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How to Achieve Your Endurance Sports Goals

Holly Benner

We all know that setting and attaining goals is an essential part of achieving satisfaction in sport, in work and in life. Often people identify vague goals and attack them with a burst of motivation, only to look back weeks later wondering where they got off track. 

So, how do you achieve your goals?

Research in psychology has discovered principles for how to implement an effective goal-setting process, resulting in the performance gains you truly want. The purpose of this article is to introduce research in goal setting related to sport and present five steps you can take to apply to your goals right away.

 “What are your goals?” – Everyone in January

It’s a question asked by nearly everyone around the world and athletes are no exception. Answering this question usually involves some sort of gut reaction: 

“To lose weight.”

“Get in better shape.”

“Race faster.”

“Spend more time in the gym.”

Although there is nothing inherently wrong with these goals, they aren’t exactly right either.

The problem with the goals above is that they are focused on outcomes. Outcomes are like a circled location on a map -- only focused on where you want to end up. What’s missing is the focus on certain behaviors (orienteering), or on specific tasks (find a taxi) you need to accomplish in order to actually arrive at that goal location – circled on the map. 

"The trouble with not having a goal is that you can spend your life running up and down the field and never score." –Bill Copeland

When we think of goals and goal-setting, we are really focusing on certain behaviors in the broader context of continued personal development. Therefore, this article aims to help you to identify and prioritize the steps you need to take in order to achieve your goals.

Step 1: Create Behavior-Based Goals

While there is nothing wrong with wanting an outcome like a new 5k PR, we often can’t control outcomes because they’re affected by so many factors we can’t control like temperature, wind, pandemics, etc. 

Behavior goals, on the other hand, allow us to focus on the things we can control like actions and tasks. 

Let’s look at an example…

Say you want to run a 5k PR. Sounds great, but have you identified the certain behaviors you’ll need to adopt – or dismiss – in order to achieve this outcome? The key is to identify those behaviors and subsequently turn them into individual tasks. So, if the goal is to run a 5k PR, specific behaviors may be:

  • To gently increase run volume for 4 weeks.
  • Then, to introduce structured speed work for another 4 weeks.
  • Then, to implement recovery best-practices after each session for another 4 weeks.

You get the idea. From our outcome-based goal, we were able to identify behavior-based tasks that support the outcome we desire. Notice how each task is essentially a short-term goal – clearly stating exactly what needs to be accomplished. 

Step 2: Determine the Level of Difficulty

Research has shown that difficult or challenging goals produce better performance than moderate or easy goals; the higher the goal, the higher the performance, assuming the individual has adequate ability (Locke, 1968). 

“Specific, challenging goals lead to better performance than a goal of "do your best.” - Latham & Yukl, 1975; Locke, 1968(1)

In other words, goals should not be so difficult that the person will fail to take them seriously while also not being too easy. 

Effective goal setting involves the combination of steps 1 and 2. That is, the goals should be both behaviorally specific and challenging enough to attain maximum performance. 

Step 3: Create a Goal Hierarchy 

“Goal attainment is facilitated by a plan of action or strategy.” - Carroll & Tosi, 1973(2)

Let’s look at how to chart behavior-based tasks that support your reasonably difficult goal in more detail…

Let’s meet Jon. Jon’s long-term goal is to reach the podium for his Age Group at USAT Nationals. In order to achieve his long-term goal, Jon needs to focus on certain specific behaviors or tasks that will help him achieve his long-term goal. 

Now, it’s your turn. Think about one of your own long-term goals. Ask yourself: What behaviors are needed in order to reach my goal? 

Once you have decided, fill in your own long-term goal at the top, then break that goal down into actionable behavior goals you will need to complete in order to achieve your goal.

Step 4: Prioritize Your Goals

The three key elements of any task or project are: time, effort and quality. 

These three elements are proportional to each other. Typically, the more time and effort you put into something, the better the quality of the finished product. However, we all have a limited amount of time and effort that we can spend on different tasks; you won’t be able to allocate the same amount of time to each one. 

Prioritizing a list of tasks requires you to make strategic decisions about how you will spend your time and the effort you will put in. In order to make these decisions you also need to consider the necessary quality of the finished product. 

Here are some questions you should ask yourself when deciding how much time and effort to devote to a task:

  1. What are my time constraints regarding this task?
  2. How much effort will be required to achieve this task
  3. How does this task contribute to my long-term goal?

Step 5: Seek Accountability and Monitor Progress

“When performance is measured, performance improves. When performance is measured and reported, the rate of improvement accelerates.” — Thomas S. Monson

The American Society of Training and Development (ASTD) did a study(3) on accountability and found that individuals are 65% more likely to accomplish a goal if they shared that goal with someone3. Additionally, they found that if an individual has specific accountability appointments with whom a goal has been shared (i.e., a coach), the percentage of success increases up to 95%.

After walking through the steps above, be sure to make a commitment to someone that matters to your goal. You can choose your spouse, a reliable friend, or a coach. Share with them what your goal is and why it is important for you to achieve it. 

Accountability is usually associated with others, but consider creating accountability to yourself. Use the template from Step 3 to write your goals down. Post them somewhere you can see on a daily basis. Then, regularly monitor progress. After all, goals are ineffective if forgotten. Consider keeping a journal just for your goals, or tracking your progress using software like TrainingPeaks to monitor progress with your coach. 

How to Achieve Your Goals -- Key Actions

Overall, when we explore how to achieve your goals, we see that proper goal setting requires a little more intention and thought than we often provide. The next time you ask yourself “How do I achieve my goals?” ask yourself the following questions:

What are my behavior-based goals?

What is the level of difficulty for these goals?

What is my plan and hierarchy for these goals?

What is the priority of these goals?

How will I seek accountability and measure my progress?

Lastly, remember that goal-setting is a way we can develop ourselves. Goal setting has the power to increase skill development, confidence, and overall life satisfaction. That’s a powerful process.

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Holly Benner
Holly Benner

Holly is a lifelong athlete having swam since the age of 8. She has been a professional triathlete since 2016. Holly holds an M.S degree in Applied Psychology and is the author of 6 professional journal articles, a complete textbook chapter, and a book on the psychology of performance minded athletes.

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