When Nick Symmonds won silver at the 2013 World Outdoor Track and Field Championships, he immediately started eyeing his next conquest: the World Indoor Championships. "As soon as I crossed that finish line, I wanted more," says Symmonds, an 800-meter specialist. "I was coming off a season where I was ranked second in the world. I hadn't been injured for five years. I had this huge burst of confidence. And I had this idea that I was invincible."
He kept hammering through workouts, despite aches, pains, and urgings from his coach to take a break. Then he broke. A small chunk of bone attached to a tendon started pulling away from the bone in his left knee; Symmonds was sidelined for three months with an avulsion fracture. "I was so set on accomplishing my goal," says Symmonds, who's based in Seattle and Los Angeles, "that I basically broke my body."
The track star learned a painful truth in a painful way: sometimes the more-better-faster model can get you hurt. "We're always thinking about the next thing to shoot for," says Steve Magness, a Houston-based coach and exercise physiologist and author of The Science of Running. "But for the sake of your long-term success and enjoyment, you've got to find a balance of other goals."
There's no doubt that goals are good. They breed elites like Symmonds, and they make us Boston qualifiers and Ironmen instead of just half-hearted gym rats. Goals make us extract the best from ourselves, pull us out of bed at 4 a.m. for speedwork, and push us out the door to slog 20 miles in weather that most people won't drive in. But gunning for new PRs season after season can backfire in a big way.
"If you keep pushing and grinding, it's eventually going to catch up," says Magness. "There's a diminishing return. How many times do you run a personal best? Or a new race distance?"
Think if you were graded at work on a daily basis. "You wouldn't reach your maximum potential every single day," says Magness. "It's just the nature of performance."
We love the thrill of striving to be our best. But if we don't choose our goals wisely, we could face burnout that leaves us unmotivated to work out and eat right—or even worse, injured like Symmonds. In other words, inappropriate goals can take us out of the game. Here's how to ensure your athletic drive endures.
Effective goals must be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely—a concept sports psychologists convey in a tidy concept called "SMART." A few examples: finishing your first 50K, breaking 20 minutes in a 5K, or qualifying for Boston. Setting a blasé goal of getting in shape, losing weight, or even just getting faster won't give you the framework you need to shape your workouts. "Those sound like goals, but they're really not," says Adam St. Pierre, a Boulder-based coach and exercise physiologist. "And they're just not enough to keep you motivated." As a result you could end up at the starting line undertrained, overweight, and totally burnt out. "You end up in a funk," he says.
Embrace the Process
"It's easy to get engrossed with always grading and judging yourself based on numbers," says Magness. "But often if you take care of the process [like nailing your pacing, fueling, and hydration strategies], the outcome goals [like a desired race time] take care of themselves. And you learn to enjoy the process." Symmonds does this by focusing on immediate, intermediate, and long-term goals that feed on one another, like hitting daily workout paces or completing high-mileage weeks. "Breaking it down into more manageable chunks makes it seem less overwhelming," Symmonds says.
Listen to Your Body
As runners we're used to pushing through discomfort. We welcome aches as reminders of workouts where we pushed farther and faster. But it's critical to know which pains to work through, and which pains demand surrender. If a pain persists or worsens during the run, or causes you to alter your gait, stop and rest. It may also be wise to see a doctor.
"Compensating can cause other injuries," says Magness. And watch for other signs that you might be breaking down. If the breezy 8:30-mile pace on your normal route suddenly drops to 9:00 and feels just as hard, it may be a sign that you're heading toward overtraining.
Don't Compare Yourself to Others
"Being a world-class athlete means being the very best that you can possibly be given where you are right now," says Greg Wells, an assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of Toronto. "The reality is, we're all trying to do the very best we possibly can given our current life situation."
Avoid comparing yourself with others who may have different set of responsibilities—no kids or more flexible work hours, for instance. "A lot of runners will get demoralized, hearing about some guy who's putting down 200-mile weeks, and figure 'I can't compete with that, why should I try?'" says St. Pierre. All you can do is give it all the time and energy you have, and be proud of whatever that amounts to. "But it can be tough to accept your limitations," he says.
Don't Compare Yourself to…Yourself
Resist holding yourself to standards that your younger self may have achieved. Each of us has our own unique orthopedic threshold—how much volume and intensity our bodies can take before they start to break down. Those thresholds are highly individual, and determined by factors like genetics, biomechanics, and history of injury. And they can change with age. Even Symmonds knows that. "The things I could push through at 22 I can't push through at 30," he said. "That's really frustrating. Every day I have to relearn the whole sport again."
Think Beyond Medals
Not all goals have to be tied to races. And the ones that aren't might actually bring you a deeper sense of accomplishment. Case in point: After a disappointing Vermont 50-miler, St. Pierre scrapped the plan he had for a 100-miler, and challenged himself to run the 3.1 mile, 1,300-foot route of Mt. Sanitas as many times as he could in a 24-hour period. The feeling he got from dreaming up the challenge and making it happen ended his season on a high note. "It was a huge confidence booster," he says. "It was as hard as most 100-milers and super fun, and it was a good indicator that I was in shape."
Remember: You're Doing This for Fun
"Some people put so much pressure on themselves and it's almost like their self worth and life's meaning is tied to running a certain time," says Magness. Often this comes when you latch on to whatever socially-accepted definition of success is in vogue—say, a sub-four first marathon—regardless of whether it fits your current level of fitness. Even if you do achieve your goal without destroying yourself, it doesn't always justify the anguish and sacrifice involved in getting there. "It creates this warped sense of reality," says Magness. "You need to step back and decide where you're at as an individual."