Goals are the bedrock of high performance. October marathon PR’s begin as January plans that manifest into methodical consistency over weeks and months of training. Goals provide an anchor for focus, drive intentionality, and create meaning in our lives.
One of the reasons I personally love having races on my calendar to look forward to is the structure and meaning they provide to my days and weeks. The meaningful individual goals I’m striving toward provide a foundation for daily motivation, weekly consistency, and matching appropriate effort and intensity throughout the training cycle.
Psychologically, goals in and of themselves serve a powerful function in our human psych. Most athletes can attest to the satisfaction felt when achieving goals, and the disappointment when falling short.
Identifying goals is usually easy. Staying committed in a consistent way to see them through to fruition is another story. When goals are clear and personally relevant, we can leverage the underlying psychological function they provide on a daily basis through a three-part routine that involves learning how to say yes to the right things at the right times. Here’s how.
Setting Up Your Run
Check in with yourself before you run, spending a quick moment of honest reflection with these three questions:
- What type of run/workout am I about to do? (Review the specifics of the day’s plan.)
- Why is this important at this stage of my training? (Review how this workout will lead to fitness improvement in pursuit of your goals.)
- How am I planning to engage in the work? (What mental skills or attitude are you planning to focus on and develop?)
These three questions can be considered while your watch is locking into GPS and you are lacing up your shoes. Answers don’t need to be written down; going over them in your mind works just fine.
If you are like most athletes I know, my guess is that while you often consider the first question — consulting your training plan to determine what type of run you’ll do — you rarely entertain the subsequent questions. But the importance here cannot be overstated. Mentally reviewing the connection between the specifics of the planned run/workout with how this will contribute to your overall fitness at this stage in training (stage is an important reminder here given the different periodized training demands), and reminding yourself of the mental skill development you are working on helps you stay anchored to the larger goals you are pursuing. It takes the guesswork out of the importance of each day’s training and sharpens the image of why today matters in the pursuit of your bigger goal.
One of the biggest disconnects I hear from athletes is the difference between how important goal achievement down the road feels to them and how little they connect to it on a daily basis (or how severely that connection can wane throughout the training cycle). Frustration paired with a lack of a daily actionable plan becomes a recipe for giving up on the goal or not fully leaning in when required and doing the hard work.
The self-awareness process helps bridge that gap, helping you realize that each and every day is another step in a meaningful direction. As the philosopher Socrates is said to have pointed out, “If you want to get to Mount Olympus, make sure every step you take is in that direction.” This process starts by saying yes to these three questions as you prepare to embark on the day’s workout.
Making the Growth Choice
I have quite a few athletes come my way within a week or two of their A race, looking to learn mental toughness skills. And I always ask what they did during their training to build mental toughness along the way. Some point to specific workouts, or specific ‘moments of truth’ during their training, when they decided to keep going or increase intensity despite feeling tired, fatigued, or watching their own thoughts doubt their ability to be successful. Some shrug their shoulders.
The secret to mental toughness is that there is no secret. There is no shortcut, nor easy path to becoming mentally tough. Further, no two mentally tough athletes are the same. Each of us has the capacity to become mentally tough in our own way, with our own unique constellation of skills to help us stay on course despite how we feel in the moment. This truth holds for every possible mental skill you can develop as an athlete.
Instead of looking for a special trick, take advantage of the fact that every workout provides you a choice for how you “show up,” as Des Linden says. You get a choice during every run for what mental skills you plan to work on, influencing your attitude and intentionality as you go about clipping off the miles or pounding out the day’s intervals. Recognizing that the point of the workout includes the mental skill development lets you integrate the mental reactions with the physical sensations — “It’s supposed to feel this way” — and consciously work on building and using your mental fitness and toughness.
But you need to be clear about what you are developing before you begin. I call this process the “Growth Choice” — learning to spend time during each workout developing some aspect of the mental game. Harder efforts allow you the opportunity to work on key elements — willingness to accept and embrace discomfort, credible self-talk, and optimism — that are the cornerstones of mental toughness. Easier, aerobic-based days provide an opportunity to focus on gratitude and mindfulness. Some runs lend themselves to developing focus, during others you might work on learning to use an energy-saving zen-like dissociation. And there are endless others.
Clarity and purposeful development of these skills on a daily basis not only helps you keep your longer-term goal in focus as you recognize that the development of these skills is critical to the successful attainment of your goal but further ensures that these mental skills will not be left to chance come race day.
Putting Your Run Away
After you hit stop on your watch and you’re preparing to head into the next part of your day, how often do you reflect for a moment on what you just completed? On how that contributed to your fitness development in achieving your goals? And how you approached the work?
The moments after hitting stop on your watch are an important, yet often overlooked, timeframe in your life as an athlete. A quick review in your mind as you are walking back into your house or apartment or taking off your shoes and preparing for the next part of your day helps cement this mental framework and keeps your goals, and the necessary steps it takes to achieve them both physically and psychologically, fresh and in perspective. Consolidating the work psychologically in this way will also help you pick back up from a relatively similar starting point tomorrow, giving your longer-term goal daily accountability and focus.