Whether you're running a road 5k or a 100 mile trail run, there's a point in the race where it gets hard, really hard. Your mind may go to a dark place and you start to question if it's worth continuing at this pace, or continuing at all. But you didn't put in those weeks and months of training for nothing! Having clear, defined, tangible goals is extremely helpful in these situations. A goal, and the desire to reach that goal, can help get you to the finish line, or propel you to the success you've always dreamed of (or at least dreamed of enough to sign up for the race). But how do you know what's a good goal to set? Not everyone can have a realistic goal to when the race, just like aiming to finish a 5k for an accomplished marathoner is not a challenging enough goal. As you think about your next race, here's a few things to consider.
Have multiple goals for the same race. In road and trail running, goals aren't necessarily pass/fail. You can create a tiered system. A good way to do this is to envision what you consider to be the best possible outcome from the day. This could be crossing the finish line, winning the race, running a certain time, or edging out your cross-town rival. This is your "A" goal. Next, picture your least desirable outcome that you'd still consider a success. This could be making it past the first cutoff, getting to the top of a climb, nailing the nutrition plan, or finishing in the top 10. This is your "C" goal. Finally, pick something in-between the two. If you're A goal is to win, C goal is to finish, your B goal could be to finish in the top 25. Setting goals in a tiered manner allow you to still walk away from the run with some success, even if your best-case-scenario goal doesn't pan out.
Don't base all your goals on other people. While wining the race, or beating your training partner are perfectly legitimate goals, consider creating a B, or C goal that doesn't depend on another person's performance. Just because your buddy beat you, does not mean you had a bad day! Non person related goals could include: running a PR, eating 200-300 calories an hour, making it to the top of the mountain, drinking enough, making a friend, not getting sunburned, and not chafing. Only defining your success based on the performance of other runners is a recipe for unhappy running in the future.
Set your goals based on the SMART method. You've likely heard the acronym and maybe rolled your eyes a little because you've heard it before. There's a reason the SMART method for goal setting is so popular. It works! Goals should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely. We're going to walk through the SMART method with a general goal of nailing nutrition in a 50 mile race so that you can PR.
Specific - Instead of saying "my goal is to eat more this race", say "my goal is to eat enough that I cross the finish line still feeling energized." Simply saying "eat more" could still leave you without enough calories.
Measurable - How will you know that you're eating enough? Make it measurable! "My goal is to eat 200-300 calories of carbs an hour so that I can cross the finish line still feeling energized." Now you know how much to eat during the race to accomplish your goal.
Attainable - Can you eat 200-300 calories an hour? Probably! If you said "goal is to eat a hamburger and fries every hour", that's probably not something you could do and still make it to the finish line. 200-300 calories of carbs is a realistic goal that you can build up to in training.
Relevant - Does 200-300 calories matter to your 50 mile trail run? You bet it does! Attaining this goal is relevant to your larger goal of setting that 50 mile PR.
Timely - Goals need to have an end date. Rather than saying "I want to figure out nutrition in races" you can say, "I am going to figure out my nutrition at this specific 50 mile race." That keeps you motivated to figure it out now so it doesn't become a tomorrow problem.
After going through the SMART method we are left with the goal of "My goal is to eat 200-300 calories of carbs an hour during my 50 mile race." It is Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely. You can apply this method to small goals or large goals, process goals or end goals. It helps with all!
For your next race try setting tiered, SMART goals, with at least one that doesn't depend on someone else's performance. Let us know how it goes!