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Mental Training

Goal Setting For Trail Runners

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Goal setting is a critical component of optimal performance. Without goals, you don’t have a destination. Without a destination, you don’t have direction. If you know where you want to go then you can design a route to get there. More importantly, if you come across a roadblock, you can reroute and find a new way to get to your destination. While many athletes recognize the importance of goal setting, many miss some of the important layers and details that make this mental skill even more powerful and effective. 

Types of Goals 

In the world of sport and performance psychology, we break goals down into three categories: outcome, performance, and process. Outcome goals typically involve some kind of interpersonal comparison. For running, outcome goals show up as things like desired race results and age group finishes. Performance goals are still associated with the end result but are more personal and independent from others. The most common example of performance goals in our sport are things like personal bests or improving your technical skills. Lastly and most importantly are process goals. Process goals involve identifying wanted behaviors that occur within the actual performance. In many ways, process goals are most within our control and are our way of connecting with our desired outcome while we are within the race setting. They allow you to make a performance plan for where to direct your focus and attention throughout a race, helping you stay present and committed to the controllables. 

Each type of goal is important when it comes to motivation and drive, but I try to encourage athletes to spend the most time and energy on process goals particularly because they might need to adapt and change from race to race based on performance feedback. A race outcome, in and of itself, is not fully within our control. Instead, it is the end result of us successfully controlling the things we can in the buildup to and within the competition, giving ourselves the best shot at achieving the outcome we want. Process goal setting should happen on the micro and macro scale. For example, if I want the clock to read the number that I want it to when I cross the finish line, what do I need to focus on in the race? And, if I want to have a certain result at my goal at the end of the season, what do I need to prioritize in my daily routine?

Tiers of Goals 

It’s common for athletes to set a big, dream goal and stop there. After identifying an important outcome they would like to achieve, I like to encourage athletes to work backwards from that and set lower tiers of goals that would help make their ultimate goal more achievable. For example, if your long-term goal is to finish your first 50k then what do you need to do to get there? To set yourself up to achieve something great down the road, you need to determine what that means in the context of daily, weekly, and monthly preparation. There’s also the added benefit of increased motivation and drive that comes with reaching goals along the way. It’s like adding more fuel to the fire so that it burns even stronger. The various tiers of goals should be related and interconnected and you should be able to answer the question of to what extent your goals serve a common purpose. It’s also important to remember that while your primary high tier goal may stay the same, you need to be willing to change or adjust your short term goals to give yourself the best shot at getting there.  

Influence on Daily Behaviors 

The power of goals doesn’t happen in the “setting” of them. It happens in the “doing.” Your goals aren’t something that you just gaze at off in the distance. They are the guideposts that direct and influence your daily behaviors. After you have set your goals, reflect on your habits and routines to determine how they should be influenced by what you are setting out to accomplish. A useful exercise that I give many of the athletes I work it is when it comes to reaching your goal is to identify what you need to start doing, what you need to stop doing, and what you need to continue doing. For goal setting to most effective, you should engage with them frequently, committing to the actions and behaviors that they require.  

When identifying your goals, set yourself up for success. Be realistic while also welcoming a bit of a challenge. Goals shouldn’t feel like strict expectations or negative pressure that you’re putting on yourself, but rather like encouragement to strive towards your potential. Setting goals will help provide purpose and meaning to the daily training grind. 

Addie is a professional ultra trail runner, coach, and sport psychology consultant helping athletes of all ages and abilities to prepare for the mental demands of competing through her practice, Strive Mental Performance