If you watched the USA Track and Field Championships this weekend, you saw some incredible things happen. The fairytale endings and ridiculous finishes we saw are the culmination of years of hard work, persistence and long-term goal setting. These moments are brief, but the work that leads up to the them is long.
It’s easy to have goals and big dreams in running and it’s not uncommon to have talent and potential and the willingness to work hard. A lot of runners have all of that. What separates the runners that make achieve their big dreams (aside from a good amount of luck)? Making LONG term goals, then breaking them down to smaller and smaller goals and sticking to them. In many ways it involves sacrificing short-term satisfaction for the purpose of following the big overarching plan, and developing SLOWLY into the runner you want to become.
Don’t Rush Progress
Rushing progress can be the most detrimental thing you can do for your running career. When you enter collegiate running (for example), you can decide that you have a set number of goals (be All-American, make NCAA’s, run a certain time in the 5k, make varsity, etc. etc.), but you also get to decide WHEN you want to achieve these goals.
Is it reasonable and realistic to think that in your first year you’d show up and take a couple minutes off your high school 5k time, be top 40 in the nation in cross country or just be an overall extremely better runner than you were just a few short months ago? No.. it’s not realistic or reasonable (it does happen, but it’s not the norm).
Setting goals that are simply impossible will set you up for failure in a couple ways. First, you’ll rush your training and jump up in mileage and push yourself more than your body is ready to go. This will likely lead to injury or fatigue. Also, you’ll be constantly dissatisfied and unable to celebrate the small victories along the way because they will NEVER be good enough. They’ll never meet your unrealistic expectations!
How do we set these long-term running goals and actually stick with them?
Making long term goals means assessing where you are in running right now, and thinking about where you want to be in a few years. Developing takes time, which is an awesome lesson from Maddie’s Running Story: From “Nowhere to Somewhere”, where she explained how she cut 40 seconds off her 1500m time in three years by being patient with her training and slowly improving year by year.
You decide what your long term goal is, then break it down by year. If you want to cut off a minute of your 5k time, why not start with 10 seconds this year. Then 10 the next year. Slowly let yourself become the runner you want to be instead of rushing. Set short term goals— day by day and month by month. Season goals should be attainable based on your training and current fitness.
Sacrificing Short-Term Satisfaction for Long Term Goals
In Steve Magness’s latest blog post on The Science of Running, he talks about The Myth of Losing Speed— something runners/coaches think happens when runners do too much endurance training. He explained that doing lots of aerobic running doesn’t make runners lose speed, it’s the lack of speed work during training blocks focused on building aerobic fitness that takes away from speed.
You didn’t lose speed because you did lots of slow mileage to build a base, you lost speed because you were doing all aerobic mileage without doing any speed work. Not being as fast or sharp while building an aerobic base is just a side effect of focusing on one thing at a time.
My favorite point of the article is what Magness calls “Short term loss for long term gains”. He explains that losing speed isn’t a big deal while you’re focusing on developing aerobic fitness because speed can be regained later in the season, AND aerobic fitness is an important aspect of being the best middle distance runner you can be.
“The point is, there are times of the year, when it’s okay to lose a little speed or a little endurance. The key is not losing that much where you can’t get it back to where you need it, when you’re emphasizing it.” – Steve Magness
The long-term goal in this instance would be ending the season with a good balance of aerobic fitness and speed. If that means sacrificing speed at the beginning of the season to develop aerobic fitness, so be it.
Short term discomfort for long term success
If you’re uncomfortable now because you’re not as fit as you were at the end of the season, or you’re injured and doing the right things like rehab and cross training, or taking some time totally off to get healthy (like me!), you can rest assured knowing that short term discomfort for the purpose of reaching your long-term goal is well worth the wait.
No one that walked away from USA’s with a huge smile decided the day before that they wanted to make the world championships. They decided years ago, then slowly ticked off training weeks, races, and celebrated small victories along the way. Making long-term goals and sticking to them is one of the best lessons I’ve learned for finding comfort in rest.