Endurance sports and goals go hand-in-hand. I’d be out of a job as a coach if people didn’t set goals and put plans in place to meet them. That being said, one of the big discussions that comes up with the athletes who I work for each year is goal-setting. It’s something that is obviously thought of well in advance for athletes who set very long-range goals, such as completing an IRONMAN or a marathon.
Equally important as that initial decision to set the goal of a long-distance endurance event is the goal-setting phase that follows the event’s completion. Because the build-up to such an event is so long and involved, it often leaves athletes in a funk (and sometimes a depression) as they sort out what they will do with themselves once their goal is complete. Often, athletes have a sense that there isn’t a “natural” goal-setting path to follow since one of the ways that athletes set goals is progressing to the next distance above what they’ve already completed or completing the same distance faster. Along the same lines, new athletes may not even know where to start when it comes to setting goals.
Over my time as both an endurance athlete and coach, I have come to realize that goal setting isn’t what it appears to be at face value. When I was a newer athlete, my goals did follow a “sequence” of sorts; once a finished a 5K, I ran a 10-mile race, and then a half marathon. Once I completed a sprint triathlon, I made it my goal to complete an Olympic distance and a 70.3 distance triathlon. Every time I reached one goal, I’d start thinking about what the next goal would be (and sometimes I’d even be thinking about the next goal before I’d seen one goal through to its end!!). But my paths to those goals were filled with more than just swimming, biking, and running longer distances.
Along the way, I switched jobs, I sustained injuries, I ended emotionally abusive and toxic close personal relationships, and I had family stress. These paths weren’t clear-cut, and at times they were longer and more winding, not only than how I had originally envisioned them, but than I wanted them to be.
Though I came into endurance sports as an adult, and therefore after I had “grown up,” I realized over time that I was “growing up” as an athlete. I began to understand that things might not always happen the way I planned, and that as a result I’d have to adapt not only my approach, but occasionally my goals as well. My goals were evolving and becoming “smarter.” My goal wasn’t always the “next logical step” in a sequence of goals.
My mentor Coach Mark Turner says it best: “Your goal can be set in stone, but the path to get to it needs to be in sand.”
The path NEEDS to be in sand to accommodate for the unknown variables that inevitably pop up along the way. If the reverse philosophy is applied (being too strict and trying to make the path cast in stone), then the goal invariably becomes rooted in sand, which means that the goal may not be realized at all.
Early this season, my main goal was to keep my cardiorespiratory fitness as high as I could so that I was fit as possible on the day my anesthesiologist put me to sleep for my third surgery to repair my long broken left arm. I wanted my heart, arteries, veins, muscles, and lungs to be strong enough to avoid complications. I didn't get a medal for it, though I did get some new metal in my arm ;) Why did I become as fit as possible when I knew that I would lose much of that fitness in my multi-month recovery? To that I respond: I want to be able to be as active as I can, for as long as I can be over the course of my entire life. At times that might mean taking a step back, so that down the road I can take many steps forward. I have faith that this will enable me to be successful and healthy in the long-term.
After all of these years as an endurance athlete and a coach, I’ve determined this: any goal is a worthy goal. For some, that goal might be being fit enough to play soccer with their kids in the backyard after school. For others, it might be to be strong enough to haul boxes down from the attic without assistance and to be strong in their other activities of daily living. For some folks, it might be to be strong enough to battle an injury or a longer-term illness. These goals are not necessarily sports-oriented, but they are every bit as worthy as the goals of crossing a finish line in any distance or discipline of race. There’s value in setting these goals, and I encourage everyone - those who self-identify as athletes as well as those who don’t - to set a goal for themselves and strive to reach it. ALL goals are worthy goals.