Goals and purpose are topics I write about frequently. Running is a perfect environment for experimenting with motivational tools. A recent post on Lifehack emphasizing the distinction between goals and purposes got me wondering if sometimes we, as runners, don’t end up making the same mistake.
First, it’s probably beneficial to distinguish between goals and purpose. The latter is the reason you exist, or pursue a given hobby. In fact, it’s often the desire to exist for a long time – in other words, to stay or become healthy, the provides the purpose most of us have when we first take up running. Or maybe it’s do enhance the way we exist by discovering more about ourselves and using running to build our character.
Goals are the more concrete objectives – both long- and short-term, that you set for yourself. This may be quantitative like breaking 3:00 in the marathon, or losing 20 pounds in a year. Or it may be more qualitative, like continuously improving as a runner.
Ideally, your goals should align with your purpose and with each other over various horizons. In other words, your goal for this season builds into your goal for next season, and so on, and this ultimately feeds into your overall purpose in running. And everyone knows that you need to set a goal before you start your training season, right? Well, maybe. Or maybe there’s a different way.
One issue many runners face is that their goals don’t, in fact, align with their purpose. This can create dissonance and stress, which can lead to burnout, injury, and, at worst, ultimately leaving the sport. For example, if your purpose is to gain good health to improve your odds of living a long and fruitful life, does this jive with pushing yourself to the brink of injury (or beyond) in pursuit of your next personal best? Do the inevitable obstacles that arise in your training create stress – which is anything but healthy? Does frustration with missed goals leave you dissatisfied with your running?
Thus, it is fair to consider whether we actually need goals as runners, and to what extent they need to be specific and aggressive. Sure, a goal can be a necessary tool to motivate you to train, to take on some of your tougher workouts. Without a sufficiently challenging goal, it might be too easy to slack off on your mileage, or strength work, or quality runs.
Or, a goal can push you to do too much, too soon – especially when you are faced with a setback. At this point, a goal can either become overwhelming or a source of the wrong kind of motivation – the desire to make up for lost time, to train beyond your current abilities, to cut corners on necessary recovery time.
Thus, at a minimum, an astute runner needs to develop the skill of having some flexibility in their goals. At an extreme, one could even consider running without goals. Obviously, it would take quite a bit of intrinsic motivation and a strong sense of self to pull this off – to continue to push oneself without a specific goal in mind (assuming one still has the implicit goal of improving as a runner or a person). But perhaps every once in a while it would be best to forget about your goals for a season and ground yourself by finding your purpose in running once again, and using it to motivate your training.
Why am I pondering this again? One goal for this season has been to be able to train consistently. A second was to set a new PR at a distance shorter than the marathon, originally breaking 60 minutes in a 10-miler. Family constraints caused me to shift the second goal (as they tend to do) to instead focus on breaking 1:20 in a half-marathon. I’d finally set a race-specific training plan for the 8 weeks prior to the event, and had ramped mileage up to around 60/week.
Then some calf pain started to return again, and the motivation started to lag. The weather took (another) turn for the worse. More family constraints came into play, making the plan a bit more difficult to follow. As most runners would, I initially felt some stress about the situation, about having to miss tempo runs and intervals and cut the mileage.
And then I stepped back and reconsidered why I run in the first place. Every time I’ve walked away, the motivation to come back has been to get healthy, to feel energetic, to know that I am doing what I can to be there for my children and wife when they need me, even if its 40 or more years from now.
Yes, I have my longer term goals, like becoming and remaining one of the leading Masters runners in the region (and maybe being featured in Running Times for that reason some day). And the short-term goals were designed to feed that goal – specifically to round out my perpetual marathon training with something more speed focused.
But meeting that goal has nothing to do with specific performance at a race. So while I’d still like to put in a solid half-marathon, it’s time to refocus on the bigger picture. And even the very idea of pushing to the limit on a regular basis doesn’t necessarily jive with pursuing healthy choices (as some controversial research would tend to support). There is only so much sleep one can sacrifice, and sitting on the couch due to injury (but still getting up early to do what strength training is possible, like in past years) doesn’t constitute “good health” either.
As a coach, I’m obviously committed to helping clients reach their goals. But even then, I try to encourage open discussion of these goals and a broadening of them where possible, with the primary focus being on making measurable gains over the course of a season.
There’s something to be said about being at least a little less tied to goals, so long as one can remain focused on their purpose. Who knows – letting go of your goals for a while may actually help you better achieve them.