How to Set Realistic Time Goals

As you ponder upcoming races and begin your goal-setting process, it's good to be familiar with the characteristics of good, challenging goals. With these characteristics in mind, some of you will set time goals for upcoming races.

Here are a few examples of specific and measureable goals that are stated in positive terms.

  • Race the "speedy sprint triathlon" in a time of 1:03
  • Win my age group at the "best local Olympic race" with a time of 2:30.
  • Finish the "long and hilly Ironman" in 11 hours.

Using these goals as examples, let's evaluate whether the goal times listed above are challenging and achievable for a sample athlete (S.A.). In order to do that, we need more information.  

Are you a newbie triathlete?

If S.A. is new to the sport of triathlon and entering a sprint triathlon, I recommend that they put time goals aside for now and focus on successfully completing the event. Once S.A. gains some race experience, s/he can work toward more time-specific goals.

Summary: If you're new to the sport, make your first few events about gaining a fun and positive experience rather than focusing on time pressures.

Where did the goal time come from?

Using the 11-hour goal example for the "long and hilly Ironman", is this goal time based on what S.A.'s friends can do? Did the time come from reading a column or blog that listed 11 hours to be "a good time"? Did S.A. simply pull a goal number from the air?

If the answer to any of these questions is "yes," then S.A. needs to disregard the 11-hour number or at least give it some verification.

Summary: Verify your time goals by using your recent past race times, current workout paces or field time trial results as a foundation for setting future race time goals.

Use past performance to predict same-race future performance.

Let's assume that S.A. is an experienced triathlete that completed the "best local Olympic race" last season and posted a time of 2:39. S.A. is not new to triathlon, but has less than five seasons under the race number belt.

Given S.A.'s current experience, and with the proper training, s/he can reasonably expect overall time improvements in the 6- to 8-percent range. This means the goal time of 2:30 is within reach--challenging and achievable.

Summary: Athletes in their second or third year of training can expect to see gains in excess of 8-percent and those that have been training and racing for years are looking for improvements in the 1- to 2-percent range. Highly experienced athletes are often looking for improvements that are less than 1 percent.

Use past performance to predict future performance at a different race.

S.A. has completed an Ironman event on a flat course with a time of 11:30. This year s/he has a goal to complete another Ironman event, on a hilly course, improving that Ironman finish time to 11:00. While S.A. is certainly enthused, I want to know how s/he plans to get a 30-minute improvement on a course that is more difficult.  

While a 5-percent improvement is not an impossible goal, it is one that S.A. would need to convince me is possible. Where will that 30-minute gain come from?

Of course if S.A. had nutrition, illness or injury problems heading into the 11:30 race, those items and current lifestyle need to be considered when setting a new goal.

Summary: Unless race courses are very similar, be cautious about setting future time goals based on past race performance.  

Use other people's results to predict performance.

One way S.A. can estimate performance at a new race is to look at age category race results from multiple past races. Once S.A. begins collecting the data, more than likely performance patterns for various racers will begin to emerge. For example, S.A. may determine that s/he is consistently five minutes behind one competitor and 10 minutes ahead of another.

If the other competitors have past results in the new race that S.A. wants to do, s/he can estimate a new race performance time based on the results of familiar competitors.

Summary: If you compare the results of the same people at various races, you begin to get a sense of how they perform relative to each other and to you. You can then look at the past finish times of the same people at the race you want to do and come up with a rough idea of your finish time.

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