It’s all too easy to dismiss the importance of goal setting when planning your training. “Yeah, yeah, heard it all before” is the common response when the topic is brought up. But, if that’s your attitude too, you’re missing a trick.

To get the best out of yourself – surely the goal of any training programme or plan – you need to make sure your training is providing the specific adaptations you need to overcome your weaknesses, capitalise on your strengths and meet the demands of the event or events you are targeting. But, if you don’t have a specific goal, how can you ensure your training is providing you with the specific adaptions needed, if you don’t know what your adapting for? You can’t!

Without a clear goal you are very likely to go down one of two routes, either round the ring-road or gradually downhill, both taking you away from the success and sense of achievement you probably crave.

The “ring road” route sees you doing bits of this and bits of that. Perhaps influenced by what others around you are doing. And whilst you will make improvements in the early days, they won’t be targeted and they won’t influence your performance as much as they would if you really focussed your efforts. Once you’ve been going round the ring road for a while your performances will plateau and you will see no significant improvement. Not surprising, really: how can you expect to make progress, if you haven’t decided what you’re aiming for?

The other alternative route of the non-goal-setter is the “road downhill”. With no clear goals, the motivation ebbs away. Your busy life makes it all too easy to miss training: things get in the way, so you just skip a session and then another and another. The downhill gets steeper and becomes a slippery slope: before you know it, weeks and maybe months have slipped by with the bike seeing little or no use.

So, before we start feeling sorry for ourselves let’s do something about it! Your goal doesn’t have to be a competitive one, such as a performance in a specific race. In fact it is better if it isn’t because competition is riddled with factors outside of your control. It’s much better to focus on something that you are in complete control of. This will give you much greater levels of motivation and you will feel much more confident when you arrive on the start line.

So how to go about setting a goal? Let’s start with enjoyment. A simple concept, but a crucial one too. Setting a goal which involves lots of training which you know you won’t enjoy, is a sure-fire route back to the ring road or the downhill! You don’t have to love every training session you do, but you do need to enjoy participation in the events you are aiming for and gain enjoyment from a significant proportion of your training, or you just won’t make it.

You also need to consider your strengths. If you’re going to be training hard, you may as well give yourself a head start by focusing on something you might reasonably expect to be good at. Of course, if you just don’t enjoy the things you’re good at, then there’s no point. If you happen to be really poor at a given activity but just love it and that’s what you want to do, and it makes you happy, then you go for it!

But, in that case, just be honest with yourself about where your starting point is, and be realistic in the goals you set yourself. There’s no reason why you can’t achieve great things, but it will certainly be harder work and take you longer than training for something you already had a head start in. Stepping stone goals are going to be key in this situation, more on that later.

The familiar acronyms “SMART” and later “SMARTER” were used in conjunction with goal setting in business over 30 years ago. Since then they have spread from business management to almost every strand of human life, with sport being no exception. They have stood the test of time and are still relevant today.
As a reminder, “SMART” goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time Based (there are slight variations, but we’ll stick with this version). The “ER” of “SMARTER” refers to Evaluated and Recorded. The strength of these acronyms is that they are self-explanatory. The important and oft-missed point is that you must consider ALL of these aspects when setting your goal. But, if your goal truly meets all the SMART criteria, and you know you are going to enjoy the training to get you there, you are onto a winner!

Finally, once you’ve decided on your goal, it may be wise to consider some stepping stones to help you get there. Setting a huge and distant goal can be daunting and difficult to maintain focus on. So setting a series of “progress” goals, each with a shorter term and leading naturally to the next, is a good alternative option. Just remember to keep the stepping stone goals SMART as well.

So, if you haven’t got a clear goal but are serious about your performance, you know what your number one priority is. Only once you’ve set your goal can you even begin to think about what the training requirements are going to be. Of course not everyone is concerned about their performance and many people are happy riding the ring road or heading downhill from time to time. There’s nothing wrong with that, if they are happy. But if you do have ambition to get the best possible performance from yourself, turn off at the next junction and go and sort out that all-important goal.

Dan Small, Mountain Goat Coaching