7 Pitfalls to Avoid When Setting Goals

If you don't reach your triathlon goals, it might not be because you failed; it could be that you set goals that were too wobbly to let you succeed. ("Lose weight," anyone?) Not this year. Here are the key mistakes people make when setting goals—and how to avoid them and succeed.

You didn't write your goal down. "You're 10 times more likely to achieve something if you write it down," says Cheryl Hart, sports psychology consultant at 2nd Wind Motivation. "If you don't write it down, it's just an idea," not an actionable goal, she says.

There's not enough clarity. For a goal to work it needs to be SMART—that's specific, measurable, actionable, reachable, and time-based. Sounds easy, but most people make the mistake of not being specific enough with each of these measures. "People say, 'I want to win my age group,' but you can't control what happens on the course that day," Hart says. "That's not measurable and it's about comparing yourself to others."

Instead, research what winning your age group might take and then set a specific time goal for yourself.

Another goal that's just too mushy: Setting a PR in a 10K "by the end of the season." Which race are you going to do that in, and where's the entry form?" Hart asks.

More: How to Set SMART Goals

It doesn't give you goose bumps. The reason you set a fitness goal, and what it will feel like when you get there, needs to be compelling enough for you to make a few sacrifices along the way, Hart says.

Visualize all the details of success. If your dream is an Ironman, for instance, pull up the images of the finish line and see how it looks at night when the lights are shining, you're going under the banner, and the announcer is calling your name. "If, in your mind's eye, it doesn't do much for you, then you need another goal," Hart says.

More: How to Set Inspiring Goals

You didn't ask why you're doing it. The most important thing you can do to reach your athletic goals is to know why you're reaching for them in the first place. "Before I have anyone write down their goals," Hart says, "I ask them, 'What do you stand to gain if you accomplish this and what do you stand to lose if you don't?'"

It seemed like a good idea. "I can't tell you how many clients I have who thought they wanted to do an Ironman," Hart says. "It sounded like a good idea until they came face-to-face with the training involved and the sacrifices that needed to be made, and they found their heart just wasn't in it.

If you want to reach a goal, you need to come up with one "in which the 'why' is big enough that you will crawl through glass to get it," Hart says.

More: How to Identify Great Goals

You made a goal, but not a plan. It's not enough to nail down what you want to do. You have to make a clear plan to get there, says Elizabeth Waterstraat, founder of Multisport Mastery in the Chicago area (multisportmastery.com). Every season, she has her athletes write down their athletic goals, and go three layers deep to determine what it will take to achieve them.

If, for instance, someone wants to swim faster, Waterstraat has them write down what it will take to do that. If the answer is, "swimming three times a week," then they need to write down what it will take to do that. Maybe it's making extra meals on the weekends, so they can get to bed—and get up—earlier, or arranging for the sitter to come 30 minutes early on certain days.  

You didn't make exceptions. Does the idea of hearing, "You are an Ironman" get you past "Dad, do you really have to go for a six-hour bike ride on my birthday?" Sometimes, you have to change your focus. Setting goals is an ongoing process, and you should be willing to adapt on the fly.

More: How to Create a Balanced Life

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About the Author

Marty Munson

Marty Munson is a USAT Level 1 triathlon coach. Her writing has appeared in Health, Prevention, Marie Claire, Shape.com and RealAge.com. Find more triathlon tips and strategies from her and other experts in the field at trieverything.wordpress.com.

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