Do Your Goals Get in the Way of Your Purpose in Running?

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Photo Credit:Man Running in Piedmont Park by Cal Michael, used under a royalty-free license agreement

Photo Credit:Man Running in Piedmont Park by Cal Michael, used under a royalty-free license agreement

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.

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  • James Ubriaco

    Great post, Greg. If you think of purpose and goals as having a yin-yang relationship, it’s apparent to that I’m often out of balance as I tend to focus more on the goal side (after all, goals are “sexier” than purpose). Then injury, (fantastic but exasperating teacher), steps in to force me to take the long view, become more patient with myself and rediscover priorities. Then, when fit again, what happens? The pendulum swings again! That does not seem like a very efficient process now that I think of it. Time to come up with something more sustainable. Just what I needed to read now.

  • Greg Strosaker

    Thanks James. I listened a short time ago to a podcast interview with Phil Maffetone and he made a point that really stuck with me – that we often mistake “fitness” for “health”. Being injured is not “healthy” (nor is sacrificing too much sleep to train, using high mileage as an excuse to eat poorly, etc.). That helped me rethink my own obsession with making each workout better than the last, with each season needing to deliver a significant PR. I think honestly that focusing on long-term health and intelligent training will deliver PRs as a side benefit anyway, so that’s how I’m trying to steer my own plans and the types of discussions I now like to have with clients as well.

  • Brad Patterson

    Thanks so much for this post, Greg. It came at the perfect time for me, as I struggle to rehab after being nailed with ITBS. I recently had a good discussion with some running friends of mine about “Why do you run?” and it very much relates to what you said in regards to goal and purpose. I think that is the interesting thing about getting injured, it really forces a runner to step back and ask themselves those probing questions.

    Your more recent posts on DM talking about your goal for this year to be able to train consistently (and w/o injury) has really made me think about my last few years of training and the yo-yo effect of build build build and then restart after reaching the bodies breaking point. After dwelling on my own goal (or “why”), I have adopted a very similar focus for this year, to do whatever it takes to stay healthy and run consistently all year long. Even if this means I will be running less and cross training more. I can’t thank you enough for sharing your wisdom and life experiences on this blog, Greg, you truly do make a difference in the lives of your fellow runners.

  • Greg Strosaker

    Thanks for your kind words Brad. I think most runners actually gain perspective that can help them in the long run when they go through the injury and recovery process, and this can be an important part of actually sustaining our commitment to the sport. You’re training has been smart, but it’s always good to step back and learn from the experiences we have in order to shape our future training. I never believe that being injury-free should be goal #1 (as the best way to do that is to not run at all!), but “running/training consistently” is a better objective because it places the emphasis on the positive – the idea that your goal involves running.

  • Adam

    Interesting post! I recently finished reading “Ironwar” , a book about two triathletes that i’d never heard of before! What the book interestingly puts forth is that how “geeky” someone can become with devising training programs and worrying about records, as opposed to enjoying being fit and healthy! Goals are good, it keeps in check and certainly make things alot more interesting, but ultimately what matters as you mentioned, take it easy and not be so consumed with the competitive part of it!

  • Greg Strosaker

    Thanks Adam – I think there’s a fine line between goals as motivation and goals as obsession/barrier, and I will probably write a post on that in the near future.

  • Momshomerun

    My purpose for running is to become a more balanced person, and have more patience when the kids spil their drinks yet again. I don’t really have goals because then I forget my purpose. I just do my daily run.

  • Greg Strosaker

    That’s a fully reasonable purpose and approach, and glad it seems to be working out for you!

  • Nell Gyenes

    Greg – another great post! My feeling is once you’ve stayed on a training track (for races, time, mileage) over time, the goal setting habit sort of gets automated – at least for me it does…’the what’s next?’ kicks in and takes over. Your points about purpose and the bigger picture are spot on, and I’ve made notes about them in my training journal – thanks for that inspiration. Love that you included a link to Leo Babauta’s blog…I’ve been checking out his words for a while now and the linked post is a perfect complement to your reflections on goals and purpose. Thanks again for sharing!

    Nell @

  • Greg Strosaker

    Thanks Nell – you are spot on in your comment that goal setting gets to be a bit “automated” – and this also leads to incrementalism (i.e., small gains in the same event year after year) as opposed to a more radical rethink that may lead you in new directions with more potential (jumping up to ultras, for example, or down to maximizing your 5K result).
    I’ve been a longtime follower of Leo’s blog. While his writing is really tailored around a unique lifestyle that most of us don’t have the luxury to mimic, his advice is always sound “directionally”. We could all be a bit more zen in our approach to goals, and focused on fewer, bigger priorities.