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Why runners shouldn’t set SMART goals, and what to do instead

Research shows SMART goals often don't lead to success. Instead, runners should focus on habit-forming and process goals to achieve success

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The SMART approach has become a popular method for intelligent goal setting, but is it the best approach for runners? Many experts believe that specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timebound (SMART) goal-setting is ineffective, but that doesn’t mean you should give up on goal-setting altogether. If you want to achieve your spring and fall running goals, here’s what to do instead.

The problem with SMART goals

SMART goals are so attractive because having specific parameters around your goal helps you set a clear path forward to achieve it. And after all, who doesn’t love a good acronym? Unfortunately, research shows SMART goals don’t necessarily predict success. In fact, one study of over 4,000 people found “no meaningful correlation” between SMART goals and participants’ abilities to achieve success.

For some, setting SMART goals can actually reduce the likelihood of success because they ignore the emotional aspect of goal-setting, and even create anxiety because they’re heavily oriented around one specific outcome.

How should runners set goals instead?

The next time you’re sitting down to set goals for an upcoming training block, season or race, focus on the following strategies instead:

Focus on habit-forming

Runners can often become hyper-fixated on a singular outcome goal. The easiest example of this, of course, is a time-related goal, like trying to set a new PB, qualify for Boston or run under a certain “benchmark” (a sub-60 10K, sub-4 hour marathon, etc.).

The problem with goals like these is that they’re so heavily influenced by factors outside of your control. You could get an injury that prevents you from training for a couple of weeks. You could wake up on race day to heavy rains, high winds or any other kind of weather that will make it nearly impossible to achieve your goal, no matter how fit and ready you are.

Outcome-oriented SMART goals also put you on a very specific timeline that doesn’t allow for much lee-way. As most runners know, success in the sport doesn’t always come quickly or “on time.” Success in running is the result of weeks, months and years of consistent, daily habits that inch you toward your goals.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have outcome-oriented goals, but they shouldn’t be your main focus day-to-day. Focussing instead on process-related or habit-forming goals will help you be more flexible with your mindset and adaptable when an unforeseen factor interrupts your progress.

Process-related goals could be as simple as staying consistent with your workouts, forming better sleep habits or not going too hard on your easy days. Essentially, they are whatever you need to do to ultimately reach your outcome goal, but they provide an opportunity to celebrate success more regularly, instead of just once. They also give you something to fall back on. If your race doesn’t go to plan, you can still look back at your training and be proud of all the smaller successes you had along the way.

Remove roadblocks

Sometimes, your ability to achieve a goal isn’t about what you need to add to your life, it’s about removing what’s holding you back. Are you only getting six hours of sleep every night? Are you not refuelling properly after your workouts? Are you running too fast on your easy days?

Before you start setting goals, take a look at what you’re already doing and find areas that could use some improvement. Don’t make it harder on yourself by putting roadblocks in your own way.

Have multiple goals

Instead of having one goal for your next race, try setting three: an A goal, a dream goal and a B goal. The A goal is what you’re training towards. It should be something that, based on how your training went, is achievable (though you’ll still have to work for it). Your dream goal is there in case everything goes better than expected on race day. It gives you something new to strive for when you know you’ve already surpassed your A goal.

The B goal is for when things go sour on race day. Maybe the weather isn’t ideal or you had trouble sleeping in the days leading up to the race, or maybe you’re simply not having a great day. Whatever the reason, the B goal is there to give you something to focus on when your A goal is out of sight, so you can still get a sense of achievement when you cross the finish line.

The bottom line

SMART goals work really well for some runners, but for others, they’re a source of anxiety and stress that actually prevents them from succeeding. If SMART goals aren’t working for you, try these other strategies to help you achieve your running and racing goals.

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