How to set realistic fitness goals and redefine what "success" means for you
We've all been there. Maybe you're part of the ubiquitous "new year, new me" syndrome that drives people to start new gym memberships every January. Maybe you're trying to get in shape and look your best for a big event. Or maybe you're just not feeling your best, and you start to research new workout plans to feel better about your overall health.
You get excited, you put your plan in place...and pretty quickly, you realize you aren't succeeding. That new workout plan just isn't working out for you, and you aren't meeting your goals.
After years of working out, I've finally gotten to a place where I feel good about my fitness goals. Straight up good. Good. This was a big shift for me in the past few years, and it's all about mindset. Here are five things I've figured out along the way that have helped me set more realistic goals and feel better about when I do achieve them, as well as when I don't.
1. Don't Bite Off More Than You Can Chew
Seems obvious, right? But for most of us, it's hard. When you're starting a new workout plan, you might get overambitious, immediately setting yourself up for failure.
Here's an example. Earlier this year, I reluctantly accepted my fiancee's challenge to train for the Cherry Blossom Run. Even though I had switched my focus to cycling on recent years, the race sounded awesome: running along the Potomac River with the cherry blossom trees blooming in one of my favorite cities.
My first red flag came after she registered us for the race: I realized it was ten miles, not 10K. Since I hadn't been running, I'd have to quickly ramp up. With that much running, I began worrying I wouldn't achieve my weekly cycling goals. Rather than trim my cycling goal, I tried to simply add the running plan on top of my normal cycling mileage. Not smart.
After a few weeks, I realized there was no way I could keep my cycling mileage up and train for a ten mile race. I also realized I really didn't want to train for a ten mile race (and so did my fiancee!). So we dropped our reservation for the race.
The FIRST THING I should have done, instead of being stubborn about keeping my existing cycling goal, was to reflect on this question: "Can I really do this?" So should you.
Reflect on your goal. Determine if it's achievable. If you think it's not, make the goal easier.
From a cardio perspective, this is pretty straightforward: don't set distance goals you can't possibly reach, especially if you are just ramping up walking, running or cycling for the first time. If you are a new runner, you're not going to fall out of bed and run a 5K. In fact, you might not even be able to run a mile. Start slow and build up your distance goals over time.
From a strength perspective, it's the same deal: don't set goals around weights, reps or workouts you know you can't achieve. Don't be the person who hurts themselves trying to bench press above their strength.
And maybe, if you're just getting started on a workout plan for the first time, or after a long layoff...
2. Establish a Baseline
For people in the business world, this might have been an obvious one. You can't measure success until you know what success looks like for you. Wait a few weeks or even a few months to set goals for yourself. See how you're progressing. Then set goals that will push your progress slowly over time, but don't overwhelm you.
3. Make Your Goals Visual
When I was growing up, I really, really wanted a TV for my bedroom. My parents weren't willing to pony up the money without me working for it. My allowance was $10 a week, and the TV was close to $200. As a kid, twenty weeks feels like forever. My parents suggested I draw my goal, like a "fundraising thermometer."
It worked! Week by week, I could see my progress. In fact, I didn't spend any of my allowance for the twenty weeks, and I got my Zenith TV. For a fifth grader, that was a pretty big accomplishment.
You can apply the same tactic to your fitness goals. There are numerous apps that allow you to set goals and visualize them. I use Strava. Or, if you want to get old school, draw them, and bask in the pleasure of filling in your thermometer, or pie chart, or whatever, bit by bit. This works really well for cardio distance goals.
4. Reset Your Expectations
A few years ago, I did a corporate training from a company called Vision Pursue. One of the concepts in the training, called "expect the expected," helped me make a massive change in my life.
Boiled down to its simplest form, it's this: people often get frustrated by things that are out of their control, like traffic, weather or difficult people. If you start to reset your expectations, and accept that, yes, you will get stuck in traffic, it might rain on you, or that person who is always annoying will continue to annoy you, you'll be amazed how it changes your mindset and lessens your anxiety about these things.
I've realized the same concept can be applied to fitness goals, in a very basic way: you're not always going to meet your fitness goals. Just accept that. Your life is busy, with work, friends and kids. Sometimes things will get in the way of achieving a goal, and that's OK. With this slight change in mindset, you can redefine success. The fact that you're working toward the goals is a success already. And if you hit the goals most week, that's even better.
5. Keep it Simple
I'm a big baseball fan, and a big fan of the St. Louis Cardinals. Last year, they made a trade to acquire Nolan Arenado, who had been one of the best shortstops in the league for several years. In his first season with the Cardinals, he didn't feel like he played up to his high standards.
This winter, Arenado set out to improve upon last season. But he didn't try to do too much. He focused on two actionable goals: hitting the ball harder, and improving his defensive range to the left.
You should take a similar approach. Don't come up with five or ten fitness goals you're trying to achieve at any one time. Stick to two or three.
Examples of Fitness Goals
I'm currently focused on three simple goals:
Cycling 80 miles a week
Walking 10 miles a week
Completing two strength workouts per week
These are simple, straightforward goals. As I've gotten older, it's been helpful for me to simplify my goals, especially in relation to strength workouts. Previously, I'd focus on goals around specific weight thresholds. For example, I wanted to deadlift 300 pounds. While I achieved the goal, I nearly wrecked my lower back in the process.
I recommend creating simple goals based on distance for cardio, and achieving a number of strength or other workouts per week (like yoga). And remember: you won't always meet your goals. But as long as you're trying, that's success.