How to Stay Motivated After You Miss Your Time Goal
Although running is a physically demanding sport, it can be mentally exhausting as well. Runners spend months – even years – working towards the achievement of a specific time goal, which is often a personal best performance. Not reaching that goal can be heart-wrenching, leading some people to walk away from the sport entirely. Here, tips for staying motivated after you miss your time goals are discussed.
Acknowledge Your Feelings
First, allow yourself to acknowledge any disappointment, frustration, anger, or even depression that you might feel following your race. The first step in moving forward from a poor performance is tackling how you feel about it head-on.
Have a Short Term Memory
Once you have unpacked your feelings, the next step is to develop a short term memory. Forget the negative emotions that you may have associated with your performance, but remember the way it felt to fall short.
For instance, forget the fact that you may have called yourself a failure, but use the feeling of disappointment to motivate your future training in order to annihilate your next goal. Dwelling on the past and having low self-confidence will only limit your future motivation1.
Consider the Factors
Not to be confused with making excuses, it is also important to consider any factors that may have negatively affected your race – and learn from them. In general, perfect race day conditions are considered to be 50o F2 with no wind and low humidity. Even slight deviations can affect performance.
If you showed up on race day and it was 80o F, sunny, and humid the odds are greatly against your ability to achieve the time you had trained for if you came from a colder environment. Consider adding heat training into your next training cycle in order to be prepared the next time the weather is warm.
Additionally, if other factors affected your performance such as gastrointestinal distress, hills you were not prepared for, emotional stress, or poor racing strategy, use these setbacks as new challenges to overcome in your next training cycle.
Failure is scary for people, both athletes and non-athletes alike. Indeed, the prospect of failing and feeling like a “failure” can deter runners from pursuing their goals. However, failing is a necessary part of the process.
Instead of allowing the emotions that come with missing your goal to dictate your next steps, embrace failure as an opportunity to hone your training. Use the data that you obtained during the race, such as splits, heart rate, physical cues (i.e. soreness), etc. to create a better training plan for your needs.
Take a Critical Look at Your Training
If you continue to fall short of your time goals, use your missed goal as an opportunity to take a closer look at your training. Do you hit the wall at the same point in every race? Do your legs always feel great in training, but flat on race day? Did you experience a period of improvement, only to plateau?
Oftentimes, runners find themselves in a rut that is directly caused by their training. Consider hiring a coach to help you reach your time goals. Not only will a coach identify weaknesses in your current plan, but will also help you maintain the motivation that is required for picking yourself back up after a disappointing race.
Be Cautious with Comparisons
Oftentimes, runners expect to be able to run a personal best time no matter where he or she is in a given training cycle. However, doing so is not realistic. Even for professional and elite runners, a personal best race is typically only achieved once or twice per year.
When making comparisons between two races, it is important to consider whether you had the same amount of training for both races, if the course conditions were the same, and if the weather was similar. For instance, it is not realistic to expect to run a personal best marathon on a hilly course in May after only 2 months of training if your best race was completed on a flat course after 6 months of running and in cooler conditions.
Better comparisons to consider are how this race compared to ones completed on similar courses and at a similar time of year. In many cases, you will realize a missed time goal is not as big of a deal as previously thought.
Make One Correction
Following a missed goal, it can be tempting to overhaul your lifestyle and training in order to achieve a faster time in your next race. There are a number of factors that can affect race performance, including:
• Strength and Conditioning
• Neuromuscular Fitness
• Long Runs
• Speed Work
However, trying to make adjustments in each area of your training can lead to mental fatigue and unhappiness, both of which can result in extreme lapses in motivation. Try to identify the biggest area that needs improvement in your training.
For instance, a general rule of thumb is that athletes should receive a base amount of 7 – 8 hours of sleep per night, plus 10 minutes for every 10 miles of weekly running. Sleep is among the most important factors for training and performance3, so if you are not meeting this quota, start by focusing on this adjustment.
Motivation is renewed when small adjustments are made to our daily lives. If you continue to make incremental changes to your training in the search for improvement, your brain will have a new, rewarding focus which will drive you towards success.
If you have a soft tissue injury, learn how to overcome it and get back on track.
Take a Break
Following a missed goal, it can also be tempting to continue training without taking time off. However, this mistake can quickly lead to mental burnout. Instead, take time off after your race in order to regroup and refocus your efforts. Not only will the break provide your body with a much needed chance to recover, but you will be able to look at your missed goal from a different perspective and gain valuable insight.
Research has shown that time away from mentally engrossing activities actually allows us to return to them more motivated than before.
Develop a Mantra
Mantras4 are short phrases that can be repeated over and over in order to aid concentration. When used during training and racing, they can improve confidence and help an athlete maintain focus. Developing a mantra for a big picture goal, such as training, can help an athlete overcome a negative situation and maintain motivation.
For instance, mantras such as “never let a stumble be the end of your journey,” or “be fearless in the pursuit of what sets your soul on fire” can drive motivation when the going gets tough and an athlete feels like quitting after a missed goal.
Reframe the Experience
Another tool for staying motivated after a missed goal is the cognitive reframe5. Here, a negative situation is turned into a positive one. When we perceive situations as negative, we avoid them in the future, which can wreak havoc on outward motivation. However, positive experiences light up the reward centers in our brains, which are intimately tied to overall motivation.
Instead of saying, “I missed my goal,” reframe the situation as, “I am fortunate to have the opportunity to chase my goals, regardless of the outcome.” A simple reframe can change the narrative in your mind from negative to positive.
Set Process Goals
There is no doubt that humans are intrinsically motivated by goals, otherwise missing a time goal would not cause much internal strife. A great way to stay motivated after a disappointment is to set process goals, which are smaller goals throughout the training cycle. For instance, if you are training for a marathon and your peak mileage will be 50 miles per week, good process goals can include the work required before that mileage is reached.
For instance, if your training cycle is 6 months long, a process goal could be to reach 35 miles per week by the end of the second month of training. The next process goal could be to reach 40 miles per week by the end of the 4th month of training. Each time a goal is reached, be sure to reward6 yourself, which will only further your motivation.
Set a Non-Time Goal
Finally, recognize that when a time goal becomes the main focus, runners can lose a lot of their enjoyment for the sport. Ultimately, running is about more than simply covering distance at a faster speed than ever before. Maintain motivation for running and relieve internal pressure by setting alternative goals, such as running two 20 milers during the training cycle instead of one, or to (safely) run your highest mileage week ever.
Other goals include running the second half of your race faster than the first, or nailing your water stops. Some runners simply have goals to finish the race in a happy state of mind. Remember there are numerous factors you cannot control, such as the weather, but you are able to control your motivation!
1. Baumeister, R. F., & Tice, D. M. (1985). Self-esteem and responses to success and failure: Subsequent performance and intrinsic motivation. Journal of Personality, 53(3), 450-467. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.1985.tb00376.x Link
2. El Helou, N., Tafflet, M., Berthelot, G., Tolaini, J., Marc, A., Guillaume, M., … Toussaint, J.-F. (2012). Impact of Environmental Parameters on Marathon Running Performance. PLoS ONE, 7(5), e37407. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0037407 Link
3. Fullagar HH, Skorski S, Duffield R, Hammes D, Coutts AJ, Meyer T. Sleep and athletic performance: the effects of sleep loss on exercise performance, and physiological and cognitive responses to exercise. Sports Med. 2015;45(2):161-86. Link
4. Berkovich-Ohana, A., Wilf, M., Kahana, R., Arieli, A., & Malach, R. (2015). Repetitive speech elicits widespread deactivation in the human cortex: the “Mantra” effect? Brain and Behavior, 5(7). doi:10.1002/brb3.346 Link
5. Larsson, A., Hooper, N., Osborne, L. A., Bennett, P., & Mchugh, L. (2016). Using Brief Cognitive Restructuring and Cognitive Defusion Techniques to Cope With Negative Thoughts. Behavior Modification, 40(3), 452-482. doi:10.1177/0145445515621488 Link
6. Robbins, T. W., & Everitt, B. J. (1996). Neurobehavioural mechanisms of reward and motivation. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 6(2), 228-236. doi:10.1016/s0959-4388(96)80077-8 Link