Goal setting and comparing performances

Success and failure in running is often measured against only one yardstick – that of the stopwatch. But if we stop and think for a minute there are many more helpful benchmarks that can be used to track progress, or even, impossible as it may sound, give us an indication of our overall enjoyment and love of the sport of running.

Not everyone runs competitively in organised races, but even runners who say they run for fitness can tend towards over emphasis on comparing the now to past achievements. This might be number of days run, miles covered, or a time trial over a familiar course. They might not be toeing the line against other runners, but their running world is crowded with competition of their own making. Every stride is dogged by former, fitter, younger, more focused, faster versions of themselves.

Factors like work, family, stress, age, mental state, the weather are rarely considered in this very personal race. These elements are just as important for competitive and regular runners who race the clock and other runners in races. So whatever your level there is almost complete futility in trying to directly compare performances past and present.

Relativity needs to be considered

An idea that should probably be at the forefront of the mind more often is considering the merits of any given performance on the basis of your preparation. What might look like an ordinary or average performance to an outsider, could be something of a personal triumph given the circumstances leading up to it and where it sits and fits with the rest of life’s challenges and complexities. A personal best you could on the day if you like.

How about enjoyment as a success measure?

Each race has to be analyzed on its merits, not every outing is going to end up in a personal record performance. For this reason alone I believe it’s just as important to focus on how much you’re enjoying your running as it is on how fast or far you are running. After all, if you only ran to run faster or further than you’ve run before then there are going to be a lot of days that end up in disappointment.

This healthier approach to your running is integral to having a good relationship with yourself, other competitors, coach and training partners. Being outside logging some miles pain free in a pleasant environment like the park or forest is a simple but joyful pleasure.

Yes running without pain or injury is a valid benchmark for success – if you couldn’t do this before, then a few months or a year of injury free running is definitely a win worth savoring. As is the chance to get out and train with people you enjoy spending time with: you run, you talk, and share a special experience each and every time.

Not enjoying running? Here are a few suggestions.

Experimenting with different types of training and running can also be a source of enjoyment and discovery in your running. If you’re falling out of love with running, try running fast. It doesn’t matter if you’re a marathoner or ironman triathlete, spending six months training for 800m or 3000m is a fantastic way to get back in touch with the joy of running.

Do training sessions where the only purpose is to run fast and with power – even if you’re slow like me it feels good to run at the top end of your range. And you might surprise yourself by getting faster than you thought possible. Running fast is fun.

Take the pressure off – don’t race for a block of a few months

Constant racing without a good plan of what you’re trying to achieve can become a tiring downward spiral. Take some time out from competitive pressures to work on a different aspect of your running, this could be running faster, spending more time doing some strength work or just jogging some easy miles in the forest.

Whichever aspects you choose to work on make sure you enjoy it; do it because you want to. If you’re beat up, tired or otherwise can’t be bothered, have a day off, a few more rest days could be just the tonic to make you look forward to your next run. If you’re hungry for running you’ll definitely savour the experience more.

Embrace discomfort

This is a slightly perverse notion, but once you begin to get fit then enjoying a little hurt can be part of the fun. Holding it together under duress is a mini success all on its own. How much longer can you hurt and hold on to good form? This is a good game to play when doing hill training or repetitions on the track. But once your technique falls apart it’s time to call it a day.

Training partners

Train with people whose company you enjoy and especially those that share a similar philosophy to the way you approach your running. If you’re a relaxed character, training with people that are too intense may be counterproductive. Equally if you’re intense and hardcore doing all your running with easy going types is probably going to do your head in. On the flip side of this, intensity mixed with relaxation could help runners find a happy medium.

I’ve had the pleasure of sharing a number of training sessions with training partner Lisa over the course of 2011. In amongst a challenging job and a background of being regularly injured Lisa has put together her first complete year of injury free running in some time. I’ll let her share her personal perspective on a recent performance and what it means in the context of her running and living a busy life.

A change in perspective by Lisa Biffin

Toeing the line in a competitive track race would have once been a completely different experience for me. I would have found myself obsessing over the other competitors, how fast they have run, making subconscious personal comparisons. Have I trained enough, am I fit enough, good enough, fast enough? Negative and doubtful thoughts would infiltrate my thought process.

However something was distinctly different in my approach to this year ending 3000m race. I knew I wasn’t the fastest in the race, nor the fittest. I work 80 hours a week, live in the sky with my job and my training fits around meetings and work events. But I was the calmest and the most excited I had ever been in a race.

It has taken me a while to get to this point. Having a type A personality, goal setting was part of my make up, but one thing I omitted was taking the time to reflect on where I have come from and simply enjoying the moment. Injury and illness over a number of years has restricted my ability to train and run with any consistency.

Heart surgery, hip surgery, ruptured cyst, appendicitis and plantar fasciitis have all visited long non-running phases into my life. It seemed that every second year I was hit with a major setback that kept me watching from the sidelines. My somewhat unhealthy motivation levels meant that as soon as I could get back up on my feet I would throw myself back into hard training, but I would become disappointed when I wasn’t straight back to the level of fitness I had been.

So what has changed?  Firstly my approach to why I run. I had lost my perspective on why I run.  The simple feeling of being free and being lost in my own thoughts were consumed by competitions, qualifiers and certain times. Secondly my approach to training changed both from a mental and physical perspective.

About 12 months ago I started running with Brian and tweaking my running technique. I also added regular strength training to strengthen and stabilize my wonky hips.  A direct quote from my training diary pretty much sums up my journey “my foot has been so sore. Changed my style again. Felt weird. Don’t feel natural running at all. This is going to be a LOOONGGG process!!”

However I stuck with the process. I started running a total of 11km for a week and ensured my harder sessions remained at controlled intensities so I could practice holding my running form together without being constantly maxed out – the way I used to train.  Slowly the training increased when I finally managed to run a grand total of 50km a week and that’s where I stayed.

My body felt good, I was still tweaking my style and after only 12 months of a modified technique and a different approach to training I was running competitive times and more importantly loving the process of running.

This was reflected in a recent year ending 3000m race. Despite being in touch with the pack in the early stages, I knew I was in trouble with 1200m to go. Previously I would have panicked, probably given up and spent the post race hours beating myself up after completing some ridiculously long cool down as punishment.

Yesterday, however I kept racing, I raced myself. It still hurt but I pushed on and the first thing I thought of once I crossed the finish line was how happy I was that despite finishing last, I was racing, injury free and doing this purely for myself.

There was no self doubt; there was no self imposed 10km warm down.  In fact I had a huge smile, I knew where I had come from and what I had to do to get to where I’m going, grabbed a box of chocolates and walked over to the car.

The day after the race was just as rewarding. I have an even bigger desire to progress my training, race some more and keep challenging myself. I have set myself realistic and long term goals that are purely for me with the confidence that I can look beyond the next 12 months, because I am here for the long haul.

Written by and Lisa Biffin

12 Responses to Goal setting and comparing performances

  1. Mikael March 20, 2012 at 9:31 pm #

    Hi Brian and Lisa,

    Thanks for a great article. I recognise a lot the story of Lisa in my own running. Too competitive too quickly. I am now 38 and when I was younger the competitiveness didn’t pose a problem.

    I would run hard for a couple of months and then tire of it in favour of something else (like playing golf, hanging out with friends, just eating and drinking). During my heavy running periods I turned into a purist and when off the running wagon I would enjoy other parts of life and let the kilos amass. Then one day I got hurt, running.

    I had quite a bad case of plantar fasciitis and stopped running for many years. Then I met a great physiotherapist who helped me tape my feet and gave me a few exercises for strengthening my feet and it all turned to the better. I was able to walk without pain, started exercising in gym (spinning, core training and weight lifting) and just a couple of months ago I started running again. The feeling is just wonderful and I am now able to enjoy just running again. Sorry for the long essay, but I would like to add two things to the good advice You’ve given:

    – Do run with a clock if it motivates you (I wouldn’t have run a meter in my younger days without it) but listen to your body when it tells you that it is tired or getting hurt.

    – Try some other forms of training like spinning and strength exercise when your mind or your body doesn’t want to run. It can help you stay motivated and fit when in a slump.

    All the best!


    • Brian March 20, 2012 at 9:45 pm #

      Hi Mikael, glad to hear you’re back into the running and thanks for the reminder about the benefits of cross training. Always good to mix it up a little. Brian

  2. Charles Miske January 17, 2012 at 6:55 am #

    I tried doing 30 mile weeks, but between work and other activities, it just doesn’t work, so now I’ve settled into quite comfortable 20 mile weeks, and I do runs for t-shirts and atmosphere. It’s way more relaxing and I can take time out to work on my structure at leisure with no stress. Great perspective.

    • Brian January 17, 2012 at 7:14 am #

      I like it Charles. Doing runs for t-shirts is not a bad idea!

  3. Chris van Hoof January 9, 2012 at 4:45 pm #

    Hi Brian and Lisa,

    Great article. It can often be an uphill battle trying to explain this to new runners, however over time I see more and more people realising the true scope of the benefits of running, far beyond the results on a stopwatch. I’m a massive believer in human beings necessity to move in order to have a healthy life, and not only that but move together with others who share a common interest. Running has provided me with this and I am now enjoying being able to share this with others and see them enjoy running as a lifestyle choice!

    Keep it up

    • Brian January 9, 2012 at 5:19 pm #

      Hi Chris, Thanks very much for the feedback. There’s definitely more to running than first meets the eye, might touch on that a bit more down the track! Cheers Brian

  4. charles January 5, 2012 at 8:59 pm #

    Another great article Brian and it truly emphasises the main goal from running – enjoyment and fun. PBs, championships etc are second to pure enjoyment that running can bring.

    Lisa’s comment about sticking with the process when making changes to technique is sound advice. Can’t agree more “This is going to be a LOOONGGG process!!”, but will bring additional pleasure and enjoyment when we get there.

    • Brian January 5, 2012 at 9:41 pm #

      Thanks Charles, yep enjoyment has to be the number one factor. If that’s the main driver then it’s much easier to be sanguine about the inevitable ups and downs of making some long term improvements. Brian

  5. David January 5, 2012 at 11:51 am #

    Thanks Brian and Lisa for a great article.

    I think it’s vital first of all to enjoy my running. I’m 42 now and I’ve been running consistently (and sometimes inconsistently) since I was 15. I’ve learned over that time to become more focused on the process of training than the outcomes – to enjoy running or cycling in beautiful countryside, to vary the intensity, to run sometimes with others and to encourage everyone who’s new. Running always feels like a fresh experience to me with the changes of route and terrain, of weather and season, of distance and of fitness levels. When it comes to performance, I have sometimes felt more proud of achieving ‘a personal best I could on the day’ as you put it, than a qualification or a particular time in a race. Getting through a particularly long training session and in some way overcoming my ‘self’ in the process, becomes in some ways more memorable and satisfying than some of the big occasions. Running is such a personal experience – I still feel the same level of excitement about it as I did from the first cross country runs 27 years ago. Bring on the next 27!

    • Brian January 5, 2012 at 12:09 pm #

      G’day David, thanks for those thoughts. That’s awesome you’ve managed to keep up the enjoyment of running for so long. It definitely helps keep everything in perspective and hungry for more training! Brian

  6. Paul Joyce January 4, 2012 at 3:56 pm #

    Brian, I can fully relate to this post and story. I have only been running a relatively short amount of time. In my first year it was all about getting fitter and enjoying the feeling of being healthy. I then fell into the trap of focussing on events, how fast and long I was running. I got injured and stopped enjoying running. At the start of last year I decided to forget about time, pace etc and just enjoy running. I still ran in quite a few events but left my watch at home. I have enjoyed my running more than ever, was injury free and ironically still managed PBs in all of the events I participated in. While we all run for different reasons we should never lose sight of the simple joy of running. Cheers, Paul

    • Brian January 4, 2012 at 11:38 pm #

      Thanks for the comment Paul … can’t add much to that, I reckon you’ve nailed it!