The first rule of setting goals that work: Think big. Michael Phelps didn't accidently win eight gold medals in Beijing. He wrote down that audacious goal and set it on his nightstand to look at every morning. "A big event, even one that seems far-fetched, can provide good motivation," says Derick Williamson, elite coach for Durata Training, in Austin, Texas. "Registering for something like a marathon can induce the fear and accountability you need to get serious."
DO IT: Commit to a dream event, race, or challenge. Sign up for the Big Sur, the New York City, or China's Great Wall marathon and plan a vacation around it. Enter Costa Rica's La Ruta de los Conquistadores mountain-bike race and start preparing to suffer. Register for your first century. Pay the entry fee and put it on your calendar now.
Once you've got your big goal established, set little ones—benchmarks and midway targets that will keep you inspired as you make progress. "Signing up for a series of events is a great motivator and keeps you building fitness," says ultrarunner Dean Karnazes. Just make them attainable. "When your goals aren't realistic, they can backfire and end up causing doubt, uncertainty, and more stress," says Jeff Galloway, a former Olympic distance runner and author of the forthcoming Mental Training for Runners: How to Stay Motivated.
DO IT: If your goal is to complete an Olympic-distance triathlon, enter yourself in a sprint-distance event a month from now. Want to run a marathon in six months? Sign up for a half-marathon in three. Commit to five workouts a week. And every two to four weeks, test yourself with a time trial: designate a course, do a 15-to-20-minute warm-up, then go all out for half an hour, checking your time against your previous efforts.
CALL IN THE COACH
"It isn't that you can't do it alone," says Lynda Wallenfels, a coach to some of the country's top endurance mountain bikers. "But a coach draws on the experience of many athletes to know what will work." That means you'll get better results more quickly, and you'll have the confidence to give your training your all. "I can't think of anything more important," says elite U.S. marathoner Kara Goucher. "You need to go to the starting line with total faith in what you've been doing to get there, or you won't have the confidence you need."
DO IT: Check thecoachdepot.com to find a certified coach or, for sport-specific instruction, try the coaching directories of the Road Runners Club of America (rrca.org), USA Cycling (usacycling.org), and USA Triathlon (usatriathlon.org). Before committing, interview prospective coaches about their credentials and approach. On a budget? Choose a trusted coach's Web-only program. Straight Web-coaching services are hit-or-miss, so check for specificity and variety in workouts before you sign up. (We like addaero.com and 2peak.com.)
BUILD A TEAM
Anyone privy to your goals—a coach, family member, or friend—can help you stay motivated by keeping tabs on your progress, but nothing keeps you on target like a training partner. "When you agree to train with someone, it brings responsibilities," says Jim Taylor, author of Prime Sport: Triumph of the Athlete Mind. "When you don't show up for a planned workout, you're no longer just letting yourself down; you're also disappointing your training buddy."
DO IT: Join your sport's local club and find partners with similar goals and schedules. Use networking sites such as bikewire.net and runnerslounge.com to compare workouts with fellow athletes, and share your activities on Facebook. Sign up for a charity training group like Team in Training or Team LiveStrong and raise money from friends and family. Knowing that people around you pitched in will keep you feeling accountable.
KEEP A PAPER TRAIL
A training log is the best way to chart the progress you've made, which will keep you fired up for more. "It's really important to watch your progression from week to month, from training to races," says pro marathoner Adriana Pirtea. "You can see you're on track. That's a big motivation."
DO IT: You can easily log your workouts at online training hubs like the Outside Fitness Center (outsideonline.com/fitnesscenter). There are a host of smartphone apps, such as TrailRunner, My Tracks, and Endomondo, that will help you maintain a wealth of exercise data, including routes, elevation, and calories burned—and let you chart, compare, and share with your friends.