Ask a beginner what their long-term athletic career goals are and you will likely get a puzzled look. Their focus is likely so short term that they cannot see beyond completing a race, perhaps without embarrassment. A typical response might be a somewhat self-deprecating or modest, "I will never be a pro and I just want to have fun."
Now fast forward a year later and you will observe a different athlete and a new perspective. Each race builds confidence as they realize continued improvement; in fact their first season will likely demonstrate a great leap in performance. Their mindset evolves from completion, to competing against oneself, to perhaps achieving a category award one day.
A whole new competitive panorama has opened up to them; they have been "bit by the bug" as we like to say. This means investing in new equipment, learning the intricacies of their sport and hobby, and perhaps even hiring a coach to make better use of their training time. They may even conceptualize a long term or "dream" goal of one day qualifying for a World Championship or other event in the very distant future. This is the excitement and challenge of endurance sports. This is what keeps them coming back, race after race.
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But the real challenge is bridging the gap between current fitness level and achieving that dream goal. Assuming it is reasonable and attainable, it will require a long-term commitment and focus, and may be fraught with pitfalls along the way. However, few athletes plan more than six or eight months into the next season, or more likely to the next race in front of them.
If you really want to realize a long-term goal, especially on the elite level, it requires a long-term plan and the patience to follow it. Typically, athletes underestimate the limited time to achieve their "best" race, and sometimes whether that time has already passed.
What Can I Achieve?
I am often asked for odds, propensities, favorability even guaranties as to what level an athlete can expect to achieve or progress. The truth is, although we can test for some fundamentals and compare to benchmarks, there is no way to accurately predict how far an athlete will go in a particular sport.
The variables are too complex and include such subjectivities as desire, focus, determination and spirit. Then you add to these biomechanics and genetics, nutrition, rest and recovery, injury history, and lifestyle/training volume. Upon those, layer a proper training plan, tactical race selection, improvement in economy, sports medicine, recovery technique, and other peripheral services (such as an expert bike fitting) that may be the one missing element that gets them to their objective. Even having the right equipment and financial resources are an important consideration. So many things must come together to bring an athlete to fruition. Typically focus is on just a few of these variables.
Your long-term goal should be within the realm of possibility: achievable but currently out of reach. You must realize that after the first season of applied training, fitness becomes a much more slow and painful process, sometimes with plateaus. Gains become ever harder to reach and require addressing more of aforementioned variables. Training plans need to be constantly changing and evolving with the athlete. Training that produced successful results several seasons ago may now lead nowhere, and where this training ultimately lands an athlete is a mystery slowly unfolding.
The truth is there is only one "best" pathway to your best performance. Most athletes progress by trial and error, wasting valuable time, and perhaps even an athletic career.
More: How to Become an Athlete