How to make achievable running goals

Dream big, but don't fall off the cliff

This article was first published May 2017 by Salty.

Dream big! It’s the phrase heard round the internet. Every wanna-be running inspiration implores us to do it and insists she does it herself.

And who can resist? Dream big? Why yes! YES! Sign me up for some of that! No limits! #YOLO!

Dreaming big is wonderful and by no means am I telling you not to dream bigly, giganticly, hugely! You should. I will even dare say that you must!

You see, dreaming big is but the first step to pushing your boundaries and exceeding your wildest expectations of yourself. But here’s the thing: if dreaming big is the only step you take, it’s worse than never dreaming big at all.

Why do we dream big?

Women are goal-seeking animals. A woman’s life only has meaning if she is reaching out and striving for her goals.

– Aristotle (feminized)

Philosophers, religious texts, and self-help books have been advising us how to attain enlightenment, godliness, and happiness since the beginning of recorded history. Our need to strive towards something is as innate as our need to breathe.

Sure, some people don’t think too hard about what their goals are, but we all have them. As runners, we may start with the goal to run for five minutes straight, but over time those goals grow and adapt as we do. First, we want to run more, then faster, and then when those goals seem too simple, we start thinking outside the box.

Over time, many of us hit a goal-wall, where reasonable goals no longer excite us. For instance, simply wanting to run a one-minute marathon PR is not motivating enough to justify the sacrifices, the work, the blood, sweat and tears it takes to achieve it. We need more of a thrill to keep going. Big dream goals can be just that thrill we need. But here’s the rub: they can give it to us in one of two ways and one of those ways is sabotage.

The first way a big dream goal gives us a thrill, and what we all are after when we make one, is that it gives us something to chase. If we buckle down, make a good plan, and attack it with a little patience thrown in the mix, these big dream goals can make the process of training fun and satisfying. A big dream goal can make those one minute PRs more meaningful, in that they’re one minute closer to that big dream, rather than an end in and of themselves.

The second way a big dream goal gives us a thrill is a bit counter-intuitive. Sometimes, when we articulate a big dream goal and own that goal, we sabotage our improvement. It’s true! When we cloak ourselves in a big outrageous goal, we can feel good about ourselves simply for stating what our goal is. Research suggests that when we make a big dream goal, that goal shapes our view of ourselves. Imagine if someone started thinking of herself as, not the mid-packer she currently is, but as someone capable of lining up at the Olympic Trials or Boston Marathon starting line. That can be hugely exciting! But there is danger in that.

Cardamom had a great post a while back about how publicly sharing goals decreases our rate of achieving those goals. That means the people daring to have a big dream goal and going on and on about it all over the internet are the ones least likely to achieve that goal! Simply by identifying yourself as someone capable of achieving your big dream goal can be enough to thwart your success and that’s particularly true if you shout your goal from the mountaintops … or from your laptop.

But that doesn’t mean you must keep your big dream goals to yourself or that big dreams are bad or that anyone who talks about their big dreams is destined to fail. But this does suggest some ways to ensure your big dream goals are more than big pipe dreams.

How to Make Big Dream Running Goals

Know your motivation.

Why do you want to make a big dream goal? Because you’re supposed to? Because it will make you feel good to have one? Because you want an achievement that will make you feel like a success? Or because you want something to work toward, that will challenge you, and force you to face fears, insecurities, and tear down limits? Think hard. That last reason sounds really good, but do you really want to go there or do you want to be the kind of person who says she is? Level with yourself.

Know what it takes.

I want to BQ! It sounds great, it really does, and for most recreational competitive runners it’s a spectacular big dream goal. But if you’re under 35 and barely cracked four hours after six attempts, BQ’ing is going to be really hard. That’s still an excellent big dream goal! But, do you really know what it’s going to take? Are you willing to up your mileage, add more intensity, spend more time foam rolling, doing strength work, and all the other little things? Are you willing to do this day in and day out for years? Are you willing to keep doing it even after a crushing disappointing race or several in that time? Are you willing to do it even if you risk failure?

Get real about excuses.

“No excuses” is a little too absolute. But a common thing that happens, is that runners make big dream goals and then don’t put in the work and then proceed to make excuse after excuse while continuing to wrap themselves up in that big goal. Any time anyone chases a big goal, there will be failures along the way. If we make excuses for those failures, we miss critical opportunities to learn from our mistakes.

Excuses are acceptable if they provide a lesson for you going forward either about what to do differently to achieve that big dream goal or how you may have to modify that big dream goal to be the right level of almost-but-not-quite unattainable challenge. If you can’t give up the excuse-making, rethink your goal.

Would you be happy to have put in the training and the sacrifices if you ultimately fail?

Perhaps the most important thing to ask yourself is this: if I do all the things I need to do to have a shot at my big dream goal, but I never make it, can I be happy with that? Do I find joy in pushing myself and chasing something independent of the achievement? If you spent years in pursuit of this goal, all the time and energy invested in the training, all the sacrifices you’d make in other areas of your life, how would you feel if you came up short? Because it’s the nature of a big dream goal that the odds are pretty good that you won’t achieve it. Again, nothing wrong with that, but it’s something to consider before signing up.

Remember, you are not your running goals.

Lastly, keep your goals just what they are: goals. No matter how lofty, how fast you are, who you are, a running goal is โ€” a running goal. No lives are on the line here and if running left you, you’re still you. Goals are not who we are. Our actions make us who we are.

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And just to be clear one more time. Big dream running goals can be wonderful and set us on an incredible journey of self-discovery and lead to lots of fun running and pushing physical and mental limits. But really getting the most out of big dream goals requires honesty, self-awareness, open-mindedness and a commitment to hard work, patience, and to enjoying the process.

Dreaming big requires you to level with yourself about your physical and mental abilities, the amount of time, energy, and money you’re willing to sink into the endeavor, and the acceptance that you might fail. It requires you to take responsibility for the outcome and, rather than make excuses, own your failures and look to what these failures can teach you about getting better, or about your goal itself.

What’s your big dream goal? Why?

Sal is a 4 year old 77 hour trail marathoner looking to whittle a few minutes off next time. Being a gastropod, Sal is neither male nor female but will accept either set of pronouns. Sal's spirit animal is the cheetah and Sal's mantra is, "What's slow to some is fast for others." Sal writes about Salty Running news.

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