How to Set Goals in Your Ultramarathon Running Career

How to Set Goals in Your Ultramarathon Running Career

“Screw it, I’m just going to finish,” I said as I began my ascent out of the 30-mile aid station. It was over 90 degrees Fahrenheit and just below me was an inviting mountain stream. I chose to cool myself off before heading off on the rest of my adventure.

As I lay there, letting the stream roll over my shoulders and into my lap, a couple of runners who weren’t in the race came up and stared. I soon got out and they wanted to talk to me. At that moment, I decided I was just going to enjoy as much of this journey as I could. My initial goal for my first ultra was to finish. But my week-before-contrivance of getting an under-10-hour finish was totally gone.

I learned over the course of the next twenty-three miles that finishing was enough of a goal. I met some incredible people along the way and learned about hydration (a valuable lesson).

But how does an ultrarunner come up with race goals? Are they arbitrary like my overly-optimistic 10-hour goal for Elkhorn Crest? Or is there some sort of logic?

Today we’re going to talk about the logic behind goal setting and how your goals can spur you on and keep you on track during a race.

You’re Not Me, and I’m Not You

It’s a common error to assume that because someone else has the same experience, they experience it the same way. Shared experiences are powerful, but I experience reality in a slightly different way than you do.

This also means how I experience training, racing, and recovering will be different too. This is why it’s important that you create goals out of a personal drive rather than adopt someone else’s goals.

A lot of people fall into the N of 1 trap. They assume that if it worked for someone else, it must work for them.

This is faulty logic outlined by how science goes about determining what works and doesn’t work. If you look at conclusive studies on human behavior, you’ll see they include large studies. A study with few people will be inconclusive. A study of one person is barely a case study.

Do Your Research

Instead of looking to your best friend or the elite runner for advice, go to the experts. They’ve done scientific research and studies for you.

This biggest problem with doing research for ultrarunning goals is the research isn’t there. Instead, coaches have taken the science from other endurance sports and attempted to adapt them to ultrarunning.

This is sufficient to create training plans. It’s not sufficient to tell us what works for every single person.

Again, we come back to flexibility. While you might find plenty of specified plans for road marathons, you might not find as many specified plans for ultramarathon training.

Especially when planning your training, it’s important to understand the science of how we get faster and more fit. If you understand these basics and understand the kinds of workouts coaches use to key into these scientific findings, you’ll be able to create your own training plan.

These training plans really do depend on the course you’re running. If you’re running a flat ultra, your training will be different than if you’re running a steep and technical ultra.

Goals for Race Day

After my first trail race this year, I decided I needed to adopt a permanent goal for every subsequent race. I would keep a positive attitude no matter what.

How would I accomplish this goal? I would thank the volunteers at every aid station. I would talk to other runners along the way. I would remember that I love this sport even if things sucked at the moment.

(An aside: The race director at IMTUF began the race by saying, “Remember: When it gets tough, you’re exactly where you want to be doing exactly what you want to do.”)

This is included as a process goal for every race from now on. If I’m going to be a grump, I’m going to ruin someone else’s experience in the race. There’s no need for that.

Outcome Goals vs. Process Goals

The outcome goal is the ultimate goal for your race. It describes the outcome, believe it or not.

An outcome could be specific or broad. And it can encompass times, places, and actions. My ultimate outcome goal for Elkhorn Crest was “finish the race.”

(An aside: if you choose “finish the race” as your goal, it’s not “Just finish the race.” In ultrarunning, finishing is an accomplishment for most people. Don’t denigrate your outcome goal.)

It should be both challenging and achievable for you. You wouldn’t choose an outcome goal of finishing first for your very first ultramarathon. That’s too challenging and not likely achievable (although, it’s happened before.)

If you’re going for a time goal, you will want to set multiple outcome goals. Your “A” goal might be at the bounds of achievability for you. And it’s good to set the bar high for yourself, especially if you’re motivated by high standards. But so much can go wrong in an ultramarathon and you might not be able to accomplish your first-time goal.

Decide on an acceptable range of time in which to finish and create incremental goals. even if you don’t get your “A” goal, you still crossed that finish line and accomplished your outcome goal.

Process Goals

Process goals are what you need to do in order to accomplish your outcome goals. Process goals directly support your outcome goal. They’re things you can control (you’ll quickly learn there’s a lot you can’t control in a race). And they’re individualized.

Directly Improve

Any process goal must directly improve your likelihood of completing your outcome goal. And it should be pretty easy for your crew to understand how to help you implement it.

Can Control

I’ve made the dumb mistake of saying, “I’m going to run with the front pack.” I’ve quickly learned not to make up “process goals” on the fly. And I’ve learned that “running with the front pack” doesn’t count as a process goal.

Why? Because sometimes, the front pack may be way faster than you expect. Also, the front pack isn’t really determined until midway through a race. You can’t control what the front pack looks like.

You must be able to control the process goal. You can’t control how fast the front pack runs. However, you can control how fast *you* run.

If your goal is to beat the course record, one of your process goals will involve pacing, something you can control.

Are Individual

Process goals are individual. You know what paces you can achieve. You know how your body reacts to certain foods (or you should by the time your race hits). Stealing someone else’s process goals like pace or types of foods to eat will only get you in trouble.

Remember, a process goal can include either concrete aspects or psychological aspects. Concrete aspects are measurable such as pace or number of calories. Or it can be psychological like my permanent process goal of staying positive.

Which way you lean with your process goals depends on your own brain. Are you motivated by stats? Maybe more concrete process goals will suit you. Are you motivated by a positive mental game? Then psychological process goals might fit.

Adapting This Strategy

You can take the outcome and process goals strategy and adapt it to your wider ultrarunning career. Create outcome goals for your race season in general. Then figure out what you can control.

If you’re goal oriented, you’ll latch on and improve your training and your races.

Interested in more ultrarunning wisdom, check out RunOft on Instagram. And look out for future contests and prizes.

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