Brad Stulberg’s Advice for Setting Grounded Goals
Internationally acclaimed coach and author Brad Stulberg wants runners to love the process, seek community, laugh at themselves, and stay flexible
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Many athletes use the first of January as an opportunity to set ambitious new goals. Whether it’s a PR, a first marathon, or establishing a strength training habit, many of us scramble to set personal benchmarks for the new year, and, reality check: most fail.
Executive coach, speaker and author of The Practice of Groundedness and Peak Performance, Brad Stulberg, has some advice for athletes establishing their goals and intentions for the new year.
“Instead of thinking about ‘this is what I want to accomplish,’ think ‘this is the path I want to walk,’” says Stulberg, in an interview with Trail Runner. “If you pick a mountain just because you want to be at the mountain’s peak without considering what it would be like to climb the mountain, that’s a pretty dumb way to decide what you’re going to do.”
Instead, Stulberg urges athletes to consider goals that set them on a path that includes autonomy, mastery, meaning, and belonging. Using principles outlined in his book, The Practice of Groundedness, here are five goals that Stulberg says can help athletes run happier, healthier, and more fulfilled in 2023.
1) Focus on Process Over Outcomes
Athletes who focus too much on outcomes, like a PR, are setting themselves up for an emotional roller coaster of highs and lows. This can leave athletes vulnerable to burnout and physical injury. Instead of focusing on outcomes, Stulburg recommends prioritizing the process rather than the result.
Pick a goal, outline the steps to get there, and then do what you can to shift focus from the goal to those steps. Instead of obsessing over running a sub-24 hour 100 or a sub-4-hour marathon, shift your focus to the daily habits that make this goal possible, like getting your run in every day or doing the strength work and PT you need to support that. This frees up energy from focusing about the future and gives you more energy to do the actual work now.
“Focusing on process is arguably the most important part of sustainable excellence,” says Stulberg.
One way athletes can shift their focus to the work, rather than the result is with Stulberg’s 48-Hour Rule. After any big effort, athletes should give themselves 48 hours to reflect on it.
“Whether it’s a great PR, or a big win for an elite athlete, or a blow-up, or even if you don’t finish, give yourself 48 hours to either celebrate that victory or grieve that loss,” says Stulberg. “Then, go back to doing the work itself.”
For Stulberg, it’s all about getting back into the work itself and detaching from the result. It’s important to acknowledge that outcomes do matter, especially for elite athletes who are pulling a paycheck from the sport. But, Stulberg says athletes should keep that motivation in check.
“The goal is for the majority of your drive and motivation to come from the process. Even if that’s only 51%, that’s okay. You’re winning,” says Stulberg. “You just want to keep the majority intrinsically and process-driven.”
2) Build Deep Community
Running can be a solitary sport, and most of us are used to logging plenty of solo miles, so it can be surprisingly hard for runners with demanding schedules to feng-shui their lives around running with others. Here’s what Stulberg says: It’s worth it to make the effort.
“The people with whom you surround yourself shape you,” says Stulberg. “Yearning for belonging runs deep in our DNA. Make time for it.”
Motivation is contagious, and the people we surround ourselves with can provide inertia in either productive or less productive directions. From a performance perspective, Stulberg says training with a group can lift you up and keep you humble.
“Running with others can hold you accountable to showing up and doing the work,” says Stulberg. “And when you do fail, or you don’t show up, they’re not going to judge you because they get it. It’s accountability and support for when things don’t go well.”
Running with others can also help you shift your focus from the outcome to the process. If you like running with others, you’re more likely to enjoy the process of training and find more motivation there.
“We don’t always remember the accomplishment. We remember the people we did it with,” says Stulberg. “Training hard is hard. Why not make it more fun and meaningful?”
He says that if running is your meditative space where you need time to recharge solo, go for it. But don’t let schedules or looking for “the perfect pace” keep you from joining the pack.
“What you’re going to get out of training with the group far outweighs the cost of not getting the perfect workout,” says Stulberg. “If it’s good enough for athletes like Shalene [Flanagan] and Eliud [Kipchoge], it’s good enough for the rest of us.”
3) Have Fun While Working Hard
Not every training day will be a birthday party ball-pit of Type One fun, but the process should feel fun and fulfilling.
“Take the work seriously, but don’t take yourself super seriously. If you’re feeling a lot of stress and pressure from training, you probably need to shift your focus back to the process,” says Stulberg. “Care about running, but hold your results lightly.”
Stulberg says the ability to detach from outcomes, to find joy in the process, and to laugh at yourself along the way is correlated with more sustainable training and better performance.
“You can still care deeply about training and running fast and getting the most out of yourself, and also realize that if you’re going to do this for a long time, you’re going to have great races and training cycles, and you’re going to have terrible ones, but holding things more lightly will help you have more fun with it,” says Stulberg.
If you’re not having some fun in training, you probably won’t be training for very long. “The more you can smile, the better,” says Stulberg.
4) Adjust Your Horizon
Growth isn’t linear. If you’re struggling with a setback or a plateau, Stulberg advises zooming out.
“If you think about growth over a decade, suddenly, a bad training cycle or two doesn’t really matter, and you should actually expect them,” says Stulberg.
Stulberg says that many athletes expect progress to look like a line graph with a steady incline up and to the right. “But growth almost never looks like that,” says Stulberg. “There’s always peaks, valleys, and plateaus. For many athletes, that line looks really squiggly.”
Zoom out. Don’t obsess about improvement on a small scale, day to day. Look out over months, years, or even decades.
5)Have a Routine, but Know When to be Flexible
Many runners are very routine-oriented. They might run the same six-mile loop every day at the same time. Stulberg says, sometimes overreliance on routines can become counterproductive.
“This is the hardest thing for me because I’m super routine-driven,” says Stulberg. “But, it’s key to consistency to stay flexible in those routines.”
Stulberg says athletes should aim for a routine that works most of the time, and get to a place where they don’t freak out when they can’t do it perfectly. Don’t let perfection be the enemy of good enough.
“If my dog is vomiting, and I have a kid that’s home from school, I’m not going to beat myself up about not getting my ten-mile run in,” says Stulberg. “Instead, I’ll just go to my basement and do 20 minutes of goblet squats and some lunges, and that will be fine. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Take what you had planned, and think about shrinking it down to the minimum effective dose.”
Being too rigid can actually stop us from doing effective training. If you can’t get in your normal six-mile run, for example, allow yourself a quality 30 minutes. Instead of obsessing about having the perfect strength training routine, settle for a routine you can reliably complete. If you’re feeling less than 100% or stressed for time, try the 10-Minute Rule. If you did something on all the days you thought about doing nothing, chances are you’d get a lot more training done.