Defining your goals is a personal endeavor. Your coach, friends, and family can provide input and act as sounding boards, but you ultimately need to identify what is important to you and what you want to achieve. Goals that are personally meaningful to you will be more effective and fulfilling.
Choose goals that resonate with you, align with your interests, and develop your trajectory as an athlete. Goals do not always have to be based on finishing times (or places). The longer the event, the more challenging it becomes to log a finish, which may be the goal you’re primarily after. You may also approach “races” more as “events” where you focus on eventing — participating in them largely for fun and for the camaraderie without the pressure to perform that may come with racing.
Whatever your goals, when devising them keep the SMART acronym in mind. The SMART acronym acts as a mnemonic device for a set of criteria underpinning effective goals. Creating SMART goals leads to better results.
SMART goals are:
- Specific. What do you want to accomplish? For example, designate a specific race with a specific goal.
- Measurable. How will you know when you’ve accomplished the goal? For example, indicate a time or distance that can be measured.
- Achievable (or attainable). Is the goal achievable while still being challenging? The goal should be neither too easy nor unrealizable.
- Relevant (or realistic). Is it relevant to your interests and motivation? Do you have the time and ability to realistically pursue the goal?
- Time-bound (or timely). When do you want to accomplish the goal? There should be a timeline or deadline associated with the goal.
Take, for example, a goal statement from an athlete who wants to run their first marathon next year. It might look something like this:
- Next year, I want to finish the Boulder Marathon.
Let’s see if it’s a SMART goal. In working through the criteria, I’m going to start with S-M-T since these three criteria are explicitly included in the goal statement, and then discuss how to ensure the A-R criteria are met.
Is the goal specific? Yes, the goal specifies a particular race so we know exactly what’s being targeted. If the athlete simply said, I want to finish a marathon, we would want to know more details. Being specific helps make the goal tangible.
Is the goal measurable? Yes, although many outcome goals often involve race times (measured by the clock) or places (measured by race results), it’s easy enough to determine whether you finish a race or not. The goal of finishing a marathon may be appropriate for this runner since it’s their first marathon. Developing some target times to aim for could be useful motivators going into the event, but that could come closer to the race based on feedback from their training; their primary goal may still be to log a finish.
Is the goal time-bound? Yes, we know it’s next year’s Boulder Marathon, which occurs on a specific date. This date provides a definite timeline associated with the goal. The athlete may have said, I want to finish a marathon at some point in the future. This could be a valid “someday” goal to act as a motivator for long-term development, but it’s not yet formulated as a SMART goal.
The remaining two criteria — achievable/attainable (A) and relevant/realistic (R) — may not be written directly in the goal statement, but they are crucial aspects of a SMART goal. Here’s how to think through these two elements.
Is the goal achievable/attainable? SMART goals should challenge you while remaining within the realm of possibility given your background. When developing your goal, rather than simply thinking about this, write down 1-3 highlights from your previous experiences, whether specific to your past athletic pursuits or other relevant life events, that give you confidence your goal is achievable/attainable.
For this particular athlete, they might write down something like this:
- Last year, I finished the Boulder Half-Marathon.
Although finishing a half-marathon is not a necessary prerequisite to entering a marathon, it’s a valuable part of this athlete’s past running experience that gives them confidence their marathon goal is achievable/attainable. They might also identify other aspects of their progression as a runner, such as recent mileage, that give them confidence they can reach the marathon goal.
The point is to articulate these past experiences while defining your outcome goal. Then keep these confidence statements in writing next to your outcome goal and return to them as a reminder that you’re capable of achieving the goal, especially when you encounter difficulties and setbacks along the way.
Is the goal relevant/realistic? This is another aspect of the goal that must be considered. The goal may be achievable/attainable based on your background and progression as an athlete, but you may not be in a position to pursue it right now due to other commitments. Maybe, for example, this athlete just started a new job that requires working late hours and weekends, making it difficult to fit in the long runs needed to train for a marathon. In that case, targeting a marathon in the upcoming year may not be relevant/realistic to where they’re at right now; but a different goal might make more sense, such as returning to the half-marathon they did last year with the goal of lowering their time.
To assess whether a goal is relevant/realistic, answer these questions:
- Does the goal align with and resonate with your current athletic interests?
- Does the goal represent something you truly want to do and freely choose to do (versus something you feel you “should” do to check a box or because others want you to do it)?
- Considering your other life commitments (work, family, etc.), financial situation, and the training you will need to do to realistically achieve the goal, are you in a position right now to pursue this goal?
If you answer yes to each of these questions, then you have yourself a SMART outcome goal. The next step is to outline the intermediary goals you need to achieve to set yourself up for success.