Being Realistic in Your Goal Setting

By , SparkPeople Blogger
This past weekend I took the next step in my fitness career by taking the Road Runners Club of America (RRCA) Coaching Certification Class. This was a very intense two day course covering all aspects on becoming a certified running coach. Let me tell you, I learned so much in those 16 hours that my head is still spinning. Now I have to study so that I can take my exam in the next few weeks. I do have my work cut out for me, but I have confidence in due time I will be a coach.

While I am not going to go into the specifics of the class, I did want to share with you one of the lessons I learned and that was helping a runner set a realistic goal. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I have read or talked to new runners who want to go from running 3 miles three times a week to a marathon in less than a year. While many may feel that I do not support these runners by stealing their dreams, in all reality my goal is to help a new runner appreciate the time and effort it takes to become a long distance runner. And most importantly respect the distance of not only running 26.2 miles but training for this distance as well.

When I was getting quite frustrated with my own slow progress three years ago, my running coach once told me, “Nancy, do you want to be a life-long runner or a once in a lifetime runner? It is your choice but if you choose the first option, you will allow time for your body to adapt to the sport of running and you will be a runner. Or if you choose the latter, you will have no choice but to adapt to an injured body and you may have to give up the gift of running altogether.” I guess you can tell which path I took.

These were pretty harsh sentiments at the time when I was expecting to hear words of support and encouragement. But in all honesty, looking back, I am glad he was truthful with me rather than trying to sell me a dream that may have never been fulfilled if I found myself sidelined with an injury. I had to learn to trust his knowledge and expertise. And we do know that one of our biggest de-motivators is setting goals that are unachievable.

Sometimes we need an outsider’s view to set us in the right direction when we can’t ‘see the forest through the trees’, so to speak. This doesn’t mean we can’t shoot for the stars, but know that the moon many times may get in the way, but WOW what a view of the Earth you will see. I have learned to TRUST THE PROCESS, which has become my mantra on this journey. But we should all know that in due time we can meet many of our goals, sometimes we just have to be willing to have others help us along the way.

Has anyone ever told you that your goal(s) were unrealistic and if so, how did you respond? Have you ever set a goal only to realize yourself that it was unrealistic? Do you trust others in helping you meet your goals?

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Not a runner, but the advice is the same for goal setting! Realistic, long term so you succeed Report
I have made and done some unrealistic goals especially when it comes to exercise. It has landed me into the hospital for several days. That occurred three times. Today I listen to my body. If it says hey Sally slow down or take a breather. I do it. Since I have been sick and quarentined, I couldn't exercise. But tomorrow I hope to start back. Report
KHALIA2 3/21/2020
Great Advice! Thanks for sharing!!!!!! Report
BILLTHOMSON 10/28/2019
I believe small goals and small rewards are what help keep me focused, thank-you. Report
PATRICIAANN46 7/31/2019
Thank You for the great advice. Report
Thanks for the tips Report
thanks Report
Pure wisdom! Thanks! Report
Thanks for this Report
My knees are shot... Report
I will never be a runner because of my bad knee (which I had 4 surgeries on this past July) but have always wondered what it would feel like to run all day. I have read many blogs about people running marathons and thought of the committment it must take to achieve that accomplishment! Report
Yes, I set the goal of running my first 5K race in 12 weeks....during week 2 of training, during a "running" portion of the exercise I blew everything I had out of my knee. That ended my goal of running that 5K and every running again period. I was crushed, a specific goal I had set would never be reached. I dropped out of SP and had a pity DH reminded me that I never ran BEFORE joining SP so why would I feel the need to run AFTER I joined? Why? Because everyone else was "doing it"....after months of rehab and physical therapy I rejoiced when I could walk to the mailbox and back without my cane....then up the road and back my goal is to be the best darn walker out there! I've gone from that walk to the mailbox and back to over 25 miles each week...set goals that ARE attainable...and if you set one that isn't you yourself have to see that, accept it, realize your not a "failure" and set a new one. Report
My husband is the biggest advocate I have - he has an amazing way of getting me to see my goals as unrealistic without dashing my dreams. I don't know how he does it, but I benefit greatly from his wisdom! Then I can reach for the stars without becoming discouraged if things don't go exactly as I planned. Report
I have had many people tell me my goals are unrealistic, and I have learned to stop listening. If I had listened:

I would not have my Bachelor's Degree in Accounting
I would not have my MBA
I would not be a single parent
I would not have moved to a new state (two different times)
I would not have applied for jobs I actually got

I would rather try then listen to someone who tells me not to try. Report
Setting unrealistic goals may actually be why many of us are *on* SP in the first place. You know: "I'm going to lose 20 pounds for this reunion that's coming up in 3 weeks", or, "I want to look hot at the beach in 2 months - I'm determined to lose 50 pounds by then". That sort of goal that pretty much eats away at one's determination pretty much as soon as it's made! :)

I'm *still* setting "stretch" goals - goals that would be tough, but not impossible to achieve. That keeps *me* motivated.

And I *am* one of those who went from a base of zero running to a marathon in 20 weeks - fortunately without injury, but also without great speed. I did complete the marathon and then went on to enjoy HIIT run/walk sessions. My contention would be that it's the coach's responsibility to help me be realistic, but if my dreams aren't big enough, I won't bother *sticking* with a plan. Knowing that my goal of completing a marathon in 20 weeks *could* lead to injury, I was extra careful to listen to my body and not push too hard. I may have had a better PR if I'd trained longer, but I don't think it'd have been quite the same thrill! :)
My orthopedist keeps telling me pretty much the same thing. He tells me I can train for a marathon now and probably never run again, or I can wait to heal, maybe do a half marathon next year, and then see about doing another marathon down the road. He is trying to convince me to slow down and do what it takes to be a lifelong runner. Report
No. 28, I love your wording. Realistic steps to big goals. Perfect and in a nutshell. Report
I am a newbie runner and have had to tell myself that I am not doing a marathon until 2010. I started in Fall '08 and have had to deal with disappointed faces, but it's my body and I know it's best not to try to push it to do too much, too soon. My "excuse" is that I can't do one til 2010 because then 2010 will look lame compared to 2009! Report
I had the opposite experience as a cyclist. When I had been riding for a while and I still had trouble keeping up on moderate group rides and was quickly dropped on fast ones everyone told me that I'd never be a fast cyclist.

I was working at a bike shop that sponsored a bike racing team. As winter came and the days got shorter business slowed down and to have enough time for a 40 mile ride the rides had to start before the shop closed. Someone had to stay behind to watch the shop until closing time and lock up; since everyone knew I'd never race I was designated to be that person.

I dutifly stayed behind but as soon as the shop closed I jumped on the turbo trainer we had in the back for a hard 45 minute thrash. My training was mostly stealth; I'd still ride with the group on Sunday but I mostly trained alone so I didn't know how I ranked compared to everyone else.

One Sunday ride someone attempted a break on the longest climb on the ride. A few riders attempted a chase, by the top of the climb only me and one of the Cat IIs on the team caught the guy. When we got back one of the racers caught up with me and told me that I was getting seriously fast and that I should send off for my racing license.

Going from a casual runner to a marathon in a year does not sound like that big an undertaking. In high school winter track I ran 10+ miles with no problem without a huge amount of preperation. When the regular track season came around I switched focus to the shot and discus but I have no doubt that I could have run a comfortable if not fast marathon if I put my mind to it. Report
Yep, in all my life choices I've had to do it by trial & error- more errors than I'd like to think about! And genuinely given advice or support is only good or bad- depending on if you listen! I tend to not listen, lol. Report
Well to any marathon runners out there I have so much respect for them. I have always wanted to run a marathon as a life long goal and believe me I have plenty of time to train but I need to start now because along with training I need to lose lots of weight. I think its cool that they have classes for these sort of things because Id be one of those runners who just start traning for a marathon without no prior experience...thanks for this blog! Report
You gave me those same words of advice on the Rookie Runners Group, and I appreciate them. The thing is, I do want to be a lifetime runner. And one of my biggest struggles right now is recognizing the difference between my genuine limits and my old excuses. I've spent years making excuses for not exercising or challenging myself to make healthy choices... I'm scared to fall into the same old traps. So in my zeal to overcome my old negative habits, I tend to push EVERY reason to rest or to only push myself so far into the "excuses" category, and then throw myself into all-out exertion.

Though the first time I read your advice I was a little disappointed (because I do like fast results), I now really value your words and have been repeating them to myself. I want to be a LIFETIME runner. Which means that I have my whole life to continue progressing.

Thanks for your advice and inspiration! And good luck with your test. I know you'll do great! Report
I believe in honesty first. It is not "stealing a dream" to tell the truth. If someone needs "fluff" they will have to talk to someone else. And I think they will if they are needy that way. Report
I think I missed a lot of what this message was really supposed to be about because I got caught up in the analogies. I disagree with much of what was written. I have gone from running close to nothing to a marathon in 22 weeks, with a time that was not too bad, and injury free. And now I'm training for the NYC marathon. Of course there is such a thing as setting your goals too high, but I would never tell someone that. I have been a track coach for 10 years and I know how crushing it is to tell someone they can't TRY to do something they want to do..... you have to encourage and help them, not tell them they can't. Report
I recently ran the 5K in the pool (water jogging) and told one of the ladies in my water aerobics that I would like to someday run in a marathon on land. Knowing that I have had both hips replaced, she told me, in so many words, that I would never be able to achieve that goal.

Both hips were done 4 (rt) and 5 (lft) years ago and I've never been told by my doctors that I could not run or jog on land. Thank goodness this woman told me and I confirmed it on "google."

This unrealistic goal bumbed me out for a minute until I realized the damage I could have done had I actually tried to achieve it. Report
As a Special Education Teacher, I have to write goals all of the time. We learned a long time ago to write SMART goals. I have found that it works in my life also.

S - specific
M - measurable
A - attainable
R - realistic
T - trackable Report
I had the exact opposite experience. Someone convinced me that I could run a marathon when I had taken an almost 6 month break from running. They said it would be the perfect motivation for me to start running again and get in shape.

Long story short I did it and i finished the marathon (and by some kinf of miracle injury free) but half way thru the 26 weeks of training I wanted to quit and the only reason I didnt was because I was already signed up for the race. I can definitely relate to this blog because I learned the hard way that striving for out of reach goals (even if you reach them) robs you of what you learn and gain thru the journey - which is ALWAYS more rewarding than the goal itself. Report
I have got advice about setting goals that I can DO SOMETHING ABOUT instead of goals which measure things I have no control over. I usually keep my goals attainable, or slightly impossible, but will not beat myself up if I "fail" after striving to reach it. I'll only beat myself up if I can't honestly say I have tried (which also happens, but less frequently these days).
And can I just say I LOVE your mantra - I'll have to adopt it, it fits right into my current way of thinking. Keep on keeping on and TRUST THE PROCESS.
Thanks for another thought-provoking blog, and good luck with your exam! Coach Nancy has a nice ring to it! :) Report
i'm not really a "goal" person. I always set my standards low so i can be excited when i do better. Like when i take a test, i'll think to myself, oh i probably got a C. And when i get the test back i see that i got a B and am super excited! Instead of thinking i'm totally getting an A and get a B and be bummed.

I always just follow the lame saying "Just do the best that YOU can do!" seems to be working for me. Report
Yes being realistic is wise. However, I really believe in the saying: "Reach for the moon and you'll land among the stars." So If we just aim for a lost of 5 lbs a month, we may lose 2lbs, but if we aim for 10lbs a month we will lose 5lbs! Just a thought! Report
We should all be more realistic in our goals. If we set goals that are too high or unattainable in the time frame we set for ourselves, we are setting ourselves up for failure. That inevitable failure will only serve as disappointment and discouragement. Report
Ahh-Gee (comment #29) & I had the same plan: to lose 100lbs in a year.
I, too, have discovered that while 2 lbs a week is do-able--impractical, but do-able ... Life "stuff" and my laziness has gotten me 15 lbs shy & 2 months over of my goal.

BUT what I have found is that moving goal dates is NOT a failure!

As long as I keep my healthy promises to myself, keep working my Plan, and keep moving toward the goals (short-, mid-, and long-term) I've set, WHEN I meet them is not as important, ultimately, as MEETING them.

Every pound of fat lost, and muscle gained is a Good Thing because I want to be a Life-Long Healthy Person, not a Once-In-A-While Healthy Person!

Thanks, Nancy! Good food for thought ... those kind of calories are worth EVERY bite! Report
I have never done well with trying to set a time to lose a certain amount of weight (like 50 pounds by New Year's Eve!)... but on occasion I think I have certainly wanted to lose faster and when I first started a weight loss program in my 20's I lost weight with much more ease than i do now (by far...).

Right now though I am focusing on 1.5 pounds a week which is still an aggressive goal, but at least this is achievable (I feel). I try not to let it bother me when I see or read about people losing a lot of weight in a short amount of time 'cause honestly I have gained and lost and gained so many times, I just want to lose for good this time around :)

Thanks for the article - I'm in the same place, just accepting the process and focusing on progress not perfection... Report
Thanks again for another fine blog!!! Yes my DH kept telling me to stop running !! I wasn't losing weight but inches! That was until I dropped weights on my toes! :( Well getting back to running was very hard to say the least. I wanted to pick up where I left off. HA! I know you know how that worked out!LOL. I want to be in the life time runner category. Report
I love goals! My life has been guided by them since forever. Among the things I've set out to do and done: beat all games in the Lemmings franchise, graduated with honors, became fluent in Spanish, volunteered abroad, built a happy marriage, ran my first 5K, got into a wicked good grad school. The only problem with this is that it makes setbacks a little harder to swallow. I don't think my fitness goals are completely unrealistic, but I think sometimes I expect progress to happen faster than is reasonable. Until recently I was really caught up in an almost self-punishing attitude and frustrated that I wasn't losing weight faster. I lost 60 pounds and then I just hit that plateau. I'm beginning to re-evaluate my own definition of ''healthy,'' and ask what role weight really plays in my health. I weigh 150 pounds now; I'd like to weigh less, but maybe I won't, or maybe the process will really slow down from now on. So I'm starting to think more about how my body feels than how much it weighs. I'm trying to be more viscerally connected than cerebrally preocupied, if that makes any sense. Whatever happens, I've learned to be okay with where I'm at now, and not only respect the process, but celebrate it! Report
Thanks Nancy, Yes I have I think back now always unrealistic in setting my weight loss goals. Ever since I joined SP I found how much more successful I have and will be when I stop trying to rush things and keep within my own reasonalbe goals and take it..One Day at a time. Report
Some people have wanted me to take it slower riding my bike. I listened to them, but then I also listened to my body and wtached how it responded to by pedaling.
I still have some issues with cycling up hills. But I can ride for 35 miles with no problem. I am pleased with the growth I made in this year. Report
Thank you Nancy, sometimes I set my goal too high and then we I can't reach them I get frustrate with my self.
Beatriz Report
Thanks Nancy for another great article

I so agree - it is important to set goals and to stretch yourself a little bit, but it has to be attainable. We underestimate the power of doing the daily small things consistently over time. With running, if I just enjoy the runs and keep at it, my body will gradually build up over time. It is tempting to set those big goals ie: run a marathon, or 1/2 marathon in six months, but I am learning to be happy with setting the goal of running a 5K or 10K. Maybe in time I will run farther distances, but for now my body is working hard to do the shorter runs.

Someone once said We overestimate how much we can do in a year, and underestimate how much we can do in ten years. That is so true with both our exercise and fitness goals, and our weightloss goals.
Keep those great articles coming, and congrats on your Coaching Certification!! Report
Nancy, you could not be more right - thank you for this reminder.
The concept of deciding to be a "lifelong runner" (or in my case, rower) rather than a once-in-a-lifetime athlete resonated strongly with me. It is a reminder I will give myself whenever I am feeling frustrated by setbacks or, as I have lately, feeling guilty for spending time exploring other exercise options besides my favorite sport. Report
SUMMERDAWNE, Yup. After you mentioned it. I looked with a fresh eye and noticed it straight off. It's cool. Report
When I was in high school my guidance counselor told me I didn't have what it took to get a college degree. Boy was she wrong! Glad I didn't listen that time. I do though sometimes want things NOW rather than spend the much needed time for them. This article helps you realize that.

Yes, to me the clouds in the photo look like a baby Report
The picture for the article totally looks like a baby. Do you see it in the cloud too? Report
When I joined sparkpeople in Nov. 2007, I weighed about 275 and by my 30 birthday, which was 4 days ago, I wanted to be at 125. Well currently I'm 5 months pregnant but I realized in Dec. 2008 that I wasn't going to reach that goal and I had to set a more smaller, realistic goal. Well even know I gotta reset my goal since I'm pregnant and completely start all over. Report
I always set my goals a little unrealistic, but I keep them private. Without a goal that pushes my capabilites that I am really forced to work at, it's too easy to let things slide.

I've made some of my goals and failed spectacularly at others, but I'm always much better off for having gone through the process of trying to achieve them. Report
I'm learning that short intervals work best for me. WHen I have set a goal before it was always too far in the distance. With more realistic goals and steady progress, I learn more on the journey that I have in the past. Report
I am really glad to have come across this article. I am still in the process of learning to set realistic goals. I alwas tend to dream big and then easily get discouraged when I finally realize how unrealistic the gaols was. But, I a plan on taking it slow and setting many small goals that will eventually get me the realistic results. Thanks again for a really great article! Report
I think that at times I've set realistic goals, then made them unrealistic with crunching time periods to reach those goals. And at times, I've confused goals with dreams. I think you need both big dreams and realistic goals to succeed. Report
I guess I kind of have the opposite problem of setting my goals too high. I have just NEVER been a goal setter of any kind. There have been things that I liked to do and I did them but I never have said or wrote down anything that said 'In 6 months I will be doing this or that or I want to accomplish this'. It just has never been in my nature to do that. I've always just kinda lived in the moment. I have focused on my journey at SparkPeople to live a healthier, happy lifestyle, to lose weight and to actually set a few goals. So far that has been working for me. Report