Starting a Running Program and Goal Setting

by Jon Sinclair and Kent Oglesby, an article which first appeared as a feature article in Peak Performance Magazine

Anyone who has run for more than a few years and has made an effort achieve more than simple fitness goals, knows that a set of tables describing a sure fire method to faster racing or formulas that are designed to yield proper training efforts just don't quite deliver the goods. No matter how hard we try to fit individuals into a "system," each runner is an amalgam of such variable characteristics that no one fits perfectly. Even the heartrate monitor, always held in such great esteem, will record data that still needs to be filtered through the informed knowledge of both the athlete and coach. The information a monitor records can be ambiguous at best.

A runner must understand the nuances of their own heart's characteristics. Additionally, the athlete must be able to interpret the effects of cardiac drift and the vagaries of specific and systemic fatigue. The former will give a low heart rate reading even though the effort seems to indicate a higher reading, while systemic fatigue will cause the heart rate to rise dramatically even though the pace of the workout seems very slow. The art of digesting information, evaluating the data in terms of specific individuals and then prescribing workouts that safely advance the athlete's fitness is the job description of a coach.

Nothing can replace the experience, knowledge, and intuition of a coach, not even if it appears in computer format. Coaching is an art and at present there is no machine, book, or system that can adequately replace the human mind in negotiating the numerous pitfalls of training or in developing individual programs that allow for human variability. Of course, some minds are better than others but that is why some coaches are successful and others are not. Nevertheless, excellent coaching must combine science and experience with the equally important human skills: communication, empathy, creativity, and ability to motivate.

Certainly, coaching encompasses formulas, conversions, tables and objective data but at its base level coaching is really about "shades" of training, subtle adjustments, variable conditions, and patient development. This is the first article in a series about those fundamental ideas and concepts that are the beginnings of excellent coaching. We hope to identify and explain the process of coaching and present a philosophy that any runner can use to improve their program. We will profile an athlete we have coached to highlight how we applied our philosophy and principles.

While, as coaches, we occasionally get credit for the Olympic qualifier or even an Olympic participant our satisfaction resides more often with a life-changing discovery of running and fitness. The articles of this series will draw upon our experiences in coaching both the elite athlete and the recreational runner. We hope to provide an illustration of the roadmap we use to deliver "life-changing" fitness and competitive success. The basic principles are essentially applicable for both with the only differences being matters of degree and the intensity of focus.

The process of developing a training program begins with an evaluation of the runner's current fitness, life situation, and goals. Before beginning any program, an initial evaluation of where the runner "is" and what that person wants to accomplish, is essential. This evaluation lays the groundwork for a training plan. Many times runners evaluate where their fitness is "now" in terms of what they have accomplished in the recent, or even distant, past. As coaches, we must evaluate each runner's present fitness based on current workouts and racing. Often, where we see a client's fitness and where they see themselves can be quite different. We not only ask questions about current mileage, recent racing, intensity of training, and injuries, but also about their current life style.

Runners very often make the mistake of trying to separate their running from everyday life. When asked what they want to accomplish with their training program most clients use the phrase, "I want to be the best runner I can be." Our response is always: move into my basement and I'll only let you out to do runs twice a day, to eat a "perfect" training diet, and get a daily massage. Anything deviating from that type of a focused, elite athlete existence, becomes a tradeoff. Most of us have numerous commitments that are part of our everyday lives and which take energy and focus. These commitments must be accommodated when we look at goals and direction for training. We want to develop the best athlete within the perimeters and realities of an individual's life. Typically, we want to know how a client "spends" their energy throughout the week. That information takes many forms. For instance, we want to know what are the week's good days or bad days for training. When and where does the runner typically train? Does he have to get up early before work or come home after work to train in the dark? Does she have a track available near her home? If he lives in Houston, how is he going to accommodate hill training or how will he be able to run during the summer months? What are her family commitments? Is the husband, wife or partner supportive of the runner's training and racing commitments?

These questions and many more are as important as the count of last week's mileage. We begin our program with the understanding that running is not, and cannot be, all that we are. It is not the single defining characteristic of an athlete's life. Our approach strives to achieve performance that balances the many "who's" we are. Once we have evaluated current fitness and established the relevant life situation of the athlete as it relates to their training, the first step in developing a coaching plan is to discuss goals, both short and long term.

Establishing Goals

"Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp or what's a heaven for." Aristotle
Setting goals is the basis for developing a training program. However, it can be a difficult process. Goals must be challenging but within the context of what is truly possible. That involves critically assessing talent, life commitments, and present place on the ascending cycle of training and periodization. Goals need to be short term as well as long term. Once goals are in place, they serve as a North Star that guide the training program. For the beginning runner, goals may be easily identified and achieved. For example, "Run consistently," might mean that the runner would work toward running four to five days a week. A beginning runner might identify a specific race in which to participate and complete a local 5k or 10k. A long-term goal for a beginning runner might be to complete a half marathon or even a marathon.

Once a runner's standard of performance reaches beyond just completion of a race or a training goal, a ladder of achievement based on ascending time standards usually is the next step. Identifying long term goals could be as forward looking as a four year Olympic cycle or as short as one training cycle of 4 or 5 months. These goals should be written down in a form that indicates the performance standard and a time frame. Example: to achieve the Olympic-qualifying standard by the June of 2003, or win the Buffalo Stampede 10k in 2001. Obviously, these goals are very dependent on talent and a commitment that involves a training program that is measured, perhaps, in years. After identifying these end goals or what we'll call "A" level goals, the runner should set a series of goals that bridge the gap from where they presently are to the final goals of a periodized cycle. Those goals might be termed "C" or "B" goals that allow the runner to progress in stages toward the final goal of the training cycle.

For example, the beginning runner's "A" goal might be the consistency of running 5 days a week. Presently, he is running 2 to 3 times a week. Immediately starting a program of running 5 days would be ill advised. Developing "B" goals that build on the runner's current fitness might entail adding 1 day of running each subsequent 3 weeks of training. Or if the athlete is capable of absorbing more, the "B" goal might be to increase training as much as one run each week. If the "A" goal is to run a half marathon, the training necessary will progress through certain intermediary goals. A build up of adequate mileage and appropriate long runs will be necessary and these too could be identifiable goals. Additionally, the runner might identify "C" level and "B" level races that will serve as intermediary steps. A "C" level race might be a small, local race that the athlete "trains through" by not resting enough to guarantee a best performance. A "C" level race would be no more than a hard workout and the goal for that race might be identified with a place or a time performance commensurate with just a training effort. A "B" level race might be a larger race for which the athlete rests and is more adequately prepared. This type of race might be used as a practice for the final goal race and as an indication of true current fitness.

A runner should be realistic about goals; however, the goals should ultimately be challenging so that they stretch the potential of the athlete. Sometimes it is even useful to establish a range for a short term goal, specific race or even a specific workout. Using a range of performance to define a specific goal may seem a little less threatening to beginning runners or those athletes who might have some performance anxiety. Terms like "acceptable, good, best possible" might describe particular time goals for a race. For example, a 10k race might have an acceptable time of 41:00 minutes, a good time of 40:30 minutes, and a best possible of 39:59. The runner might have to reassess that range if the weather is an imposing factor or the course turns out to be more demanding than initially thought.

Finally, goals serve the function of defining and structuring the period between the present and the future. Goals provide a framework on which a coach and an athlete can plan a training program and, using intermediate goals, evaluate how effective the program is being executed. Lastly, goals offer a comparison at the end of a cycle by which an evaluation can be made to determine the effectiveness of the whole program and a point of beginning for the next cycle of training.

Athlete Profile - Lupe Hegan:

Lupe Hegan came to us as a 3:15 marathoner with aspirations of eventually qualifying for the Olympic Trials. During our initial discussions, we asked if she had at least two years to commit to that goal. We wanted to know whether her life situation accommodated that commitment. Sometimes the shock of knowing that achieving a goal is so far in the future, leaves athletes with a sense of disappointment that easily leads to abandonment. We evaluated how much time she could devote to her running during the week and how it would balance with commitments to family and marriage.

Many athletes have very specific goals, but no real concept of the amount of time and planning necessary to achieve those goals. For many women marathoners achieving the "B" standard for the Olympic Trials is a major goal. The window of opportunity is usually about a year and a half in length. During that time about 200 women will achieve that goal by running a qualifying time on a certified marathon course of two hours and fifty minutes. To be in that elite group and invited to the Olympic Trials is a major accomplishment. At least double that number are capable of achieving the standard. That they do not, probably stems from a lack of a long term plan related to the specific goal.

Lupe was eager to tackle the task of a training program based on a long term goal. Three years from the Olympic Trials we started with these short term goals: in the first two years to increase Lupe's mileage base; produce a sub 3 hour marathon before moving on to the next level. Over the next two years, we gradually increased her mileage from 40-50 miles a week to 80-100. That elevation in mileage had the desired effect of increasing her aerobic strength and efficiency. During the three year period she ran 3:02, 3:04, and then a big break through race at Grandma's Marathon in Duluth with a 2:54. Eventually, Lupe came close to the Olympic Trials standard with a time of 2:50:58. With 5 months to the trials she ran 2:46 and achieved her ultimate goal and dream of racing in the US Olympic Trials.

The goal had been achieved, but it was three years in the making. We began with training related goals that advanced her fitness. Those training goals were tied closely to performance that served to monitor her fitness. Races that she ran gave us feedback on her training, which then advanced her training standards. We recognized early that Lupe had a large aerobic capacity coupled with good running efficiency. Consequently, we developed a training program that made the most of her strengths. Always our eyes were on the final achievement of the Trials standard. There were setbacks as there will always be. But the plan to reach the ultimate goal kept us on track and set the pace necessary to reach the standard in time.