Making Goals SMART (& Smart).

It’s that time of year when attention and discussion in many spaces turn to a central question:

What are your goals for the next year?

On Twitter, personal trainer @srunsfitness (Stephanie) has been talking this week about reviewing your 2018 training and setting goals for 2019. Gene and I chatted some about our past year on a walk yesterday, and I’m sure we’ll be posting about that soon. But today I’m jumping forward a little to the goal setting part.

Gene and I have a big goal in early 2019: starting and finishing our first 50K. It doesn’t quite feel like a “2019 goal” though, because it’s really a 2018 goal, delayed, and we’re already pretty deep into training for it.

Regardless of which year we assign that goal to, when we finish (knock on wood), there should be 10 months (>80 %) left in the year. So… what happens after that?

Gene has a specific race he’d like to attempt in the summer, on his own.

As I shared with Stephanie, my goals beyond the 50K are a little less clear.

Getting SMART with Goals

Realizing there’s some specificity lacking in these goals, my mind turns to SMART goals. This is a management/business approach to goal setting, but I think it has some value in other parts of life too—maybe even running/fitness.

SMART is an acronym of 5 characteristics to help you define goals:


There are some variations on what the acronym means (e.g., A as “action-oriented” or R as “realistic”), but this is a good set as far as I’m concerned.

Specific defines key parameters, answers to Wh questions, many of which will come pretty easily for running goals. The who seems obvious, though it’s important to think beyond yourself (or for a relay, your team). We have to figure out the logistics of how to get the preparation in and, for many, that involves working with significant others, family, friends, etc. to cover key things (e.g., meals, kids, even time together). The what, when (general timeframe),and where are pretty straightforward. Which (obstacles, related requirements) might take a little research, for instance, learning about the type of terrain to prepare for or how to train for it. And then there’s the why, again a question that runners usually have a ready (if not totally relatable to all) answer for.

Measurable is about setting clear metrics. Again for running, this is generally easy. If the goal is to run a 50K, the metric is finishing a 50K. If the goal to run 1000 miles this year, then the metric is recording 1000 miles in 12 months. For big goals that take some time to achieve, then setting milestones can be useful. For our 50K, I see long runs as milestones. We also have vertical gain targets (the 50K has about 7500′). For an “X miles in a year” goal, milestones might be monthly mileage targets.

Achievable requires some reflection on what it will take to reach the goal, what you already have in place, and what you’re going to need to build to get there. For 50K training, we figured out we needed to build endurance for long slow climbs and confidence for technical descents. And we have ready access to trails where we can work on those aspects of training.

Relevant asks how this goal fits into your broader goals or mission. I think a mistake we made in training for a 50K in 2018 was trying to include a road marathon (and potentially PR) along the way. The road marathon wasn’t essential to completing a trail 50K. But because it was on the calendar, we felt we needed road (i.e., flat and not technical) miles, in addition to our trail miles. The result: Our road and trail runs on the weekends kept increasing in step with the other, and I think this was a contributor to injuries.

Time-bound means setting a target date. Specific touches on the timeframe, but here we’re picking a date. For a lot of running goals, race schedules will set this for us.

Being Smart with Goals

SMART is a useful tool. It’s not just about setting goals, but also understanding what it will take to get there, creating some accountability, and defining how you know you’ve achieved them.

A central part of SMART goals is being smart about your goals—being ambitious while realistic, audacious yet strategic. It’s not about selling yourself short, but rather setting you up for success.

At the start of this year, I came across the idea of setting a theme or a mantra instead of resolutions for a new year. In my view, this is the equivalent of a mission statement. You can ask yourself how what you’re doing or what you’re planning relates relates to this core idea. That’s the relevant part of SMART goals.

Being smart and/or setting a theme is about setting an intention. Specificity without underlying intention can undermine our efforts. Work can become drudgery without purpose. I think it also raises the stakes of missing the target and can make it harder to deal with setbacks.  I’ve learned about mindful running and running with intention from Elinor Fish—first at a Run Wild Retreat and since from her writing. Without intention, you’re focused on the “failure”, not what you’ve gained or learned. You might overlook or dismiss an alternative or an opportunity that could stretch the boundaries of your current world in a wonderful way.

While I’m tempted to plan out what I’ll do throughout 2019, I also recognize that part of the 50K attempt is learning what my body—and mind—can do. It’s a testing of the boundary conditions. To be smart about setting further goals, I need to know that outcome—not just whether I finish the distance in the time allotted, but how I feel that day and the days and weeks to come.

So I’ll bide my time a bit on setting SMART running goals for 2019. But I can still set my theme for the year.

A few years ago, I set sustainability as a theme for my running. That’s a theme I want to hold onto. I want to keep the joy of running, which was hard to find at times this summer. I also want to do some strategic development for 2020, because I have a big thing in mind.

My (running) mantra for 2019? Progress from striving to thriving.