that's fairly anecdotal, and I'm not an expert in this area. I went to the American Council of Sports Medicine (ACSM), to verify what their recommendation was, as they are the experts. Their recommendation, jointly with the American Heart Association, is to get a minimum (see the 'more is better' comment lower down the page) to do moderately intense cardio 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week or vigorously intense cardio 20 minutes a day, 3 days a week. And do 8 to 10 strength exercises, 8-12 repetitions, twice a week. That's for healthy adults under 65. For adults over 65, or adults 50-64 with chronic conditions such as arthritis, you should do all that, except it's 10-15 repetitions on the strength training, and perform balance exercises, and have a physical activity plan. It is striking to me that older people and people with chronic conditions should be doing more exercise. The activity plan is something you should draw up (they note) with your health professional.

In different words, my current mid-range goal of 5 days a week aerobic of 30 minutes jogging at a conversational pace, plus 2 days a week of weight work, is just meeting the baseline recommendation from the ACSM. My longer range goal of averaging 60 minutes will be above it, but not above their 'more is better' comments.

Now that is me setting goals for me, and the ACSM speaking for general population. There might be reasons particular to you that say more than 3 days of running per week are a bad idea. For me, right now, more than 3 is a bad idea. Maybe for you, it always will be -- for some health reason that your doctor knows about and lead to the suggestion that 5 would risk injury. If it isn't a health professional up to date about exercise, and running in particular, who said the 5 days would necessarily risk injury ... I think I'd go with the ACSM over that other source's folklore. But you have to decide yourself. I wouldn't immediately jump to 5; that would likely produce an injury just because it is a big jump -- not because 5 is intrinsically bad for you.

Arthur said...

Yes, definitely positive!

I'm not sure where I heard about the 3 days/5 days, though it wasn't a doctor's recommendation. My wife had a variety of books on getting exercise that claimed it was necessary to give muscles a rest of more than 24 hours between repeating the same exercise, in general. But maybe if the exercise is a little less intense it doesn't make so much difference, I don't know. I tend to go all out on my runs (as fast as I can these days) so my muscles are usually a little stiff after a day, I've just made sure to do something else the next day. No injuries so far!

Robert Grumbine said...

Run as fast as you can every time you run is a bad recipe, and does take longer to recover from. Most of your running (the 80-90% I mentioned above) should be at a conversational effort level. Not that you can sing songs during your runs, but that you can get a few words out at a time without any great effort. Workouts to failure (weight lifting) or hard as you can running (swimming, biking, ...) take longer to recover from -- more like 48-72 hours than 24-36.

Easy runs recover in 24 hours -- which would let you run 7 days a week. Hard runs require longer, 48-72 hours. But this doesn't mean you can't run consecutive days at all. What it means is that you do an easy run on the days between your hard runs. For me, getting back in to shape, every run is a hard run -- not because I'm going fast, because I'm not, but because my body has a lot of adaptation to do (again) since I haven't run much for a long time. So I keep 48 hours between runs. In between is weights and other activity.

When I am recovered and have built back to it, my typical week will be:
easy run
hard run
easy run, weights
hard run
easy run
'run' might actually be swimming or other aerobic activity. And 'hard run' might actually mean a long slow day, rather than fast.

For me, it does seem best to have a day where I do no exercises. That seems not uncommon in training plans, at least for runners. But I also know some folks who train every day, just not as hard as they can every day -- hard/easy alternation.

You'll see a hard/easy alternation in elite training plans as well. Just that their notion of 'hard' is a lot harder than what the rest of us can do. Even their 'easy' is pretty amazing. But the principles hold -- longer to recover from hard workouts, not all workouts should be as hard as you can do.

small story:
I was in good shape and decided to run the 4 mile jog that the Park Forest Scenic 10 (miles) hosted the day before the race. That race also has elite runners (guys running under 50 minutes for the 10 miles). I figured that I'd have my chance to talk with them at the pancake breakfast after the run, because no way elites would be running slowly enough for me to talk to during the run. I raced the 10 miles in about 75 minutes. But then we are out on the run and some suspisciously graceful runners join up with us. Turned out they were indeed some of the elites. One of us said something about the elites (like wondering how injured they were, to be running as slowly as us). One of the elite runners laughed and said 'Today we take it easy. Tomorrow we work.'

Arthur said...

Ok, that makes sense. I did want to comment on your discussion of goals - I love numbers and set myself all sorts of little numerical goals on the way (heart rate, pace, miles vs minutes if I'm on the treadmill, total miles run) - that's definitely been very helpful in keeping me motivated and interested in it. Good luck with your workouts!

Robert Grumbine said...

Good questions, and if you're still doing it 3 days a week for 2 years, you're doing something right.

Runners are notorious for doing most of their workouts too hard, so you're comfortably in the heavy majority. Or maybe your 'hard as you can' isn't as crazy as what I would do on such days. (I do have workouts that are that hard, just not 3 days a week even when I'm in shape.)

Our discussion here reminds me of a different article to write -- how does training work.