Image Of An Athlete In Black And White Taking A Break From Running And Avoiding Goal Setting Mistakes

6 Goal Setting Mistakes to Avoid

BY Jim Rutberg

Setting the right goals can be a difficult process. Use these tips to avoid common mistakes and set goals that you can realistically achieve.

You would think that setting goals would be one of the simpler components of being an athlete. What do you want to do? What do you want to accomplish? What lights that fire in your belly? But the truth is that many athletes are much better at stepping through a long series of workouts than they are at determining why they are training in the first place. Here are the top six mistakes in goal setting you’ll want to avoid when roadmapping your athletic endeavors.

1. Setting Goals That Are Too Far Out

There is nothing wrong with long-range planning or setting a series of goals that cover a range of years. But the key to avoiding long-tail goal setting mistakes lis to incorporate shorter-term goals you can check off the list. Training for your first Ironman is typically a 12-month process for a moderately-experienced triathlete, but trying to hit a target race that far out is extremely hard unless you have some markers along the way that help you stay on target.

Set an ultimate goal for the year or even for some time within the next few years, but backfill your goal worksheet with process or competition goals every 3 to 4 months so there’s always a tangible goal within your reach.

2. Setting Goals That Are Too Conservative

If you already did it last year, it’s not a challenging goal for this year. Many athletes compete or participate in the same events year after year, but your goals around those events have to change and progress in order to make your goals list for this year. The exception to that advice is when lifestyle changes have significantly changed your ability to train compared to last year. In that case, getting back to a previous performance level can be a legitimate and immensely challenging goal.

Successful goals push you outside your comfort zone. They scare you a bit because failure is a distinct possibility. It’s that desire to succeed in the face of a challenge that helps you commit to high-quality workouts, to training when the weather is bad, and to pushing yourself when you’re tired.

3. Setting Goals That Are Too Outlandish

Your goals should stretch your ability level, but they have to be within the realm of possibility. I’ve actually had a Category 5 bike racer, who, without any hint of sarcasm, tell me his goal was to race the Tour de France within 18 months. There may be an immense talent out there who could accomplish that, but it wasn’t him. Ambitious goals are great because they demand great focus; you know you will only accomplish an ambitious goal if a lot of things go right. On the other hand, unrealistic goals quickly become farcical. You won’t be able to take them seriously, which means they won’t hold your attention.

4. Setting Goals That Are Disruptive

If your goals require a complete reboot of your life, they are probably not realistic. There are certainly people who have ditched their jobs, walked away from their families, and sold their earthly possessions to pursue a goal that changes the world. With extremely rare exception, your sporting goal doesn’t qualify. What’s more, the more disruptive your goals are to your life outside of sport, the less likely it is that you’ll be able to stick to them. Minor disruptions- like getting up earlier, going to bed earlier, some dietary changes, some long workouts some weekends– are pretty easy to accommodate and can be both necessary and good. Just be wary of changes that add lifestyle stress.

5. Setting Goals That Cannot be Measured

Athletes often set vague goals when they lack confidence in their ability to achieve anything specific. Rather than risk failure, they establish unmeasurable goals like “doing better on the group ride” or “being a better climber”. Those goals can be made specific by establishing performance markers like time pulling at the front, staying in the front group on a climb, improving sustainable climbing power by 10 percent, etc. Better yet, set measurable goals that are achievable through training and nutrition. These could include increased power over a specific duration, increased time you can sustain a specific power or pace, X percent increase in power-to-weight ratio, etc. These measurable goals lead to improved performance capacity, which means reaching your goals in training puts you in better position to succeed in real-world events.

6. Setting Goals That Only Revolve Around Winning

We all love to win, but the reality of endurance competition is that even the best athletes lose a lot more often than they win. There are also so many variables involved in winning an endurance race that being the fastest, strongest, and even smartest athlete on the day doesn’t guarantee a victory. It’s good for some of your goals to be related to results, but you should also set personal and meaningful goals you can achieve even if you don’t end up on top of the podium.  

Follow these steps as guide to setting your goals for this season. When you start out with the right goals, the training and racing makes you healthy and happy.

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About Jim Rutberg

Jim Rutberg is a Pro Coach for Carmichael Training Systems, Inc. (CTS) and co-author of several books with Chris Carmichael, including “The Time-Crunched Cyclist, 2nd Ed.” and “The Time-Crunched Triathlete”. For information on personal coaching, training camps, and Endurance Bucket List events, visit

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