By Arnie Baker, M.D.
Goal setting is one of the most important specific steps you can take in improving athletic performance. Without goals you are on an uncharted sea, floating without direction. The more specific your goals, the easier it is to map your way and reach your potential.
Benefits of Goal Setting
Why set goals? Here are some of the many benefits. Goal setting:
- Clarifies expectations
- Improves the quality of training
- Makes training more challenging
- Relieves boredom
- Reduces anxiety
- Reduces indecision
- Increases and sustains motivation
- Maps a path to increasing potential
- Increases pride and satisfaction
- Improves focus
- Improves perspective
- Provides a measure of success
- Builds confidence
- Encourages persistence
- Improves performance
Goals: A Map to Your Future An Example
Here’s a situation familiar to many of us: Trying to save money. You may have realized that putting what’s left in your wallet at the end of the month into a savings account doesn’t cut it. This method of saving results in precious little savings. By the end of the month you’ve managed to empty your wallet!
If you have a goal to save $100 a month, and that $100 automatically comes off your payroll check as a deduction before you even receive the check, you’ve got a sure-fire method to have more than a grand in savings at the end of the year. If you think you will train when you can find the time, chances are, you won’t. If you have goals and a plan of action for racing—which you follow—you will be more likely to achieve success in racing. Without goals, you might not even have a way of measuring success!
How to Achieve Your Goals
- Set realistic and specific goals.
- Figure out short-term or intermediate goals that will allow you to reach your final goals.
- Assess your strengths and weaknesses.
- Plan your fitness, skills, and mental training.
- Commit to your training. Write down your goals and your plan.
- Take action: train; work on your short-term goals.
- Monitor your progress. Log your training.
- Modify your goals if needed.
- Reward yourself along the way with suitable reinforcements.
Set Realistic Goals
You need a basic understanding of your desires, your potential, and your opportunities in order to set appropriate goals.
You want to be in the Olympics? Fine. This is your first year of racing—you are a Cat 4 or Cat 5 racer. Admittedly first year riders may have trouble formulating realistic goals because they have no basis of experience. But if you have trouble finishing races, the Olympics is not a realistic goal this year. A dream goal, perhaps, but not realistic.
Realistic goals are not only related to innate ability. If you have just married and have a baby, you may not have the time to reach your potential as a cyclist. You must consider cycling goals within the context of other, perhaps more important, goals in your life.
Live in Alaska, or cruise the Pacific with the Navy? You may ride a trainer a lot, but it’s going to be hard to develop much endurance. Goals should be beyond where you are now. A reach. Attainable if you work hard.
Goals that you can measure and control are sometimes more suitable than those that may be beyond your control. Riding 10 miles in 25 minutes may be a good specific goal. But having that performance goal for a specific event may be beyond your control if you get a flat tire.
It is wise to have a variety of goals, some of which you can achieve relatively easily and some of which you will need to work at very hard, and perhaps be a little lucky to realize. While being realistic, don’t limit yourself. Define minimums, not maximums. Think in terms of at least, as much as, more than, or as fast as, rather than limiting amounts.
It is also reasonable to have a secret fantasy goal or two. Something many steps beyond where you are now. Something conceivable, but unlikely.
Dreams vs. Goals
Sometimes there is a fine line between goals and unrealistic dreams. Lottery tickets return about 50 cents on the dollar. In the long run, they are an unsuitable investment vehicle. Although millions buy them, very few win millions. But some do win big. If you don’t buy a ticket, you have no chance to win.
“Do you homework, because you’ll never make money riding a bike.” So said Greg LeMond’s high school history teacher. She would have been right if she had said: “You’re not likely to make money riding a bike.” But if he hadn’t tried….
Two Grandmothers’ Dreams
A 50+ grandmother of five started cycling a few years ago. She cut back on her 2- pack a day smoking habit and rode 100 miles a week. She was able to ride a century in 8 hours.
She heard about and wanted to do the Race Across America (RAAM). She asked if she could do it. She trained for another year. Phyllis Cohen, along with three other women all over the age of 50, set a transcontinental record.
Phyllis inspired another woman. Who asked the same question at a club breakfast one morning? Could she do it? This woman was 68 years old. She rode a century in about 11 hours. We wrote her necessary short-term goals on a napkin. The next year, Mary Brown completed RAAM with a team of three other riders all over the age of 60.
Ride a Century?
A beginning rider asks about riding a century in 4 months. This is a common and achievable goal for many beginners who have the time and inclination. But there is no basis for knowing whether this was a reasonable goal for Dennis Burke. He a double amputee; he has two leg prostheses. He joined Team in Training, a fund-raising endurance training program, with specific training plans. He reached his goal and completed the Tahoe Century.
Long-term goals can be visions or objective statements. However, specific goals are preferable to general ones.
Annual goals might be to race a time trial in a specific time, upgrade a race category, or complete a century.
Choose goals within a positive framework. “Finish a 10-mile time trial in less than 30 minutes,” is preferable to “Not finish in more than 30 minutes.”
A coach can help you refine your goals, but only you can choose them. A coach can help you plan your short-term goals based on your long-term choices.
Short-Term or Intermediate Goals
The next step is to figure out what you need to get there. Short-term goals are as important as long-term goals. Short-term goals:
- Are stepping stones towards reaching your vision or objective. The rungs on a ladder. The present that gets you to the future.
- Help secure commitment.
- Provide feedback to let you know if you are on the right track.
Where are you now? If you ride a 10-mile time trial in 32 minutes now, and you have set a target goal of 30 minutes in six months, perhaps you need to be able to ride 31 minutes in three months—this is an intermediate goal.
Want to upgrade your category? How many points do you need? How many races must you race? If you race 7 races and need 10 to upgrade you can’t possibly succeed. Analyze your intermediate goals and check that they are reasonable.
Working out is not the only requisite. You may need not only a workout, but a location in which to perform your workout, and others around you to give inspiration and spur you to greater efforts.
Where can you find these appropriate places to ride? Where will you find riding partners? What is the racing calendar? Which races can be used to help you achieve your goals?
Short-term goals are SMART: Specific, Measurable, Action-orientated, Realistic, and Time-based.
“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” Vague goals are like bad directions: you may get there eventually, but with time lost and heartache along the way.
The best goals are the ones that are as specific as possible. Spend a little time and figure out your true desires. Want to be a better bicycle rider? Sure. We all want to be better. That’s not going to take us too far.
You need to be able to assess your progress toward your goals; preferably with numbers. Accurate feedback about how you are doing helps.
If your goals or plans are vague, it is difficult to take concrete action toward achieving them. If your plans are not action-oriented, what steps can you take to make progress?
Whether fitness training, skills training, or mental training, your plan needs action- oriented steps. Action goals also keep you in control; they help motivation and confidence.
Goals need to be challenging, but achievable. Initial short-term goals should have a high-probability of success. You want to be able to experience success so that you’ll increase confidence and motivation to reach for the next goal.
Time-based goals provide the momentum to keep your plans on target. They help motivation. And they increase the probability that you’ll work to achieve your goals.
Assess Strengths and Weaknesses
What skills and abilities do you need to achieve your goals? What strengths do you already possess? Which weaknesses will you need to work on?
Perhaps you have plenty of endurance and can ride a long way. If your goal is a 30- minute 10-mile time trial, you know you can ride the distance. It’s the requisite speed that is a problem. If you ride at only 80 percent of your maximum heart rate, we’ve identified a problem, a limiter. Skilled time trialists can ride as high as 93% of their maximum heart rate for 30 minutes, no problem.
You need a better aerobic system, or need to learn to work harder. How will you improve? Read about aerobic training and plan work-outs to help this aspect of your physiology.
You have good speed to win a sprint, but the pack gets away from you on the hills? You need to climb better. How do you do that? Train more in the hills.
Nobody drops you on the climbs, but you finish last in the lead group? You need to work on your sprint.
Late Season Goal
If you achieve your training goals for the year early in your season, it may be difficult to keep motivation until the end of the season.
For this reasons, incorporate an event near the end of your season in your overall plan.
Having identified training needs, or limiters, train to improve. Here’s a place where a coach is often able to help. Remember training is not only fitness systems; it’s also skills and mental training. And training is not just work; it is work plus recovery.
You have your goals—overall and short-term. You’ve figured out what you need to do. Now commit to your program. Enlist the support of close friends or family. Perhaps invest in new equipment.
Write it Down
Thinking about your goals, strengths, and weaknesses is one thing. Writing down your objectives and the steps you will need to attain those objectives is quite another. It helps establish your priorities. It gives commitment. It helps you achieve your goals.
Fitness, skills, or mental training. Do it. There is no substitute.
When you learn arithmetic in grade school, you don’t find out at the end of the year that you did great, or failed, without feedback along the way. How unnerving that might be.
No. The year is divided into terms, and you get grades along the way. Within each term, you have separate tests. If you are paying attention, you will realize that you won’t fail the year if all your scores along the way have been perfect.
It’s the same way with bicycling goals. Set up periodic tests, perhaps every few weeks or every month. Suitable tests might be time trials, performances against other riders, or races.
You want to be a Cat 3 rider at the end of the year. You know how you are placing in the races. You know what you need to do to earn that upgrade. Review your progress every few weeks, and check whether you are progressing satisfactorily.
Monitor your progress. Don’t just watch what happens. Watch and analyze. Figure out what you need. Improve your weak points.
Observe your successes. We all want to improve. It is important to push—sometimes. Don’t be too hard on your failings without acknowledging your own successes. Analyze your successes as well as your shortcomings. What is working and why? If you know why you are a good hill climber this year, and have analyzed your success, perhaps next year when your climbing needs some polishing you’ll know exactly what to do.
Keep a Log
Chart your progress in a training log. The process of noting events makes them clearer and helps ensure further progress. Whether it’s a written training log on paper, or using software like Training Peaks or even just recording all your rides on Garmin Connect or Strava or MapMyRide is up to you.
Keep Track of Small Steps
Sometimes riding is so hard, it makes you wonder why we do it. Or when things are going badly, how and why we can persevere, instead of quit.
One of my favorite quotes comes from a professional rider I coach. He’d like to be in the Tour de France or Olympics.
Suffering in the last section of his race, getting his last feed, his helper held up two bottles—one of Coke and one of Gatorade. “What do you want” she asked. “I want to die!” he said.
There’s a theme from sales techniques that is relevant.
Consider a salesman who calls 150 people each day, people he doesn’t know, trying to interest them into buying a widget. Say he averages 6 sales a day, or one success in 25 calls.
Now that seems like an awful lot of rejection. Basically everyone he calls says “Not interested”, hangs up, or is rude. How can our salesman keep his enthusiasm? How can he do his job?
Our salesman does not look at every call as a matter of success or failure. He mustn’t think of 24 failures for each success.
He must think: “Today I’m going to make 6 sales. Since only 1 person in 25 is interested, in order to make 6 sales, I’ll plan on calling 150 people. Each call is a success. If the person buys, fine. If they don’t buy, I’m one more caller closer making my 150 calls for the day.”
Perhaps think of bicycle riding or racing that way. Each training ride, each race, is a step toward your goal. You can’t win, never mind hang with the pack, every race. But each race, each day, you are improving your fitness, technique, or tactics to get closer to your goal.
If I tell my Olympic hopeful that he needs to ride 200 professional races before he will be Olympic-class, each race can be a success—bringing him closer to his dream.
As time passes and you monitor your progress you may realize that your goals are too ambitious. Perhaps there has been an illness in the family that requires time away from training. It may be appropriate to modify your goals.
Or, as you begin to achieve your more modest goals, you may realize that things are going better than expected. You might be able to expand your horizons toward your dream goals.
Opportunities may present themselves that cause you to modify your goals toward another direction. One year my overall goal for the racing season was high Best-All- Round placement at the Masters Nationals. The availability of great partners and the opportunity to ride tandem caused me to modify my goals from individual achievement to tandem championships and records.
By setting up a system of occasional positive reinforcement you will help motivation.
For example, you might say to yourself: “Until I can ride a 10-mile time trial in 25 minutes I am not competitive enough in my category to merit buying a disc wheel. But once I attain that goal such an investment is appropriate.”
Your goals are important to you. Other people’s goals are important to them and they may not be that interested in yours. Share your goals modestly. Consider the goals of others.
Goal setting provides a map to your future. Goal setting improves training and performance. It reduces boredom, anxiety, and indecision. It increases focus, motivation, and confidence.
Invest the time in setting long-term and short-term goals. As you travel down your road, you’ll be able to look back and see how far you have come.