For runners, setting a personal record is an intense experience. You commit to countless training hours to get into the best shape of your life, and on race morning — if the race conditions are just right — you might eke out a three-second PR. When it all comes together, there's nothing quite like it. You're on top of the world.
But the more you race, the more difficult the quest to beat yourself becomes, and yet we continue to make that our primary focus. Carrie Jackson, CMPC, a mental skills training coach and author of Rebound: Train Your Mind to Bounce Back Stronger from Sports Injuries, says this desire to be better and faster is very common among runners.
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"Often they're thinking that in order to be a 'real' athlete or 'real' runner, they have to keep pushing and raising the bar," she tells LIVESTRONG.com. "I tell them that sometimes, instead of raising the bar, you need to put the bar down."
And for reasons both in and out of our control, we cannot run our personal bests every time we race. At various times throughout your running career, you might find yourself physically or mentally incapable of running a PR. It could be because of age, injury, illness or just life. Or it might be that you've become completely obsessed with an elusive time goal and it's making your running life miserable.
Matt Fitzgerald, a running coach, nutritionist, author of 80/20 Endurance and creator of Dream Run Camp, has encountered athletes of all abilities and levels who, at one point or another, needed to find a goal that has nothing to do with time or race performance.
"Runners typically start with some type of measurable goal, like a PR, hitting a certain time or qualifying for something," he tells LIVESTRONG.com. "But when those goals become unrealistic or if they if they're causing anxiety, it starts to just kind of spoil the whole experience. That's the point where I will open a conversation about finding a different way to define success."
Interestingly, when an athlete takes their mind off the outcome and sets non-time goals, they often perform at their best. Without the pressure of expectations, our bodies and minds relax and run with ease.
With Fitzgerald and Jackson's help, we've come up with a few goals that are just as worthy as hitting a personal best and that might actually help you run better.
1. Run a Race as the Best Version of Yourself
Fitzgerald often asks his athletes: "What would it mean for you to race as the best version of yourself in that race?"
He encourages them to think about all parts of the race — not just split times and results, but some of the more qualitative elements that go into the event.
"I think the truest success always, even at the elite level, is doing the best you can," Fitzgerald says. That goes beyond running at full effort. "There are three factors in a race that are in your control: your effort, attitude and decisions. Running a good race might come down to if you are controlling the controllable in a way where you can look back and say, 'There's not much I could change about that.'"
Fitzgerald encourages you to recall a race where you felt truly proud despite what the numbers said. Ask yourself what about that race felt right. Why were you able to feel good about it despite not running a PR? It could be that you maintained an incredible effort level despite terrible weather.
"I think anyone who's raced more than a few times has had experiences where they feel really good about a race that objectively was a failure in the sense that they didn't achieve their time goal. When you have those experiences, you start to see that success and achieving your goal are not isomorphic."
So, throughout your training, ask yourself what running your goal race as the best version of yourself would look like. "If you have clarity on that, it can be pretty motivating," Fitzgerald says.
2. Figure Out Why Running Is Important to You
Like Fitzgerald, Jackson says that when she asks runners to adjust their goals, she is asking them to expand their definition of success. There can be multiple forms of success — and only one of those has to do with the time clock at the end of the race. A great way to find those other versions is to find the "why" behind your running.
If an athlete tells Jackson they want to run a PR, she asks them: "Why is that important to you?"
"They might say that if they run a PR it means all the work was worth it and that all the time and effort they put in paid off. Then I'll say: 'Why is that important to you?'" She continues to make the athlete answer why until they get to the root of their reason.
"Sometimes we're just like kind of stuck on the surface," Jackson says. "A person might get to: 'I want to know that when I leave this life I've done everything I wanted to do.' Sometimes we go really deep, and then we can see that the goal is really just the opportunity to show up."
3. Set Challenges for Yourself That Have Nothing to Do With Time
For many runners, fixating on a time goal can lead to anxiety or fear — fear of failure, fear of disappointing yourself and the people around you, fear of not performing the way you think you should, fear of uncertainty in your training and the race, fear of being an inadequate runner.
"Athletes can get stuck thinking, 'Because there's uncertainty about whether I'll achieve my goal, I have no choice but to be afraid,'" Fitzgerald says. "But they can choose to pivot to focus on embracing the uncertainty. By making the uncertainty the point, your anxiety goes down. Anxiety is performance limiting, so ironically it tends to improve performance."
Fitzgerald knows from experience that being curious about your performance might break down into interesting challenges you can set for yourself. You might say, "I wonder how far I can go on my long run without stopping to walk." It might be, "How might my running improve if I add a day of yoga?"
Some other ideas include:
- Add one day per week of intervals, tempo runs, or hill work to mix up your routine.
- Try a new cross-training activity (rowing, cycling, swimming) to see how your body responds.
- Take one full rest day per week to see how that feels.
4. Commit to the Entire Training Process
When you choose to set your PR as your only goal, you are only focusing on the outcome. Changing your mindset from outcome to process isn't as tough as it seems. Fitzgerald advises his athletes to "set it and forget it" and then work toward smaller milestones.
Jackson explains that there are two other types of goals to pay attention to: performance and process goals. If, for example, you're training for a half-marathon, your goals for the first four weeks might look like this:
You can also make supplemental goals to make training more enjoyable. Set some goals that help you mix it up so that you feel good about every run. For example:
- Run in a new place for every long run.
- Try an easy run on a trail.
- Find a run club and join them for a run.
- Make a long-run playlist.
Jackson says the need for process goals within each run or race often gets overlooked. When you step out to run 10 miles or get to the start line of a race with only your PR in mind and no game plan, you're not prepared if things go awry.
"When self-doubt creeps in, it has an actual physiological effect," Jackson says. Your heart rate quickens, your muscles tense up and you won't perform at your best. "So you want to make sure that you also have process goals. Things like, 'Where does my focus need to be? And what do I need to be paying attention to?'"
The answers to these questions in each step of the run or race can distract you from the difficulty of the task at hand and quiet any self-doubt. Some examples of goals you can set for each run include:
- Hitting a specific step cadence
- Repeating a mantra during a period of pain
- Creating mile-by-mile pace guidelines and sticking to it
5. Learn How to Celebrate Milestones
It might seem silly to set a goal to celebrate your goals, but Jackson believes this is essential to working toward the outcome you ultimately want. Remember how we mentioned that runners tend to keep looking for the next, bigger, better goal when it comes to distances and PRs? That same kind of mindset can sneak in during training and lead to mental burnout and overtraining.
Jackson says it's crucial for runners to absorb how much they achieve during training and celebrate how incredible it is that they're accomplishing milestones along the way. Many athletes who haven't taken the time to celebrate themselves don't know how.
"I'll have my athletes look in the mirror and pat and literally pat themselves on the back and go, 'You did an amazing job and I'm so proud of you,'" Jackson says. "The first time they do it, they're like, 'This is super awkward. Please don't make me do this.' Then once they get over that they realize it's actually really powerful."
Patting yourself on the back for hitting weekly mileages or sticking with your easy pace instead of going too fast can reinforce good habits during training. For bigger milestones, you could get yourself a gift or take yourself out to eat.
For example, the first time you run for five or 10 miles in a training cycle, take a moment and congratulate yourself.
"You could buy yourself a fancy bottle of wine, stop at your favorite coffee shop or buy a piece of equipment that you've been stoked to get," Jackson says. "The important part is the intention behind it — that you're doing it for the purpose of recognizing and honoring the work that you did to get here."
"If you have to adjust a goal, it means you set a goal in the first place. It's part of the process. It does not mean you failed. It does not mean that you're not good enough. It means you have to adjust your goal. That's all it means."
6. Do a Workout Purely for Fun
Fitzgerald says he sees a lot of runners who get stuck chasing goals that they think will make them qualify as "legitimate" runners. While he's all for big goals, he knows when to intervene and remind the athlete that running is supposed to be fun.
"Every runner, at every level, becomes a runner by falling in love with running," Fitzgerald says. "So you can almost guarantee that that is an experience that, if we rewind to the beginning, there's a love story. If you can point to that memory and see that there was a reason why [you] fell in love, that can be very useful in getting motivated."
Jackson agrees. She'll tell her runners to set a goal to try a run with no technology.
"We're tapping into the very first time that you ran as a kid and the joy that it brought to you, and the freedom that you felt," she says. "So there might be a goal for you to find something that feels really fun."
For example, if you find joy in running on a trail with your friends and it makes you forget about your training plan for a bit, then that's your goal.
7. Spend Less Time Running and More Time Doing Other Activities That Bring You Joy
Chasing PRs constantly can lead to feelings of frustration, and sometimes that frustration takes the joy away from the sport.
"When your goal goes from being an 'I want to' to an 'I have to,' that might be time to hit the pause button," Jackson says. "When that thing that we wanted to do starts to feel like something we have to do, we start to lose our drive, motivation and focus."
If you find you can't figure out the real "why" behind your goals, or if you're inability to conquer a time goal is causing you distress, it might be time to take a beat.
"If the runner has a high athletic identity and they get a lot of their self-worth from their sport, then I know if things don't go well it's going to have an impact on their self-worth," Jackson says. "So, for that person, we might be looking at exploring other parts of their identity. We might look at goals that have zero to do with their sport."
Jackson says to assess what needs more attention in your life. Maybe your goal should be spending time on your other hobbies or spending time with family and friends. Fill the time you might have spent running with other activities.
Finally, it's important to note that making changes to your goals isn't a bad thing. "If you have to adjust a goal, it means you set a goal in the first place," Jackson says. "It's part of the process. It does not mean you failed. It does not mean that you're not good enough. It means you have to adjust your goal. That's all it means."