The Goal Behind All Goals


, by Matt Fitzgerald

Photography by: Jacob Lund

Most endurance athletes will set a goal when going into a race. But whether that goal is a target time or even placing in a category, there is always a bigger objective behind it, as Matt Fitzgerald explains.

Goals are fundamental to endurance sports. Rarely do athletes start a race without a concrete goal in place. In most cases, it’s a number of some kind—3 hours, top 10, that sort of thing. But the true goal in competing, as I see it, lies behind the numbers, and it’s always the same.

A thought experiment will make this truth clear. Suppose your goal for a half marathon is to improve upon your personal-best time of 1:52:02, but on race day you make the happy discovery that the required pace of 8:32 per mile feels surprisingly easy. What do you do? You push a little harder, of course, and as a result you end up completing the race in 1:49:49.

SETTING YOUR TARGETS: How to Create Effective Training and Performance Goals

Examples like this reveal that our true goal in competing is not to hit a certain number but to reach our full potential. In this particular example, the ostensible goal was to cover 13.1 miles 1:52:01 or better. But how satisfied would you have been with your performance if you’d made no adjustment in response to feeling surprisingly good and cruised to the finish line in 1:51:50, knowing you might have broken 1:50:00 if you’d reached your full potential? Not very.

Goal-setting is useful, don’t get me wrong. Research has shown that athletes perform better when they set a measurable goal than they do when they vaguely try to do their best. But not always. If a goal is too aggressive, such that it seems out of reach to the athlete, or if it’s too conservative, such that the athlete can achieve it easily, it is unlikely to aid performance. Only when a goal aligns closely with an athlete’s current potential will it achieve this effect.

Photography by: l i g h t p o e t

In this sense, a goal is a kind of prediction. Athletes who understand the true purpose of goals shoot for performance standards that seem just barely achievable based on their present level of fitness. But as we all know, human predictions are imperfect. As a race unfolds, the perceived attainability of the goal will change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Hence, if the underlying goal is to complete the race in the least time possible given the athlete’s current potential—and it should be—then the goal itself must be updated, extending in real time the process by which the original goal was set.

The psychology of goal setting

An interesting new study appearing in Psychology of Sport & Exercise offers support for this responsive approach to goal setting. A research team led by Patricia Jackman of the University of Lincoln interviewed 21 experienced competitive runners on the subject of how they managed goals during races that ended with satisfying outcomes. They found that two key mental tools were frequently relied upon in this process: mental contrasting and implementation intentions.


Mental contrasting entails juxtaposing a desired future outcome against present challenges in order to judge the feasibility of achieving that outcome. “If a person expects that they can surmount the obstacles to goal achievement,” explain the study’s authors, “they will mobilise greater effort towards reaching that desired future, but if expectations of success are low, mental contrasting will help someone to refrain from committing to an unfeasible goal.”

The true goal is to perform to the best of your ability, and achieving it will require that you follow the example of successful racers and adjust your numerical goal as appropriate

Implementation intentions, meanwhile, are pre-planned responses to events that impinge on goal attainment. Typically, these take the form of if-then constructions, as in: If I’m feeling strong at mile 20 I’ll increase my pace. What Jackman’s team found was that these two mental tools—mental contrasting and implementation intentions—were often used conjunctively by athletes during successful races, as in: If at some point during the race my goal no longer seems appropriate (either too hard or too soft) I’ll adjust it to better align with my present capabilities.

RELATED: How Often Should You Race?

When the goal seems out of reach…

According to the study’s authors, this composite mental tool—which they call mental contrasting with implementation intentions, or MCII—often saves the day in races where the original goal falls out of reach. Known as action crises, these dreadful moments—when we know the athlete knows they’re going to fail and yet they’re nowhere near the end of their suffering—are decisive. All too often, athletes respond to them by essentially giving up. Other times, athletes quickly renegotiate their goal, making the best of an unfortunate situation.

A great example of the power of MCII is Mirinda Carfrae’s performance at the 2014 Ironman World Championship. The 33-year-old Australian arrived in Kona as the favorite to win, having claimed her second Ironman title the year before. But a disastrous bike leg left her in 14th place at the second transition, 8 minutes behind race leader Daniela Ryf. Time to give up, right?

Mirinda Carfrae won three Ironman World Championships during her career. Photography by: Zuma Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

Wrong! Time to practice mental contrasting with implementation intention. “I didn't believe I was going to win,” Carfrae explained afterward. “I had to let go of that hope. So I figured I’d try to put together the very best race that I could and change my goal from winning to getting in the top five.”

DID YOU READ? Get Better Faster: Master the Fundamentals Before Seeking “Marginal Gains”

Having adjusted her goal to fit the circumstances, Carfrae focused her attention on executing the best possible marathon. Through a combination of smart pacing, conscientious fueling, and sheer grit, she picked off the women ahead of her one by one and ended up winning the race after all. But even if Carfrae had fallen short of pulling off the greatest come-from-behind victory ever in the women’s division of the Ironman World Championship, she would have finished with the satisfaction of knowing she’d done her best, thanks to her responsive goal setting.

So remember: Whatever goal you set for your next race is not the true goal. The true goal is to perform to the best of your ability, and achieving it will require that you follow the example of successful racers and adjust your numerical goal as appropriate while executing the race. And if it helps, think of Mirinda Carfrae whenever your initial goal seems out of reach. She’s living proof that ain’t over till it’s over.

Related Tags

More Stories