Endurance sports and goals go hand-in-hand. I’d be out of a job as a coach if people didn’t set goals and put plans in place to meet them. That being said, one of the big discussions that comes up with the athletes I work for each year is goal setting. It’s something that is obviously thought of well in advance for athletes who set very long-range goals, such as completing an IRONMAN. But equally important as that initial decision to set the goal of a long-distance endurance event is the goal-setting phase that follows the event’s completion. Because the build-up to such an event is so long and involved, it often leaves athletes in a funk (and sometimes a depression) as they sort out what they will do with themselves once their goal is complete. Athletes often have the sense that there isn’t a “natural” goal-setting path to follow since one of the ways that athletes set goals is progressing to the next distance above what they’ve already completed or completing the same distance faster. Along the same lines, new athletes may not even know where to stay when it comes to setting goals. It may come as a surprise to many athletes that goals can take on many forms and not have anything to do with speed or distance at all!
Over my time as both an endurance athlete and coach, I have come to realize that goal setting isn’t what it appears to be at face value. When I work with newer athletes, their goals follow a “sequence” of sorts: once an athlete finishes a sprint triathlon, they’ll participate in an Olympic or 70.3-distance triathlon. Every time an athlete reaches a goal, they start thinking about what the next goal will be (and sometimes they’re even thinking about the next goal before they even see the current goal through to its end!). But, as so many athletes can testify to, the paths to their goals are filled with more than just swimming, biking and running. Along the way, athletes might have job changes, family stress, injuries and more. The paths to their goals aren’t always clear-cut, and at times they can be longer and more windy than athletes envision or want them to be.
Most triathletes come into the sport as adults, and therefore, after they are “grown up.” However, over time in the sport, I observe that athletes “grow up” as athletes as well. They start to understand that things might not always happen the way they plan, and that they need to adapt their approach. Occasionally they may need to adapt their goals as well. Their goals evolve and become smarter; they aren’t always the next logical step in a sequence of goals. My coach mentor Mark Turner says it best: “Your goal can be set in stone, but the path to get to it needs to be in sand.” The path needs to be in sand to accommodate for the unknown variables that inevitably pop up along the way. If the reverse philosophy is applied (being too strict and trying to make the path cast in stone), then the goal invariably becomes rooted in sand, which means that the goal may not be realized at all.
This past season, my main goal was keeping my cardiorespiratory fitness as high as I could so I could be as fit as possible on the day my anesthesiologist put me to sleep when I had my third surgery to repair my (at the time) 20-month-old broken left arm. I wanted my heart, arteries, veins, muscles and lungs to be strong enough to allow my surgeon and team of doctors to do the work that they need to do and so that I would able to wake up without complications. Some might not understand such a goal. I didn’t get a medal for it (though I did get some new metal in my arm!) and there wasn’t any fanfare when I did wake up. Why did I want to become as fit as I possibly could be when I knew that I would lose all of that fitness in my multi-month recovery that restricted me from practically all physical activity? I want to be able to be as active as I can, for as long as I can be over the course of my entire life. At times that might mean taking a step back, as I did earlier this year, so that down the road I can take many steps forward. I had faith that that choice would enable me to be successful and healthy in the long-term. Now that I’m seven months on the other side of it, I can say that I made the right choice.
After all of these years as an endurance athlete and a coach, I’ve determined this: any goal is a worthy goal. For some, that goal might be being fit enough to play soccer with their kids in the backyard after school. For others, it might be to be strong enough to haul boxes down from the attic without assistance and to be strong in their other activities of daily living. For some folks, it might be to be strong enough to battle an injury or a longer-term illness. These goals are not necessarily sports-oriented, but they are every bit as worthy as the goals of crossing a finish line in any distance or discipline of race. There’s value in setting these goals, and I encourage everyone — those who self-identify as athletes as well as those who don’t — to set a goal for themselves and strive to reach it. Goals truly do come in many forms, and all goals are worthy goals.
Laura Henry is a Syracuse, New York-based coach who coaches with Team MPI. She is a USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach, IRONMAN Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 3 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter and NASM Certified Personal Trainer. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.