Occasionally when I ask one of my athletes, “What’s your goal for this upcoming race?” they will reply with:
“I don’t know, I’m trying not to really think about it.”
“I just want to finish.”
Some athletes shy away from having race goals because it feels like too much pressure. If this is the case, it makes sense that you would steer clear; why set a race day goal if it makes your heart race, palms sweat, and has your stomach tied up in knots? For those athletes, just thinking about setting a goal for race day can produce tremendous anxiety.
“Do I haveto have a race goal?”
If you have steered clear of setting race goals for yourself in the past, here are three specific benefits to convince you to reconsider the importance of having a race day goal:
Race goals help direct your energy and focus
Once you identify what you want to accomplish on race day, committing to this decision can help you direct your energy and efforts with your training. The energy the morning of a race can sometimes feel like a bottle of carbonated soda that’s been shook up. There is a certain excitement that comes on race day and all of that BIG energy can createdistractions. Having a specific goal for your race will make it less likely for you to be distracted by cues that are unrelated to your performance. With a clear goal it will be easier to conserve energy by deciphering what is important to pay attention to and what isn’t, both before the race starts and during the race.
Race goals help you persevere in the face of challenges
“When you have a specific goal for your race and you are committed to that goal, you are more likely to see ways to adapt and adjust to race day challenges. It’s not a matter of if you get to the finish line, but how and when. Having race day goals can help you persevere with training as well. Without a specified race goal, when you encounter a challenge during training (i.e. missed training due to increased worked or illness, losing your training partner or training group, etc.), you might just give up training for the race altogether. Without a specified goal, when you encounter a challenge on race day (i.e. getting a flat tire, having GI issues, etc.), you can feel like you’ve already “lost” the race and back off on your effort because “why even bother?”. Rather than seeing an obstacle or setback as insurmountable and giving up, your goal helps you to be resilient and keeps you moving forward.
Race goals help you push through when your body is ready to give up
When your body is suffering due to the exertion you are putting out, you often come to face a psychological hurdle. Your physical strength and fitness propel you over an actual physical hurdle, and it’s your mental strength and fitness that will propel you over a psychological hurdle. If you reach the end of your race and feel like you could have done better, there was a moment during your race when you held back (or you had a “secret goal:”. When you aren’t working for a specific goal and race day comes, it’s like you’re “just along for the ride”. The danger in this is getting to the end of your race feeling unhappy with the result. You cross the finish line feeling regret instead of feeling pride. You regret that you didn’t prepare more, that you didn’t push harder, etc. You are less likely to push yourself in that moment when the going gets tough if you don’t have a specific outcome you are pushing for. Having that specific goal helps you dig deep in those moments and overcome that psychological hurdle so you know that at the end of your race you gave everything you had to give.
What to do if setting a race day goal gives you anxiety
Still feeling hesitant to set a race goal? If your heart starts racing, palms start sweating, and you feel a little nauseous when it comes to setting race goals, chances are that you’re only thinking about an outcome goal for your race. Outcome goals can ignite the “what-if” fears: “What if I can’t do it? What if I fail?” Therefore, not setting a specific goal protects us and is a subtle form of self-sabotage.
As you contemplate a race goal, finish these two sentences:
- “I would feel disappointed if I got to the end of my race and …”
- “When I get to the end of my race, I want to be able to say …”
After answering these, then ask: “What do I need to do during the race in order to make that happen? Setting a more task-related goal helps keep your focus where it needs to be and puts the control into your hands. Instead of feeling pressure to perform and keeping your focus in the future, it keeps you grounded in the moment and focused on what you need to do right now in order to set yourself up for success. Even if your goal for every competition is to win, you still have to have the goal that tells you how you’re going to do it.
Goal setting is a skill! Here are some more resources to master the skill of goal setting to help your athletic performance: