Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Who hasn’t hit the first signs of fatigue in a race and felt a bit of panic and doubt in your ability to maintain pace and achieve your goals? Suddenly, instead of feeling confident and focused on meeting the challenge, you start making excuses to explain the poor showing: the sun’s too hot, the wind’s too strong, your stomach is acting up, that gimpy hamstring is aching — you just don’t have it today. And, as soon as you start down that mental path, you often don’t have it, and fulfill your fears by falling short.
Many coaches recommend that runners set multiple goals going into a race or hard workout to account for variables in conditions and how the body responds. Often these include an ideal goal, a dream that will only happen if everything goes perfectly, a realistic goal based on current training that you can attain even if you’re not feeling 100 percent, and a fall-back goal that you can still feel good about hanging onto on a rough day. Multiple goals help you assess performances in the real world, one where the stars rarely align, and celebrate great efforts even when they aren’t PRs or victories.
As a competitor and a coach, however, I’ve also found multiple goals important for runners during a race or workout, to help maintain focus, avoid giving up and make reaching ideal goals more likely.
Peak experiences often occur when we’re faced with a challenge that is balanced with our capacity to meet it. This lies at the heart of the theory of Flow popularized by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Faced with too great a task, we become anxious and overwhelmed, mentally retreating to defend ourselves — hence all those excuses mid-race. Given too little challenge, however, we get bored and our minds wander away from the task — we may start thinking about the cute spectator we just went by and how we look, or we start worrying about the hills in the second half of the course, or the work we still have to do before Monday starts nagging at us. At just the right balance, however the task requires all our energy and demands our full focus, blocking out everything else as we engage our full physical and mental energy to deploy our skills to meet the challenge. This immersion leads to both unprecedented success and great satisfaction.
Perceived Skill Meets Perceived Challenge
Csikszentmihalyi pointed out, however, that both the challenges we face and the skills we possess are self-perceived. “It is not only the ‘real’ challenges presented by the situation that count, but those that the person is aware of. It is not skills we actually have that determine how we feel, but the ones we think we have,” he wrote in Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. While skill is ultimately physical, our ability to achieve and stay in Flow depends on our belief in that skill. When we lose faith during the throes of a race, it throws off the challenge-skills balance.
Having multiple goals is a way counter this variability in confidence. If you have only an ideal goal, that defines the full scope of the challenge. Any time you feel like you won’t be able to achieve that goal — the perceived challenge exceeds your perceived skill — you become overwhelmed, lose your razor focus and start to give up — even if you may still be holding pace.
Having two or three goals allows you to adjust the challenge mid-race when you start to doubt. By falling back to a less intimidating goal, you can regain a challenge-skills balance and refocus on running well rather than giving up — and figuring out how to explain why. Often, I’ve found after I’ve dealt with my confidence crisis and found my focus groove again, the realistic or even ideal goal once again feels attainable, and I can call on skills I now have renewed confidence in to meet it.
When it comes to races of marathon length or longer, I find it useful to add a fourth goal, one that I call the Jackson Browne: “If it takes all night, that’ll be all right.” In dire circumstances, the challenge gets reduced to simply finishing, so no matter how ugly it gets, as long as I’m still moving I’m meeting the challenge.
Note that the belief in our abilities, and correspondingly, the goals based on those abilities, have to be ours: Not a friend’s nor even a coach’s, no matter how well-meaning or informed their opinions may be. And it’s important to tell others our honest multiple goals as well. Too often we tell only our ideal goal — it’s simple, and it is what we ideally hope for as the outcome — but then we find ourselves trapped by it and start making excuses even before the gun.
Multiple goals are useful during workouts too. Given fewer consequences for failure, I’ve found I can often just set a narrower, acceptable range for splits, essentially two goals instead of three. The range provides enough latitude so that I’m still meeting the goal when my split is 5 seconds slow on number five of eight 800 repeats, for example. Or, even if I don’t slow, knowing I could and still be in range gives me ongoing confidence in my ability to succeed, fending off the feelings of being overwhelmed and keeping me in Flow even as the difficulty increases throughout the workout. But, unlike in race, if I’m really falling off the realistic pace, I probably do need to call it a day.
Upward Spiral of Goals and Skill
Multiple goals, or perhaps more accurately “adaptable” goals, are also necessary throughout a season. We need to first set goals that match the skills we have now — too ambitious and we get only negative feedback against them and a continual state of anxiety. As we gain in ability, however, we have to ramp up the challenge in order to find Flow. Re-conquering challenges below the edge of our skills may be comfortable, but will lead to boredom, not Flow.
One reason running is so satisfying is that its goals can easily and continually adjust as our skills improve — we don’t have to find a better opponent or a higher mountain — we can just scale our times to our new reality. And, running well has no limits on difficulty or how much effort we can spend on it. Which is good, as Csikszentmihalyi says, “The quality of experience tends to improve in proportion to the effort invested in it.” A lifetime of Flow results in an upward spiral, where increased challenges lead to stronger skills, which in turn inspire greater challenges.