I had a conversation with a friend as we did an easy ten miler Sunday. My friend is a great runner, a sub-4 minute miler, who is trying to recover from an injury he suffered last year. He's in great shape but he's been battling nuisances like shin splints recently.
These setbacks have kept him from racing this year, and from doing the intense workouts he knows he needs if he is to be on his game when the summer racing season gets going. He's had difficulty executing workouts the way he did last year, and his training has been frustrating of late. Anyway, his situation got me thinking.
How we usually think about Goals, Benchmarks, and Expectations
Let me define what I mean by these ideas.
- Goals: A goal is an end result you hope to achieve through some process. If you don't have a process (plan, program, etc.), then you have a hope or a dream, not a goal.
- Benchmarks: A benchmark is a stage in a process that allows you to measure current progress against projected progress. Benchmarks are usually educated guesses as to where you "should" be. Anything can be seen as a benchmark after the fact, but the most effective benchmarks are made prior to reaching them.
- Expectations: An expectation is an opinion or a guess as to how hard it will be to achieve a goal, meet a benchmark, or execute some stage of the process. Expectations are purely mental, but they have the most impact on how we feel about our performances.
Most of what we do involves a process, whether we are aware of it or not. School classes, consulting projects, writing a blog, raising children, maintaining friendships, and of course training are all processes. Goals, benchmarks and expectations are what make up the basic structure of all these processes.
I'd like to explore the interconnections in the above chart and then offer an alternative way of viewing these integral aspects of Optimal Training.
Goals & Benchmarks
As the means by which we measure our progress, benchmarks are a necessary part of any attempt at achieving a goal. We develop our benchmarks based off our past experience, off what we've seen others do, or off our best guess as to what we should do given the goal(s) we're trying to accomplish.
Setting correct benchmarks is the major reason most of us need coaches (teachers, etc.). Sure, a coach can help you set goals or expectations (and should), but long-term goals require a carefully crafted process with accurate benchmarks. Delegating authority to a coach in this situation makes sense. A coach is able to analyze an athlete's progress objectively, analyze his or her past experiences, and develop optimal benchmarks.
I would say roughly 90% of our benchmarks should be set by the coach. That doesn't mean 10% of the time you can do what you want, though. Rather, you should be giving feedback to your coach at all times, and your coach should be giving that feedback some weight in the benchmarks he or she is setting for you. If you coach yourself, you need to be careful to approach the process of setting benchmarks rationally. As I will discuss in the next section, confusing benchmarks with our more emotional expectations has its drawbacks.
Benchmarks & Expectations
This is the area where most runners run into problems. The coach sets a benchmark, the athlete sees it as being too high or too low, and the athlete takes matters into his own hands and runs based on his or her subjective expectations rather than the coach's more objective benchmarks. For many runners, the problem lies in their wanting to do more than is necessary, but the opposite is also true for some very conservative runners.
My friend uses benchmarks, generally hard interval workouts. His coach plans the workouts but sometimes they are slower than my friend wants to run. His recent frustration has been the result of being unable to run these workouts as fast as he feels he should, as fast as his expectations dictate he run. In truth, he often runs faster than his coach has benchmarked for him, just not to the level that he expects of himself.
Every runner is responsible for his or her own training. That's another Optimal Training Principle that must be acted on if we are to be our best. But being responsible for every aspect of our training is too much for most athletes. Again, that is why we have coaches.
But we are still responsible for our training. We are responsible for communicating our expectations to our coaches, for understanding what is expected of us, and for executing every workout as optimally as possible. Just as there are many paths to the top of Mt. Fuji, there are many potentially optimal training programs. What matters is that we make them optimal by taking an Optimal Training approach.
Goals & Expectations
Goals and Expectations are closely related. How big a goal you set will dictate how easily you expect to accomplish it. And how often you exceed your expectations will affect how realistic you view your goal to be. Time also plays a role here. How close your goal is will change how strong your expectations become.
The danger here is in allowing our expectations today to affect how we prepare for a goal down the road. When things are going well we may take it as license to overtrain, to ride the wave in hopes of achieving our goal earlier than we previously expected. This idea that we can get where we want to be as quickly as possible can cause us to do things that actually put us at more risk than is necessary.
Even worse, when things aren't going well the danger is that we will change our goal, settle for less. But this is often the result of our expectations, not an objective analysis of our situation. For instance, my friend may expect to execute a workout at a certain level (faster than the coach expects, as fast as last year, more comfortably than last time, etc.). Whether he feels the workout went well or not is based on these expectations, not how well he actually did.
My friend has big goals, goals so big most of us would never consider them. They involve the Olympics, medals, records, you know...big stuff. And these goals require him to be truly excellent, not just at some race in the future but everyday in every aspect of his life. They also require that his goals, benchmarks and expectations are all continually in alignment.
How we should think about Goals, Benchmarks, and Expectations
The difference in this picture to the one at top is not trivial. We may recognize that Goals, Benchmarks, and Expectations are all three playing a role in our training. But if we only pay attention to two at a time and neglect to consider the third, we will almost certainly get less out of our workout than we can.
Optimal Training requires that we consider all three together. Each has an effect on the other two, and understanding that effect can help us to avoid setbacks. For example, if your Goals and Benchmarks are in alignment but your expectations for the day's workout are not, you may fail to execute as you should. If your Benchmarks and Expectations are in alignment but they don't take your future Goals into consideration, you may execute a great workout that doesn't actually get you closer to where you want to be.
This can be avoided. If your training isn't ideal, take a moment to consider whether your Goals, Benchmarks and Expectations are in alignment. Talk to your coach and teammates for guidance. And consider some of the following strategies:
- Don't pursue a goal until you've considered possible benchmarks to measure your progress.
- Don't allow failed expectations to affect a long-term goal. It is easy to expect too much from a workout or race. Just because something today was harder than you expected doesn't mean your goal is farther out of reach.
- Try to make expectations focus on process, not outcomes. For most workouts, the times are irrelevant. It's the effort that counts. So focus on executing your practices the right way. Some days, it's the most you can do.
- Don't try to rush the improvement process. Doing so forces you to try to expect more from each workout. It causes you to question otherwise appropriate benchmarks.
- Choose a coach you can trust. Focus your efforts on communicating your expectations and, most of all, executing your workouts.
- Beware of setting expectations based on where you want to be as opposed to where you really are. It is easy to want things to go well, and to try to do more than you are ready for as a result. Again, trusting your coach matters.
- Use the past as a benchmark with caution. Past experiences are great for building self-efficacy, but benchmarks should be set based on where you are at now and where you want to be in the future. Only use past experiences if they are justified given the goal at hand.
Benchmarks have to be set if we are to accomplish a major goal. We should be participating in the process as much as possible, and we need to choose when to accept our coach's opinion and when to voice ours strongly. My tendency was always to accept my coach's benchmarks unquestioningly. I now think I may have benefited from playing a more active role in my own training. The opposite problem exists for many runners.
I welcome any feedback on this topic from any readers. This may become my first stab at this issue as my opinion could very well change with feedback from you. Let me know what you think about Goals, Benchmarks and Expectations!