As the calendar ticks over to 2019, athletes around the world are making resolutions about what comes next. “Run a PR,” might be one. “Top 10 in a race,” might be another. “Remember not to go on race sign-up websites after two or more beers,” might be a third from an athlete coming off a particularly tough year.
No matter what your 2019 goals, it’s essential to remember that just because you are striving to improve, that doesn’t mean you were inadequate before. As coaches, we see this thought process unfold all the time.
It starts healthily. “I want to grow as an athlete and person.”
Slowly, it devolves into something less empowering. “That means I am not good enough now.”
Sometimes, it goes down an even darker path. “I hate where I am. I hate myself.”
So right at the outset, let’s take away the power of that mental math by acknowledging it. Even though you have big dreams for growth in 2019, it doesn’t mean you need to fundamentally change who you are. You are freaking awesome as is. Look in the mirror and echo a quote from NFL Hall of Famer Terrell Owens: “I love me some me.”
Now that we got that out of the way, how can you set healthy goals without falling into the self-judgment trap? That is the main question in our new book, “The Happy Runner,” available now at Amazon and possibly some recycling bins near you. Our conclusion from seeing athletes (ranging from the top of the podium to beginners) go through their life adventures is that you adhere to three main principles.
Set goals based on process, not on results
You have probably heard people talking about “process” a lot recently. We are definitely guilty of it, saying all the time that results aren’t that important. Often, we must sound like a wordy fortune cookie.
But that process-based mindset is grounded in sports psychology and performance. Here, process just means the day-to-day of life, with results meaning individual moments along the way, whether they are races or segment chases. The problem with results is that they are not accompanied by sticky happiness growth. Often, reaching big goals can lead to happiness decreases, a phenomenon called the “arrival fallacy.” That goes for races and PRs, along with things like promotions and even marriage ceremonies. Instead, what matters about big goals is fostering an “atmosphere of growth” that brings most humans more sustainable joy.
That’s how athletic development works too. No single workout matters in the big scheme of things. Fitness improvement requires constant reinforcement, with thousands of miles over a long period of time contributing to aerobic, biomechanical, and musculoskeletal adaptations. The body takes many years to find its potential.
So when setting your goals, ask yourself two questions. First, do I enjoy the daily process required to chase this goal? You shouldn’t do a 100-mile race if you hate long runs. You possibly shouldn’t be going for 5K PRs if you hate the track. You definitely shouldn’t target a bike race if you don’t like riding in groups with smelly people that grunt a lot.
Second, let’s go deeper. Imagine that you have some big goal like a race. Now, would you still chase that goal if you knew for a fact you would get sick on race week and not be able to perform to your potential? If the answer is no, then you may be putting too much pressure on results that you don’t control (and might not be that important for happiness anyway).
Know Your Why
Imagine Jason Schlarb loping effortlessly to the finish line of the Run Rabbit Run 100 and the $12,500 check that came with it. That’s a sexy moment, right? We all want that moment of triumph. Why? Because triumph is sexy. Oh so sexy.
Now imagine something less sexy. Think of Jason earning that triumph on a random Tuesday in January, suffering through snow, feeling horrible. Do you want that?
The first one has an obvious answer to that question of “Why?” The second one doesn’t. An athletic life is lived in that second vignette. So your “Why?” must be able to withstand all the chaos that gets thrown at it along the way, rather than focusing on the triumphant moments.
What we have found is that athletes who are happy long-term need to have a “Why?” for their goals that is internal and positive. The reason is twofold. First, external incentive structures can never be satisfied. Here’s a sequence of events that plays out over and over: an athlete achieves something, only to fall into a pit of despair because they realize that external validation is a never-ending merry-go-round of striving. Win a race? Gotta win that next, bigger race. Beat a rival? Now it’s all about beating all the rivals. Conquer the neighboring village? Then conquer the next village too. But is Conan the Barbarian truly happy?
Based on psychology, probably not. Instead, what we do must come from a vague, hard-to-pin-down internal place. Why race? Because it’s an opportunity to experience life’s emotions in a low stakes environment. Why be an athlete at all? Because of community, success, failure, life, death, cookies.
There is no “Why?” answer that is right for everyone. Just make sure your “Why?” for your goals isn’t just about external validation. Choose a goal you are excited to pursue whether it is sexy or not.
Power yourself with kindness, enthusiasm, and belief
This is a smaller point, but when thinking of your 2019 goals, try to lift others up with you. Being a self-absorbed jerk will drag you down and slow you down. Positive emotions are the best fuel for training, and studies show it may help performance too by reducing perceived exertion and providing sustainable motivation. So use 2019 as an excuse to be the kindest, most enthusiastic version of yourself you can be (with the caveat that mental health struggles make that impossible sometimes, which is a big topic in our book). You’ll get faster, and even if you don’t, you’ll probably be way happier.
Okay, all that hullabaloo is basically a complicated way of saying that the healthiest goals are often not about the goals at all, but about the life those goals support. Here are 5 types of goals to think about, hullabaloo included.
1. Exercise a certain number of times or miles a month/year
Consistency leads to sustainable performance gains. Epicness often just leads to burnout. So think about at least one goal to support daily consistency. We love runners to aim for at least 4 or 5 activities a week on average, including cross training.
EXAMPLES: run 20 times each month; run 1000 miles in a year; cross train weekly
2. Plan something big and scary
It’s easy to go through life and never challenge yourself, staying on the societal assembly line until the very end. Don’t let athletics be another assembly line. Sign up for something (or choose an adventure) that makes you simultaneously giddy and nervous. That doesn’t mean to go longer, just to do something that is deliciously risky. Even if it doesn’t work out perfectly in the end, you’ll be left with the knowledge that you had the courage to believe in yourself. And self-belief is the ultimate superpower.
EXAMPLES: plan an adventure route in your home mountains; sign up for an ultramarathon, shoot for a PR in an event you love to train for; commit to a race series
3. Fail, and be okay with it
If you ever listen to entrepreneurs talk, almost all of them have delightful stories of failure. An athletic life is similar, with investment in yourself sometimes leading to abysmal failure. It’s an essential part of growth, because if you don’t fail, why else would you change your direction?
The same set of facts in an athletic life can often be depressing, or hilarious. For example, imagine a DNF at your big race, caused by horrible cramping. As you’re writhing in the bushes in the middle of a cramp, there’s a temptation to cry at your misfortune. But stepping outside yourself, it’s funny, at least in retrospect. Embrace those moments of silly introspection, and resolve to persevere through the obstacles that are inherent in an athletic life. If you don’t fail hilariously at least once this year, you need to dream bigger.
EXAMPLES: DNF and laugh; believe in yourself even when handed evidence to the contrary
4. Win, and be okay with that too
The flipside of inevitable failure is that “success” is temporary. That’s a classic tenet of Zen Buddhism and mindfulness (plus late-night conversations in Colorado bars). So when you reach your goals, we ask that you celebrate yourself heartily with the knowledge that it’s not permanent. One day, you’ll look back and realize that your best is behind you, and it would be a shame if you didn’t stop to congratulate yourself during the journey.
EXAMPLES: give yourself the grace to savor a good race without immediately craving more; cry tears of joy after crossing a finish line or finishing a workout
5. Dream so big that someone tells you that you are crazy
This last one is the most important. When thinking about your 2019, don’t just think about 2019. Think about 2020 and all the years after, and the unlimited possibilities that await.
When we met Cat Bradley in August 2016, she mentioned wanting to race Western States one day. Over the course of a few months, she had the courage to change her goals to maybe one day competing at the front…maybe even winning.
When she was selected to race (just 2% odds in the lottery), she kept that big dream. No result would define her, she just wanted to race for the joy of the daily grind. So each day, she embraced the process of training, knowing her why, and lifting others up with her whenever she could.
In August 2016, if Cat told someone she wanted to win Western States, they’d probably have told her she was crazy. In June 2017, after she won against all odds, those people probably said something similar. “Wow so crazy. How did that happen?”
Well, it happened because Cat is a brilliant mountain adventurer. But most importantly, she wasn’t afraid to dream.
In 2019, dream big. You might not reach those crazy goals, but you’ll be left with a purposeful, joyful process. And we promise, by having the courage to believe in yourself, you’ll wind up way closer to your biggest dreams than you ever thought possible.