The Whole Athlete: The Fine Art of Goal Setting

What gets you out of bed in the morning? What drives you to run more each week, go longer on the weekends, dig deeper on speed days? For many runners, motivation comes in the form of a race goal, a date on the calendar when we want to run our best.

Choosing an appropriate goal is crucial, however. Goals can as easily demoralize as they can inspire. Finding the right goal requires hubris, honesty, and flexibility. Check out this guide on goal setting for athletes.

1. Hubris

 Your goal must be big enough to scare you.

When considering it, you should think, “I don’t know if I can ever do that, but, wow, wouldn’t it be something if I could?” Then you need the hubris to believe it possible. An appropriately audacious goal, one you couldn’t accomplish today no matter how hard you try, requires changing your abilities, changing who you are—which is the point.

Setting too easy a goal lets you coast. It makes you complacent. Even if it might be impressive to others, it bores you. You know you can achieve it without stretching and improving. Your goal must be something that convinces you that you need to be working toward it every day or you’ll never reach it.

2. Honesty

An appropriate goal, however, can’t be too bold.

Hubris can’t overcome the reality of your starting point and the time required for change. Yes, you can accomplish more than you can imagine—but you can’t do it tomorrow. You may not be able to it next month, perhaps not even next year.

Improvement in running doesn’t come overnight. When you’re a beginning runner, you may knock big blocks off race times as you gain initial fitness and skill, but then the curve levels out and each incremental improvement requires weeks and months of slow progress. Training is a process of breaking your body down and letting it rebuild a better one. By its very nature it takes time.

Reflecting the connection between stress and growth, Nietzsche famously said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Note the caveat. Blindly lunging toward a bold goal untethered to today’s reality won’t make you strong, it will kill you—or at least kill your running.

If today, for example, you’re running 20 miles a week and a comfortable pace is 9 minute miles, you can’t decide you want to break 3:30 in the marathon, go out tomorrow and try to run 50-mile weeks at 8-minute miles. You can, but it won’t get you to where you want to go. Neither can you lay out a calendar and decide you’ll be able to run that much one month from now. You have to work forward from where you are, planning gradual, appropriate increases.

The first goal for every runner, the only one that will work, is to constantly be getting better. This starts with honesty with where you are today. You can’t convince yourself your real level is what you should be able to do, or what you used to be able to do, or what your training buddy can do. It won’t work to decide you’re already fitter and faster just because you really want to be

You can, however, commit to becoming that athlete over time. The way to success is to stretch your abilities a little bit each day. Your long-term goal stands on the horizon, a beacon calling you forward, but the goal each day is to move a bit closer by pushing the edge and expanding your limits.

This commitment to daily progress not only aligns with how the body improves, it also provides affirmation along the way. Every day you have the chance to master a new level of excellence. With every new distance conquered, every hard workout aced, you get to say, “this is hard…but I can do it.” Every time you accomplish that mastery it brings joy and satisfaction and provides momentum to keep moving toward your large goals.

3. Flexibility

Be flexible about those long-term goals on the horizon.

Having accepted the reality and necessity of incremental progress, you may need to adjust your long-term goals as you work toward them. Effective goal setting involves regularly reassessing your current abilities, the time and energy you can commit, and the time span needed to reach the desired level—then adapting your goals to maintain a balance between your abilities and your daily challenges.

A growing gap between what you are able to accomplish and where you need to be is a sure way to lose motivation. When you wake in the morning believing you can’t do the day’s workout, why wouldn’t you pull the covers back over your head and go back to sleep? If the most you can do today, or this week, isn’t going to be enough, why do anything? When goals exceed our abilities, or even our beliefs in our abilities, we cease working to accomplish them and retreat to making excuses.

Adapting isn’t giving up. Successful runners realize that goals are arbitrary.  You aren’t going to lose your life or your job if you don’t achieve them. You’re not going to fail your family or friends. The purpose of goals is to spur progress. If they do otherwise they’ve lost their purpose.

Remember, your goal defines who you want to become, not who you’ve already set yourself up to be. Few are more miserable than runners whose goals become expectations that are out of reach. These are the runners who finish with a personal record, the best time of their lives, but are disappointed and angry because it wasn’t what they were “supposed” to run.

The audacious, scary mark that first inspired you may be out of reach—for now. Better to set an attainable goal that still inspires you to improve than to stubbornly batter yourself against an unrealistic mark. Then, having improved, that dream goal becomes more realistic the next time. Those who accept steady progress eventually rise higher than those who refuse to adapt and repeatedly fail or get hurt, pushing back their starting point once again.

One of my favorite quotes comes from a dialog in Mark Helprin’s novel, A Soldier of the Great War. “If you really want to enjoy life,” an old soldier tells his young traveling companion, “You must work quietly and humbly to realize your delusions of grandeur.” “But I don’t have them,” says the young man. “Start to have them,” the old man replies.

Dream big. Start to have delusions of grandeur. Let them inspire you to commit to the quiet and humble daily work that will move you toward them and enable you to become better than you’ve ever been before.


The Whole Athlete is a monthly running series written by Jonathan Beverly and brought to you by Topo Athletic.  We aim to deliver advice that serves the whole athlete, from training and recovery to nutrition and psychology. 

Jonathan Beverly is author of Your Best Stride and Run Strong, Stay Hungry. A lifetime runner, his passion is to help others experience the joy of training, competing and being fit and fully alive.

He served as editor of Running Times from 2000-2015 and has coached runners of all ages and disciplines.