by Niall Doherty

On April 3rd, I took part in the Crescent City Classic, the annual 10k road race here in New Orleans which attracts more than 20,000 runners each year. After running in the event for the first time in 2009, I set a goal to finish in the top 200 in 2010.

I’m happy to report mission accomplished: I finished in a time of 40:05 and was 154th to cross the finish line.

In this post, I’d like to share a few tips and tricks I used to achieve my goal. I took a very experimental approach to my training and preparation and learned quite a lot in the process, not just about running, but also about setting lofty goals and how best to achieve them.

And make no mistake, this was a big challenge for me. I don’t consider myself much of a runner; this 10k was just the third race I’d ever run in my life. My 2009 time for the same course was 46:15, which works out at a full minute slower per mile than my 2010 time, even though I expended maximum effort in both races. Plus, I only started my real training for the 2010 race ten weeks before the big day.

Before diving into the meat of this post, I’d also like to note that I am not a doctor, a nutritionist, a certified personal trainer or anything like that. As such, don’t take take anything I write below as professional, can’t-miss advice. This is just me sharing my own experience. The exact same techniques are unlikely to give you the exact same results, but hopefully some of them can benefit you.

With all that said, I’d like to start with some tips on setting a strong goal. This is a vital first step, but all too often neglected. If you regularly find yourself dreaming of bigger and better things, but rarely find yourself actually accomplishing those things, chances are you suck at setting goals. I have a friend who, every time I see him, tells me about some big new project he has in the works, something that he’s sure will turn his life around once he gets it up and running. I’ve heard him talk like this for years now, and I’ve yet to see him deliver on any of his promises. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, he’s never even come close to achieving one of his lofty goals. All talk, no walk. I don’t want you to be that person.

So how do you set a strong goal? Simple: you get SMARTER.

SMARTER Goals

SMARTER is an acronym you can use to help set a strong goal. There are a few variations of this (see them all at Wikipedia), but I’m just going to describe the version that works best for me. I’d also encourage you to check out this YouTube video on the subject by Tim Brownson, who does a great job running through the SMARTER method in less than five minutes.

S is for Specific

It’s extremely important that your goal be specific. You need to define success so you’ll recognize it when you get there. Lots of people say their goal is to lose weight, but that’s terribly vague. How will you know when you’ve lost enough? Give yourself a target weight to aim for and suddenly you have a finish line, something tangible to focus on.

For the Classic, I made sure my goal was very specific. I knew twelve months earlier that I wanted to finish in the top 200, but that wasn’t really specific enough. I asked myself, what kind of time would I have to have to finish in the top 200? I checked out the results of the 2009 race and found that the 200th-place person completed the 10k in a time of 41:09, so I knew I’d need to finish inside the 41-minute mark to really have a chance.

M is for Measurable

You need to be able to measure your progress as you work towards your goal. If you’re an entrepreneur and you want to earn $100,000 in 12 months, you should be able to check your finances at any point throughout the year and see how you’re progressing towards your goal. If you’re 6 months in and you’ve only made $20,000, well then you know that your actions aren’t producing the results you need, and from there you can make decisions and adjust accordingly while there’s still time.

For the Classic, I did a lot of measuring. I decided to run 10k every Saturday for the ten weeks prior to the race, and broke down my per-kilometer and per-mile times every week to see if I was getting closer to my target pace. I ran shorter distances on Tuesdays (3.4 miles) and Thursdays (2 miles), sometimes going for speed and other times focusing on technique.

I also measured off half-kilometer checkpoints along the race route, so I’d be able to check my progress approximately every two minutes during both practice runs and the real deal. By doing this, I was able to tell pretty quickly if I was slacking or pushing too hard.

A is for Actionable

This involves breaking down your goal into manageable and practical action steps. An example: If you have a goal to find a great romantic relationship for yourself, you might identify several things you can do to help you achieve it, such as:

  • Join some appealing social groups so you can meet more people with similar interests.
  • Ask out someone you find attractive.
  • Come up with a list of ten qualities you want most in a partner.
  • Become more physically attractive through exercise and a healthy diet.

Each of those steps can in turn be broken down into smaller steps, until you are left with a tidy list of straight-forward tasks.

For the Classic, I identified many different actions I could take to help me finish in the top 200, such as:

  • Read a highly-rated book about proper running technique.
  • Practice said technique.
  • Run three times per week (including 10k on Saturdays).
  • Experiment with different footwear to see how it affects performance.
  • Practice several times on the actual race route.

R is for Realistic

Your goal must be realistic, which sounds obvious and easy, but then, what is realistic? Once upon a time, flicking a switch on the wall to have a room fill with light wasn’t realistic. Space travel, skyscrapers, the 4-minute mile… all of that was thought to be impossible before it was possible.

My point here is that you shouldn’t sell yourself short when considering if a goal is realistic for you. All of us are capable of far more than we know or dare to dream. We can achieve almost anything if we’re willing to pay the price.

That price is what it really comes down to. You can achieve pretty much anything, but what are you willing to sacrifice along the way? I know I could have finished in the top 100 of the Crescent City Classic if I had been willing to spend more time and money. But I wasn’t. With the resources I was willing to allocate, and given my experience in the 2009 race, I was confident I could achieve my goal of finishing in the top 200. All things considered, that was realistic for me.

T is for Time-bound

You’re much more likely to achieve your goal if you give yourself a deadline. To return to the weight example, you might be specific about wanting to lose 50 pounds, but if you don’t give yourself a deadline then there’s never any pressure to get started. You’ll always be telling yourself that you’ll start tomorrow, and before you know it you’re 80 and still fat. Setting a hard deadline for yourself eliminates a lot of that procrastination.

I believe deadlines are one of the biggest reasons you can learn so much in college. Most of the information taught in universities can be accessed by pretty much anyone for much less than the price of your typical tuition, but having college professors set tasks and deadlines for you is what makes the difference. They force you to get boatloads of work done and absorb lots information in a short period of time. If you don’t turn in quality work on time, they fail you.

I didn’t have much say in the deadline for my goal, since race day was set well in advance by the organizers of the CCC. But imagine if my goal had been to finish in the top 200 of the Crescent City Classic… someday. There’s a good chance I’d never have done it. The deadline made all the difference. It was then or never.

E is for Ecology

Ecology is how things relate to and interact with one another. When setting a goal, you need to consider the effect it will have on you and on those around you. I like the example Brownson gives for this: If you’re a smoker who wants to quit, you may need to stop socializing with smokers for a while until you get over the hump. You’ll need to consider the effect that might have on certain relationships and ask yourself if the payoff is worth it.

Before committing to my goal, I had to consider the sacrifices I’d have to make to succeed. One of my favorite things to do is to play pick-up basketball once or twice a week, but I knew I’d have to drop that and make running my primary exercise for a couple of months. I also had to consider how my practice schedule would fit in with my other commitments, and I knew I’d have to cut back on the drinking and be okay with my social life slowing down for a while (easier said than done with Mardi Gras smack-dab in the middle of my training).

R is for Reward

This comes last but I believe it is the most important part of the SMARTER goals system.

Make sure your goal is actually something you want to accomplish. This sounds obvious, but it’s very important that you take some time to consider what your reward will be, what your real motivation actually is. People often think their goals are their own, but much of the time the goals actually belong to their parents, their peers or even society. Such influences are not always bad, but it’s important to be aware of them nonetheless.

Ask yourself if you’re taking that accounting course because you’d love to be an accountant someday, or is it more so because your parents think accounting is a respectable profession. Or maybe it’s because society has trained you to want an unfulfilling desk job for the next 40+ years of your life, just like everyone else.

What I’m talking about here is extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivators are things like money, praise or the threat of something bad happening. They may drive you to accomplish many things, but any happiness or fulfillment that comes with them, if any, will be fleeting at best.

Having intrinsic motivation, meanwhile, means that you do something because you want to do it, you love to do it, you’d even do it for free and without accreditation. Naturally, it lasts longer than extrinsic motivation.

Now I’ll be the first to admit that pure, 100-percent intrinsic motivation is rare, if not impossible. I was motivated to finish in the top 200 of the Crescent City Classic because I thought it would be a worthy challenge for me, a good exercise in goal achievement and something that would help build my belief that I can do anything if I put my mind to it. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little giddy in anticipation of the admiration and congrats I would receive if I succeeded.

So the important thing isn’t to ensure that you’re completely free of extrinsic motivators; just that they are heavily outweighed by intrinsic ones.

One more thing on the subject of reward and motivation, and this comes courtesy of Steve Pavlina’s book, Personal Development for Smart People. Steve writes about the importance of setting goals that excite you and improve your present reality, as opposed to setting goals that will mean lots of back-breaking work, struggle and heartache before hopefully paying off at some distant point in the future. In other words, the actual path towards achieving your goal should be fun and enjoyable, not just the final outcome.

So that’s how you set a strong goal. I hope you can see the value in sitting down and spending time planning out your goals using the SMARTER system. Obviously, things like action and perseverance are also needed to be successful, but there’s no substitute for proper planning. After I sat down and planned out how I could finish in the top 200 of the Classic, there was no doubt in my mind that I would do it. That’s the power of this process.

Experiment like crazy

Another vital lesson I learned from my experience was the value of experimentation in goal achievement. I experimented quite a lot in my training, not wanting to settle with the status quo or make too many assumptions. Here’s just a sampling of the things I played around with:

  • The POSE method of running
  • Vibram FiveFingers shoes
  • Resting halfway
  • Carrying a drink
  • Pre-race meals
  • Skipping a Tuesday/Thursday practice run (more rest)

I kept a detailed run log to record the results of my experiments, noting everything I could think of. After ten weeks, the data could tell me what factors produced my best results. For example, I learned that I ended up with a faster overall time if I slowed to a walk and drank for 20-30 seconds halfway through the race, as opposed to running non-stop to the finish line. Another example: A light meal (fruit/veg) on Friday nights, as opposed to a heavy meal (rice/pasta), boosted my energy levels on Saturday mornings and resulted in faster run times.

The first two experiments on the above list deserve special mention:

The POSE method of running

In golf, there is a general consensus about the best way to swing the club when teeing off. There’s a particular technique there that, once mastered, delivers excellent results. The same is true of shooting a basketball, typing on a keyboard, folding a t-shirt and, yes… even running.

Since this post is more about goals than running, I’ll just give you a quick overview of the POSE method, as described in the book by Dr. Nicholas Romanov. Here’s a good video about the technique from the BBC’s Tomorrow’s World…

And here are a few of the key factors of the POSE method:

  • Legs pulled from the ground instead of pushing against it
  • Legs fall back down to the ground (no effort)
  • Slight forward lean (falling forward)
  • Legs never straighten
  • Land on the ball of the foot, never the heel
  • Minimal upper-body movement

Put all that together and you get a free-flowing running style and much less pounding on the body. If I had used my traditional running style, I’m sure I would have again suffered from the crippling back pain that had kept me from running on hard surfaces for years.

That’s not to say that I mastered the POSE method — it’s quite difficult to do so, especially without a coach — but I was able to apply enough of the principles to help me reach my goal. In fact, I sincerely doubt that I would have succeeded without it.

Vibram FiveFingers Shoes

injinji-socks-vibram-shoes

Injini socks and Vibram FiveFingers shoes (KSO model)

I ran the Classic wearing Vibram FiveFingers shoes (KSO model) and Injinji socks. Usually you can wear the Vibrams without any socks, but when running long distances it’s advisable to have some cushioning in there.

In training, I consistently posted faster run times wearing the Vibrams than I did with my more-traditional New Balance 540 running shoes. Perhaps it was due to the Vibrams weighing only half as much (428g vs. 846g), perhaps it was because the Vibrams encourage you to use proper POSE form (you don’t want to land heel-first wearing those bad boys) or perhaps there was some sort of placebo effect at work there. Most likely it was a combination of all those things.

(Also, I should note there is growing evidence that you are more likely to suffer an injury running in expensive trainers than you are running barefoot, or, in the case of Vibrams, as close to barefoot as possible. The more artificial support, the weaker the foot itself becomes. See this article for more info.)

So what does all this have to do with achieving lofty goals?

The lesson I learned from all the above is this: to succeed, you must experiment with unorthodox equipment and techniques; you must try a few new things; you must think outside the box. To quote Tony Robbins:

If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.

Many people fall into the trap of doing something a certain way because that’s how it’s always been done, or because that’s how everyone else is doing it. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a better way for you to do it. Even if an alternative approach had been tried before and it didn’t work, who’s to say it won’t work at a different time? in a different situation? for a different person?

I’m actually experimenting right now, with this post. It will likely end up being the longest post I’ve ever written on here. Maybe people won’t read it because it’s so long. Only one way to find out.

So keep experimenting, trying new things, testing assumptions. And don’t be afraid to take a step backwards in the process, since that’s often the precursor to moving forward.

The Power of Focus

The last thing I want to mention here was a bit of a revelation to me. I pushed myself pretty hard through all the training, and eventually I came to notice exactly what it was that would cause my performance to suffer most during a run. It was focus, or rather, a lack thereof. Not muscle pain or any kind of physical exhaustion, but a lack of focus. When the going got tough and I was right there at my limit, my concentration was always the first thing to go.

And everything else would follow. I’d start pushing with my legs instead of pulling, my breathing would become erratic and I’d lose my forward lean. Before I knew it, I was out of the POSE method and had retreated to my old running style, which left me exerting more energy and making less progress. Downward spiral.

It was only when I checked myself and reigned back in my focus that things would start to improve. Even if my calves were burning, I could overrule that pain and keep my legs churning via intense concentration.

The experience really impressed upon me the enormous role the mind plays in physical performance. It is the master. Your body is the slave. Just be sure not to mistreat it too often or you might have hell to pay 😉

To summarize

Three main things my experience in the 2010 Crescent City Classic taught me about goal achievement:

  • Planning is half the battle
  • You must leave the beaten path to find a better way
  • Stay present and aware in the moment, keep your focus locked in, and you’ll kick ass

None of those things are new. You’ve probably heard similar advice before. So have I. In fact, I’ve come to believe that there are very few, if any, secrets to success. It’s all very simple, really.

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Because it takes practice, hard work and discipline, most people are unwilling to apply principles like these, and that’s why most people will stay mired in mediocrity and never achieve their lofty goals.

Don’t be one of those people.