Updated: September 29th, 2023
Running coach Brad Stulberg’s advice for athletes setting goals

Loving the process of running is fundamental to actually succeeding at the sport, no matter what background you come from or what goals you set for yourself.

From beginner to a seasoned professional athlete and all those who sit (or run) in-between, this advice is something you’re going to want to take on board.

International running coach Brad Stulberg (from the Practice of Groundedness and Peak Performance) has divulged five principles to consider when finding new goals or setting new targets for yourself and your running shoes.

“Instead of thinking about ‘this is what I want to accomplish,’ think ‘this is the path I want to walk. If you pick a mountain just because you want to be at the mountain’s peak without considering what it is like to climb the mountain, that’s a pretty dumb way to decide what you’re going to do,” stated Stulberg in an interview.

You’re thinking, ‘Uh oh, that kind of thinking is what has got me this far…’ Well, you wouldn’t be alone. Instead, the executive running coach begs each runner to consider goals that set them along a path of autonomy, mastery, meaning, and belonging (as outlined in his book The Practice of Groundedness), and this is five pearls of wisdom from the main man himself.

  1. Process over results
    Having your worth and success hang on outcomes is a short-fire way to fall out of love with running. Runners who are far too invested in personal bests are in for a rough ride emotionally and the first step in risking injury or burnout. So, instead, Stulberg advises focusing on the progress over the outcome or result.

    If you’re reading this, I’m going out on a ledge here and thinking you either have a goal in mind and not sure the steps to get you there, OR you are looking for an appropriate goal to set yourself.

    So the first thing that comes to mind when you read the words ‘pick a goal’ is good enough for this practice – let’s say the goal is to run your first marathon, for example.

    Runners running marathon in the city. They are running with arms raised over the bridge at sunset. Selective focus on beautiful brunette woman running and smiling. Wearing numbers on their sport clothes.  Running through the finish with arms raised.

    You have the goal; now outline the steps to get you there (this can and should include a training plan, of course), and now forget about the goal. Your aim now is to focus on each step.

    Every day, you have to make a conscious decision to look at the step that is right in front of you and do them as perfectly as possible. Instead of obsessing over the sub-four-hour marathon in your first attempt (yes, that was mine), you are now focusing on each day to get you to that finish line.

    That includes training, eating right, resting properly and fully, rehabilitation, and the list goes on and on. Don’t focus on the future, focus on the now.

    Athletes should keep motivation in check,

    “The goal is for the majority of your drive and motivation to come from the process. Even if that’s only 51%, that’s okay. You’re winning. You just want to keep the majority intrinsically and process-driven,” said Stulberg.

  2. Community matters
    community running together on sunny day

    Running is often a solo sport. Let’s be real; it’s free and so much easier to fit around your work or family commitments than try to match calendars with a friend. To that end, we often cover many, many miles alone especially when in training – that’s not an issue, per se, but Stulberg advises to run with others from time to time.

    “The people with whom you surround yourself shape you,” said Stulberg.

    Yearning for belonging runs deep in our DNA. Make time for it.

    Running with others can hold you accountable for showing up and doing the work. And when you do fail, or you don’t show up, they’re not going to judge you because they get it. It’s accountability and support for when things don’t go well.

    “We don’t always remember the accomplishment. We remember the people we did it with. Training hard is hard. So, why not make it more fun and meaningful?”

    Of course, if solo-running is part of your meditative space, a mental de-stress by all means go for it (I am that person, often running with someone stresses me out – strange I know.)

    But the advice from top-dog said, don’t let schedules or looking for “the perfect pace” keep you from joining the pack – give it a try, eh?

    If it really isn’t your bag, could you join a running Facebook group to share advice and tips or hire a massage therapist as part of your training plan? This all counts as a community, even if you want to actually run the miles on your own.

  3. Zoom out and get perspective.
    The fact remains that growth isn’t linear, so don’t expect your running or training to be any exception to that rule.

    “If you think about growth over a decade, suddenly, a bad training cycle or two doesn’t really matter, and you should actually expect them; there’s always peaks, valleys, and plateaus. For many athletes, that line looks really squiggly,” said Stulberg.

    Essentially, don’t get caught up in wanting to improve daily by the numbers. It’s nearly impossible to set a new PB every day. So zoom out and look at your progress over months, years, even decades – if you’re lucky to have had running in your life for that long.

  4. Flexible routines are key.
    Can you be both disciplined in route and flexible? Absolutely! If you’ve had a training plan before, you understand their rigid nature; however, these plans do not consider work, life, and family commitments, nor do they factor in illness, injury, or hormone cycles.

    This means runners have to be okay with being imperfect and not freak out or give up because they missed a training day or they managed 3 miles instead of 10.

    This is the hardest thing for me because I’m super routine-driven. But it’s key to consistency to stay flexible in those routines.

    “If my dog is vomiting, and I have a kid that’s home from school, I’m not going to beat myself up about not getting my ten-mile run in… Instead, I’ll just go to my basement and do 20 minutes of goblet squats and some lunges, and that will be fine. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Take what you had planned and think about shrinking it down to the minimum effective dose,” added Stulberg.

    Rigidity can zap the fun and life out of training if you let it. Beating yourself up because the plan said a 2-hour run, but you could only squeeze in a quality 6 miles – that is good enough! Don’t cast the entire session aside. Do exactly what you can and leave the rest.

    If you did something on all the days you didn’t feel like it or considered doing nothing – you’d get a heck of a lot more training done.

  5. Find fun in working hard.
    There is no way to sugar-coat this one – it’s probably not news to you either – but running isn’t always fun. But the process and journey can be. Again, it comes from a mindset of not being hung up on the outcomes, but working hard can feel super rewarding and oftentimes a lot of fun.

    I might dread a Tempo session, but I always enjoy the challenge, and nine times out of ten, I come away smiling.

“Take the work seriously, but don’t take yourself super seriously. If you’re feeling a lot of stress and pressure from training, you probably need to shift your focus back to the process. Care about running, but hold your results lightly.”

Group of athletes at sports event

It’s important to laugh at or with yourself (and others) along the way. It might sound a little crazy, but when I had to alter my training from late afternoons to 6 a.m. winter sessions.

I thought that was the abrupt end to my love for running (I am not a morning person), yet instead, my thoughts went from ‘Oh no, I can’t perform this early’ to ‘Ha! C’mon Louise, let’s see what you can do before the sun rises.’ I would laugh at my grumpiness but always, without a doubt, come away enjoying that new challenge. It’s now my favorite time to train, believe it or not!

“You can still care deeply about training and running fast and getting the most out of yourself, and also realize that if you’re going to do this for a long time, you’re going to have great races and training cycles, and you’re going to have terrible ones, but holding things more lightly will help you have more fun with it.

“The more you can smile, the better,” added Stulberg.

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