Working towards a goal is a big part of running. It helps motivate us on those early mornings, and when we reach our goals it helps justify all of the hard work and sacrifices along the way. Picking a goal may seem easy, but in my experience there are several factors that influence how effective a goal is for you.
Time Frame: Ideally, you should have short-term, intermediate, and long-term goals for your running. That makes it easier to stay focused on what you are doing this week as well as the big picture. These goals should be complimentary.
With my athletes, we generally look at a short term goal as what we're accomplishing that month. An intermediate goal is what we're aiming for that season, and a long-term goal is based on the full year, or even their college career.
For example, an athlete who is trying to make the national championships during the spring track season might have an intermediate goal of a top-35 finish at the cross country national meet. Their short-term goal will vary with each month, but an example of an early season goal would be to increase their long run to 14 miles, and the total volume of their repeat workouts to 5 miles.....
Process versus Outcome: In running, there are things that you can control (your preparation and effort) and things you can't (what your competition does, the weather, etc.). For more efficient goal-setting, I encourage my athletes to focus on process goals rather than outcome goals.
For example, maybe the goal is to break 32 minutes in the 10k. Whether that happens is going to depend on a lot of factors that we can't control. So we try to determine what things the athlete will need to be able to do in order to be ready to reach that goal -- run so many weeks at a certain mileage, consistent long runs at a certain pace, hit certain checkpoints in a workout, etc. -- and set those as process goals.
Those process goals can help your day-to-day focus, and also will help you better organize your yearly training schedule.
Multiple Tiers: One approach that I use in races with my athletes is a three-tier goal system.
The first goal is something that you would be happy with, but that you know you can accomplish relatively easily. The second goal is what you think you're ready to do. This is the goal you're willing to tell people when they ask what you hoping to run. The third goal is what you believe you're ready to do if everything goes perfectly. This goal you might be a little scared to tell people, but you know it's possible.
By having three goals in mind each time you race, you'll be more focused on what exactly you're trying to accomplish, and you'll have a much better chance of feeling good about your race when it's over.
If you've got motivational tricks or goal-setting advice, feel free to leave them in the comments section to help everyone get ready for their next race!