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Setting Athletic Goals: A Primer for Normal People

By September 1, 2020Exercise and Workouts
Reading Time: 8 minutes
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Odds are, you don’t consider yourself a professional athlete. You train for fun, for health, for stress relief, but you’re not worried about winning your next hockey game or crushing the Tour de France next July. You’re a casual exerciser, and your goals don’t stretch beyond getting to the gym tomorrow and getting outside a few times this weekend.

While exercise for its own sake is admirable, it’s hard to maintain. With no specific goal, nearly anything can derail your fitness: workload, a vacation, a party invitation, a slip at your local Cheesecake Factory.  

There is a middle ground. We can increase our motivation to train, staying on track and getting better results, without becoming diehard athletes. Below, a primer for normal people, a way to set athletic goals you’ll actually achieve (without the need to wear yoga pants everywhere you go).

Ask Why

To begin, ask yourself the favorite question of toddlers everywhere: “Why?”

We’re looking to understand your root motivation. At your very core, what is it that drives you to exercise? Knowing the answer will ensure that your goals are congruent with your emotional needs, making it much more likely that you’ll follow through.

Here are some sub-questions to help you discover your why:

  • Are your goals aesthetic, performance-oriented, or both?
  • Do you have a health condition you’d like to remedy?
  • Is there an event or series of events you’d like to complete?
  • Would you like to develop a skill you don’t currently have?
  • Would you like to be better at your sport or favorite outdoor pursuit?

Once you get an initial answer, ask yourself “why?” a few more times. This will help you get beyond the surface and into more emotional, soul-driven territory, into the place where the answers actually matter.

For instance, I’d like to be a better snowboarder, and my current training is designed for this purpose, focused on my legs and core. I’m squatting, lunging, and doing step-ups three or four times a week, preparing my body for this winter.

Why? I love being out on the mountain, eyes on the fall line, going as fast as I can. Why? I grew up riding every night after school, bombing the local ski hill at maximum speed, trying to keep up with my Brother.  

Why? I wanted to be as good as he was, to get in as many runs as he did, to get the esteem reserved for the quickest guy, the first one back to the lift.

At the end of the day, I’m exercising to be the first one back to the lift, to be right there with my Brother. That’s the thing I’ll remember when it’s time to train and I’d rather not. That’s the “why” that will keep me going to the gym.

To discover your motivation, identify your general training goal and then ask yourself “why?” at least three times. Simply, dig deeper. This process will allow you to discover the emotional basis of your training, creating an awareness that will drive you forward.

For instance, you may decide that your goal is health-driven. You’d like to have less body fat and lower blood pressure.

Why? You’ve seen older relatives become incapacitated at a relatively young age due to a heart condition, and you’d like to avoid that possibility.

Why? A lack of ability to move around the world makes it harder to be with your family, take trips, and enjoy the outdoors, all of which are important to you.

Why? You enjoy the love, companionship and bonding that comes from being with your family outside your home, and you never want that to go away.

At the end of the day, you’re not training to improve your biomarkers. You’re training to ensure you’ll be able to have adventures with your family for as many years as possible, well into old age.

Once you’ve found your motivation, we’ll make it actionable. It’s not enough to know why you train; we also have to define success as rigorously as possible, putting it into a framework that makes consistent training likely to happen.

Define Success

Once you know your general goal, you’ll want to give it a rigorous definition. This will allow you to determine what success looks like, knowing when the goal is achieved and when there’s still work to do.  

To create this definition, use the SMART CC framework, creating a Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time-bound goal with built-in Checkpoints and a Commitment to achieving it. A good, actionable goal meets all seven criteria:

  • Specific: is the goal clear and unambiguous?
  • Measurable: can we attach easily-measured data points to the goal?
  • Attainable: is the goal within the realm of possibility?
  • Realistic: can the goal be achieved by you?
  • Time-bound: will the goal be achieved within a certain timeframe?
  • Checkpoints: how often will you measure progress toward the goal?
  • Commitment: have you done the necessary preparation to stay the course?

For example, I want to be a better rider this winter.  In itself, this is not a particularly clear or unambiguous goal.  It lacks specificity.  

To fix this, I need to think about the things that indicate a better snowboarding season to me: riding faster, completing more runs per day, getting on the mountain more days per season.  

These data points can be boiled down into a single measurement: the number of runs completed over the season.  The faster I go on any run, the more runs I can complete on any given day.  The more days I ride, the higher the number goes.  

Now, I need a yardstick.  How many runs can I get in per day, and how many days can I get on the mountain every week?  What’s realistic?  

I work during the week and at least one day most weekends, so I’ll need to reshuffle some commitments in order to ride at all.  Let’s call it a day per week for sure, with two possible.  Then, let’s assume I can get in a run every 45 minutes, and can ride for six hours on any given day.  Finally, let’s call the season 14 weeks long.

Goal Runs = (14 weeks per season x 2 days per week) x (6 hours per day/45 min. per run)
= 28 days per season x 8 runs per day
= 224 runs per season

Now, I have a specific, measurable goal with a timeframe attached to it: I’ll attempt to get in 224 runs this season.  

Next, I need checkpoints, smaller sub-goals that will indicate I’m on track. This is pretty easy. If I’m going to ride two days per week and get eight runs per day, I’m aiming for 16 runs per week. I’ll log my descents each week, and as long as I get 16, I’m on a beeline to my goal.

You probably won’t need this level of calculation, but you will need to assign a measurement and a timeframe to your goal, eyeball it for realism, and build in some checkpoints.  

For instance, if you’re looking to lose body fat and decrease your blood pressure, you’ll need to get a baseline measurement of where you are now and a specific idea of where you want to be. Then, you’ll need to decide on the timeframe: how long will you give the effort? Once you’ve done this, you’re most of the way there, requiring only checkpoints. How often will you take sub-measurements to see if you’re on track?

The last step in the SMART CC sequence: making the necessary commitment to your goal, completing the preparation to get it done.  

I called my Brother and talked him into getting a season pass to the local mountain, scheduled my winter calendar to fit in two days of riding per week, and double-checked my gear, replacing a broken boot. I’m ready to achieve my goal, and now I’m just waiting for the snow to fly.

To lose body fat and lower blood pressure, you might join the gym, calendar out the days you’re going to go, get a workout buddy, and do your grocery shopping with an eye toward buying foods that will promote better body composition. You’ll schedule appointments with your doctor or trainer for body fat and blood pressure measurements. Lastly, you’ll want to create a method to monitor progress.

Monitor Your Progress

This is the critical last step. You’ve created a specific, measurable goal that’s within your capacity, you’ve established checkpoints, and you’ve prepared the ground. Now you need to make sure you’re recording results.  

This practice, the act of journaling, will put you in a positive cycle: you’ll see your daily and weekly progress in writing, inspiring you to make more progress, which you’ll want to record, creating further progress.  

Journaling also allows you to alter course if things are going off track. By comparing your record to your checkpoints, you’ll determine if the original goal too ambitious, not ambitious enough, or if you should subtly alter your approach.  You’ll be getting near-constant feedback, whether positive or negative.

I prefer to log my workouts via Google Sheets, and will do the same for my run count come snowboarding season.  Using a spreadsheet allows me to sort my data by date, exercise type, or any one of the other measurements I’m recording, making it easy to see progress. I can also share my online file with anyone I choose: my coach, my doctor, my workout partner, my brother.

Even if you don’t want to go to this length, make sure you’re tracking your progress.  Grab a notebook, download an app, hire a coach to help you.

The Reward

This process for setting athletic goals reduces to three simple steps:

  1. Understand your motivation (and use it to get going when you’d rather not).  Ask yourself why you’re training, and make sure to ask “why?” as many times as necessary to get to your emotional root.
  2. Set a specific goal and commit. Make sure you know exactly what you’re trying to achieve, how you’ll measure it, and how long you’re going to give yourself to get it done. Establish data points and checkpoints, and make the necessary preparations to commit to the goal.
  3. Monitor your progress. Via whatever method works for you, record your daily efforts, compare them to your checkpoints, and alter course as necessary to stay on track.

The reward from following this process: you’ll hit more goals more often. Even if you’re just a casual exerciser, the three-step process will keep you moving forward, motivating you and helping you avoid ruts. You’ll maintain your program and achieve consistency (perhaps the most important factor in getting results). Best of all, you’ll become more conscious of your training, even if you have no desire to go pro.

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Jon Gilson
Jon Gilson is a coach and writer, and the former CEO of the Whole Life Challenge.

Previously, he founded Again Faster Equipment, a functional fitness equipment company created to serve the CrossFit community. Established in 2006, Jon took the Company global in 2012, twice landing on the Inc. 500/5000 list of America’s fastest growing private companies.

From 2007 to 2013, he served as a Senior Lecturer for CrossFit, Inc., training aspiring CrossFit trainers at over 100 seminars, including engagements in Iceland, Afghanistan, Moscow, Holland, the United States, and Canada. Jon also served on the CrossFit L1 Advisory Board, helping establish policy for the organization’s training efforts from 2011 to 2013.

He’s also done stints in state government, gym management, and consulting — and currently teaches classes at CrossFit City Line.

Jon graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 2003, summa cum laude, with a B.A. in Psychology. He also holds a Graduate Certificate in Finance and Control from the Harvard Extension School, 2006, and has completed coursework in data analytics.