Goal setting 101

Goal setting is probably the most important step to having a satisfying triathlon season, career or lifestyle. There are two main forms of goals, outcome (or long term) goals and process (or short term) goals.  Process goals are the little steps you take to move closer to your outcome goal.  As you achieve more process goals, you move closer and closer to achieving your outcome goal.

Without simple, measurable goals you'll never know if you achieved what you wanted and most importantly you'll never know what you wanted to get in the first place!  Think of your goals as destinations.  Some goals are places you pass and see en route to somewhere else, others are places you must go through or experience to arrive at your destination.

If you look at your daily life and take your commute to work, that is a simple, measurable outcome goal.  It doesn't mater if your commute is across town or from the kitchen to home office, the process is the same.  Here's a quick example;

OUTCOME GOAL: go to work in the morning


  • arriving at work
  • arriving at work on time
  • minimizing stress of commute

Each of these goals is measurable to some degree, the first two are quite objective and the third is more subjective.  None of these goals are performance oriented or overly ambitious and thus fairly easy to achieve, resulting in satisfaction.  Now, if we added a fourth performance oriented process goal, "arriving at work as fast as possible",  or combined all of the previous three with this fourth as our measure of success, "arriving at work on time, as fast as possible with minimal stress" we would be holding ourselves to a pretty high standard of performance every trip.

This might be 20 minutes where anything slower than 25 minutes is seen as a failure, and sub 20 minutes is cause to celebrate- as long as the stress of the commute is still minimal.  However, performance oriented goals are riskier as they can be influenced by things beyond your control; weather, traffic, construction, accidents, road closures, etc.  With experience you can minimize the impact of these other things;

  • check weather forecast
  • check for road closures and construction
  • less congestion may mean less risk of accidents
  • try different routes out to evaluate their impact without the pressure of performance
  • ...

Learning to recognize, manage and understand the impact the elements beyond your control is another layer of goal setting.  Measuring success often requires you to interpret the circumstances surrounding success and failure with a critical eye.  I know some who call this making excuses, a well developed ability to rationalize anything, whatever but the facts that impact an outcome have to be factored in to maintain honesty in the process.

In sports, the most rewarding goals are often those intrinsic and personal to you, while performance oriented goals that rely heavily on things beyond your control are riskier; who shows up, weather, wind, course, accurate measurements, no equipment malfunctions,... its a long list of "what ifs"!  Ask yourself where you get satisfaction in triathlon/sport/etc. then target goals in those areas.

At a basic level, sports goals can fall into a three main areas;

  1. physical
  2. psychological
  3. social

These can be broken down into many smaller categories such as;

  1. Physical
    • performance
      • swim-bike-run-transitions-strength-flexibility
      • time standards or speeds or power outputs
      • doing a half or ironman or off road tri or bike race or...
    • fitness
      • better endurance
      • weight management (lean body mass:fat mass)
      • peak VO2, etc.
    • technique
      • swim-bike-run-transitions-strength
      • other sports used in x-training
  2. Psychological
    • behaviour skills
      • eating and drinking better
      • time management
      • etc.
    • basic skills
      • goal setting
      • positive thinking
      • communication
      • focusing
      • etc.
    • preparation skills
      • relaxation
      • coping strategies
      • etc.
    • performance skills
      • refocusing
      • managing emotions
      • visualization
      • etc.
  3. Social
    • Family (including partner)
      • more time with family
      • include family in sports activities
    • Friends
      • spend time with friends
      • don't become a hermit

... and there are hundreds of other possibilities.

To keep it simple pick any outcome goal, then break it down into three measurable process goals necessary to achieve the outcome.  Break each process  goal into three more measurable process goals, each necessary to achieve next level up. And so on...

When you get to a point where you can say- "Oh look! I can do this" you've reached the base of your goal setting pyramid, the starting point from which you can now go after the outcome goal you set.

Here is an example;

OUTCOME GOAL: to ride Mt Seymour (12.5 km at 8%)

  • PROCESS GOAL A: improve hill climbing
    • easier gears for climbing
    • better body position
    • mental aspects of long climbs
  • PROCESS GOAL B: improve aerobic fitness
    • long easy rides
    • shorter (90 sec to 6 min) hill intervals on longer rest
    • longer (4-15 min) hill intervals on shorter rest
  • PROCESS GOAL C: not to be afraid of big hills
    • do more shorter and medium length hills in training
    • do more medium and easier grade hills in training
    • watch Tour de France mountain stage videos...

So, take the time now to set your goals and plan what you want out of the season or seasons ahead.  Most importantly, write them down, share them with someone and hold yourself accountable to your goals!

A closing comment on goal setting, if your goals are ambitious but realistic you are more likely to succeed.  Goals that are ambitious and unrealistic, or very easy and realistic are more likely to fail.


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