Tiered Goal Setting for Workout Success

This "Cake in White Satin" with its ...
Mmm, tiers.  Think of each layer of your goals like this cake: you need a base of basic, broad goals, then some more focused goals on top of those, and only then you can top it off with goals that are more specific! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whether the goal is to finish the race or to PR, we train to earn results, and it’s easy to feel like the stakes are high on certain goals.   But hey, life happens, and when it gets in the way of a runner meeting her own expectations for herself, that goal-driven inclination can backfire.  It can be oh-so disappointing to miss the mark.

Coming back from a long drought after big peak in fitness I can vouch for this mental state.  One night in Montana, I had just enough daylight to squeeze in the track workout I thought I’d have to miss. Let’s just say running 800s right after dinner during a week when you are getting little sleep isn’t the best way to make your goals seem attainable.

But instead of throwing my hands up and saying, “forget it!” I realized there is a much better way to set workout, race, or training goals so that a missed split or even a missed workout or bad race doesn’t set you back from your overarching goals down the road.

This may not be your experience, but for me, typically thinking negatively about a missed goal creates more negative results down the line.  And setting goals at a high level can be setting oneself up for failure if the conditions just aren’t right to meet those goals.

Focus on the base

If you find yourself unable to meet your expectations more than a couple of times in a training cycle, it’s probably time to look at your base goals, the broadest ones you have.  And we all know the ultimate goal of every workout, race, training plan should be to maintain or improve fitness while staying healthy!  With that in mind, here are some examples of broad goals to make sure that you walk away from every workout, race, and training block knowing you gained something and that you are on the right path to meeting your long term goals with time and hard work:

Stay injury free. This may mean bowing out of a workout early, backing off the pace, or taking a down week (or more). As long as you walk away from every workout, race, and training period healthy you have achieved your goal of maintaining or improving fitness, even if you didn’t hit your goal paces, time, or distance. It’s much easier to gain fitness lost from a missed interval or a few days off than it is from a long stretch due to injury.

Just run. Maybe your legs aren’t up for the speed work or tempo you have planned, or maybe you just mentally aren’t able to get in a hard effort. Switching to a plain old medium or easy effort run instead is a fitness boost in itself and even if you don’t gain as much speed as you would by running faster, remember there’s probably a reason you aren’t able to run hard.  This goes for training plans too:  maybe you are at a period in your life/training where the workouts you were able to do last year just don’t make sense.

Hit the effort/lose the watch. Like Garlic wrote about, some days are just not meant for hitting paces. Maybe you stayed up too late, maybe you are stressed about work or making dinner, maybe you aren’t recovered from your last workout, or maybe the weather just sucks. No matter what the conditions you can always put in the effort.  And trust me, you will gain fitness despite being a little slower than you would like.

Once you have your base goals in place…

Get Specific

So to follow our base goals, here are a couple of more specific goal examples.  These are goals that build off the base goals:

Nail those paces. In our ideal world this is always the goal and we always nail it. But let’s face it, if it were that easy we’d just make the goals harder. Just remember to pat yourself on the back for all those times you meet or exceed the goals.  On the days when the paces aren’t your friend, you’ll have that positive energy to keep you going.

Get the mileage in.  If your body isn’t responding to speedy workouts, can them and focus on distance until you start feeling like your speedy self again. Do yourself a favor and after an honest effort just get in the miles and save the mental torture for a day when you feel strong and ready to rock the workout!

When we focus primarily on our base goals and then work on next-level goals, we should be setting a good foundation for specific goals like “I want to OTQ with the A standard at my race in October!” (don’t we all), or “I want to finish my 10k!” or even simply, “I want to improve my time by this much during this training cycle!”

As for me, my training has not been going at all how I’d like but using this tiered approach has saved me a lot of the mental anguish I would previously have put myself through. Now, instead of beating myself up about my slow progress or how crappy I feel on a run I just focus on the fact that any workout is better than none and eventually, as long as I keep working at it, I will once again nail all of my goals and get back to the fitness level I want to achieve.

What about you Salty readers? Do you have alternative (non-pace or time driven) workout goals set for each workout, race, or training plan so you always walk away feeling like you achieved something?


A gal on a mission to save Cuyahoga County streams one storm water facility at a time. An ex runner of many facets including marathons, pacing, ultras and more. Chronic left side issues have me cycling more than running these days but I'm attempting to get back to my running roots.

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  1. I love this post! In fact, I’m printing it to share with my running friends. The Focus on the Base points are great reminders of what’s important to maintain the consistency that’s so important.