2011-06-21

The Marathon: Part IX - Goals and Pacing

I started my Speed Training write-up this morning and realized that the discussion requires some additional context. The goal of speed training is to increase your speed so that you can achieve your goal. But what if you don't yet have a goal? What if you don't even know how to set one?

Specific Goals Versus Intangible Moving TargetsNo matter what you choose to pursue in life, it is incredibly important to have a specific goal. Your goal wraps a blanket of context around the things you do daily in pursuit of it.

Some of you are inclined to express your goals something like this:
  • "I want to do my best."
  • "I want to lose some weight."
  • "I want to look and feel better."
  • "I want to run faster."
  • "I just want to try something new and have fun."
I need to tell you something very important about these statements. Read carefully, or you might misunderstand. All of these statements express good and valid desires; but as goals they are completely worthless. Please don't scoff -- simply consider the following.
  • It is important to do your best, but that goes without saying. If you try at all, you are trying to do your best. Aiming simply at effort does not present you with any opportunity to succeed, for how will you know when you've reached "your best?"
  • Losing weight is a good undertaking if you have some weight to lose. The goal as stated, however, expresses no understanding of measurable success. Many people who simply want to "lose some weight" get caught in a situation in which no amount of weight loss is ever satisfying to them. It becomes a moving target. They are always focused on "those 10 lbs.," no matter what weight loss they achieve. They may also be losing muscle and/or bone mass, which is not a good thing.
  • Looking and feeling "better" is also a good thing. What is better? How do you know when you're there? Exercising offers us small changes over a lengthy period of time. How will you know what "better" is or even if you can get there? This, too, is a moving target.
  • Running "faster" is something we all want to do. But faster than what? Does "one second" count as faster? It might, if you're a 100m sprinter. What about for a marathoner? When and how do you wish to achieve this speed? Is it possible to reach a definable point where you are "faster?"
  • If you are only interested in novelty, you are finished before you ever got started. Training involves weeks and months of commitment. It tests your tolerance for discomfort and requires a lot of work. If you're only in it to pursue something new, you will stop the minute it becomes difficult because you will lose interest. Then, you will have accomplished nothing.
What these "goals" all have in common is that they set a person up for failure. No matter how genuine your desire for these kinds of things, if you do not provide yourself with a "deliverable" or a milestone of some kind, then you will never really be satisfied.

And let's be clear: it's important to be satisfied with past performance because it inspires future success.Even if you never run again after these 18 weeks, your achieving a tangible milestone will make you want to succeed at something else, too. Perhaps your next goal will be career-oriented, or artistic, or deeply personal.

Goals help us build self-esteem and motivation. With a few well-placed goals, we can turn our whole lives around. Moving targets and more nebulous statements are useful tools to help us set our goals, but they should never be used as goals themselves, because they undermine the psychology of success.

Therefore, always make sure you set specific goals and then set out to achieve them. Even if you don't shave the full three minutes off your 10K time, you might shave off two minutes, which is still a fantastic - and tangible - achievement. Even "failure" becomes success when you set out to achieve something specific.

Finding Your GoalEverything I've mentioned so far holds as true for life in general as it does for running. Setting and achieving realistic goals is an important part of life. But how do you know what running goal is appropriate for you?

If you're an experienced runner, you probably already have a good idea. If you new to the game, though, you will need a little bit of experience before you can determine an appropriate time-for-distance goal. (How do you know what 5K time to aim for if you've never run a 5K before?) There are a couple of options here.

First, you can extrapolate from your current daily runs. If you run about 2 miles in 15 minutes, then you can expect to run 5K in about 24 minutes. Knowing that, you can set a goal of "anything better than 24 minutes," or in the vernacular of competitive running, you want to break twenty-four minutes.

Another approach might be to set aside a day during which you actually run a 5K informally, by yourself. Time yourself and see how well you do. Once you've established a baseline, you can make it a goal to beat your baseline. However, this approach becomes impractical once we start talking about marathon distances.

If all else fails, just talk to other runners you know and get a feel for what you can expect for your first race. We runners love to talk about this kind of stuff, and you can use our propensity talk about it to your own advantage. ;)

Finding Your Pace
Once you have a goal set in your mind, pacing becomes a bit of an arithmetical exercise. Divide your goal time by the total number of miles or kilometers, and voila - you have your pace.

The funny thing about a goal pace, though, is that you can surprise yourself. Often when we set goals we discover either that we've set the bar too low or too high. Setting the bar too low results in some confusion mid-way through your training regimen when you discover that you've already met your goal and now have to re-think. A lot of your previous training time will have been sub-optimally utilized. Setting the bar too high, on the other hand, will quickly wear your body out.

Therefore, I always suggest that people take their pace to the track. This is a great experience, especially if you've never done track work before.

Suppose you want to run six minutes per mile. At the track, this corresponds to 1:30 per lap. A great way to get a feel for whether your goal pace is too low or too high is to do speed work at that pace and see how much or how little it tires you out. If you run every lap at 1:30 or under, chances are you're not challenging yourself enough. If you struggle to run more than the first couple of laps at your goal pace, you may want to consider slowing down.

But at this point, we're getting into Speed Training territory, and I've saved that for another article.

Up Next: Speed Training