Why You Need a Short-Term Goal Right Now
Today's lack of feedback and progress makes it hard to find flow. Here’s a plan to restore it.
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What is the appeal of running? I’m one of those runners who says I love it for its own sake, that I’d happily continue blissfully running over the hills with my dogs every day regardless of measurements or races or recognition. And, this year, when all of the structure of running has been taken away, it’s true. I’ve still been running, and still been appreciating moving, feeling alive, and watching spring emerge on the high plains.
But I’ve lost a spark, and, increasingly, some aspect of running that normally brings joy, satisfaction and confidence.
Early last week I found myself in a funk. The week before I had run every day, but all I could muster were 3–6 mile easy maintenance runs. I even skipped my beloved weekend long run and only did another easy 6 late on Sunday. Runs weren’t taking me away mentally from work and worries, and my joints and muscles hurt more as I trudged along in that same easy-pace rut except for some strides now and then.
I couldn’t point to any specific source, except for the one we’re all facing. Somehow the calendar rolling around to another month without any hope of change became too much for me to sustain. With races as far away as October cancelling and postponing, it has started to feel not like an unexpected off-season where we have a chance to build strength and skill before our next races, but the way things are and will always be—the new normal. Even Dathan Ritzenhein, the energizer bunny of distance running, decided to hang up his spikes.
I decided I had to do something about it. So last Tuesday I skipped lunch, put on some racing shoes, warmed up for a mile, did a few drills, and ran a 5K as fast as I could. Given my state of mind heading in, I tried to talk myself out of it multiple times during the warm up and tried to quit or back off more than once during it.
But, wow, was I glad I didn’t give in, as afterwards I felt better—physically, mentally, emotionally—than I had in weeks, and that feeling has persisted since. On Sunday, I not only ran long, but did it on the hilliest route near me with the last five at marathon-pace effort—which turned out to be faster every mile until the exuberantly exhausted end.
What was the magic? I’m sure some endorphins and endocannabinoids were involved, a feel-good chemical cocktail released by the increased effort. But there’s more than that.
Feedback that Creates Focus
We run for many reasons, but what keeps many of us compelled year after year is the opportunity for progress. We run to become better versions of ourselves, and for those moments of heightened focus when we get to use our improved selves to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. To have progress, we need to have measurement, and to achieve flow—that sense of heightened focus and competence—we need to have clear goals and feedback.
Flow is often thrown in with other words like “Zen” and “mindfulness,” a loose idea of being in the moment. The way in is usually presented as letting go of expectations and comparisons, and accepting and appreciating what we have and are now—which is all true and has been useful for me as a runner, particularly an aging one. But, I, for one, have not reached the point of enlightenment where I can let go of all the garbage without focusing on something compelling and quantifiable.
I’m not alone: In his original descriptions of Flow, psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi explained, “The reason it is possible to achieve such complete involvement in a flow experience is that goals are usually clear, and feedback immediate.” To get to the point where the task we’re facing compels all of our mental bandwidth requires that we know what we want to achieve, we’ve bought into it as an important goal, and we can tell that our effort is getting us there.
Part of the reason running is such a good pathway to flow is because it allows for these clear goals and immediate, unambiguous feedback. Whenever we see a split time our effort is affirmed; we can say to ourselves, “of course this is hard, because I’m flying”—and that affirmation compels us to continue focusing and working toward the next split. Plus, as splits compound, we get external, empirical confirmation that we’re better than we were last week.
Granted, my time trial didn’t show that I’m better than I ever was. Even age-graded, the result was a couple minutes short of my PR. But the pace and the effort exceeded anything I’ve done recently—fast and hard enough that I had to focus completely to make it happen and lost myself in that focus. The last mile was faster than the second—small victories—and as soon as I was done, I started dreaming about lowering the mark and thinking about how I can get there. With no short-term goals, and increasingly, no specific goals at all, I’d lost all of this.
The way I see it, we’ve been stuck in this extended off-season long enough. Given the lack of real races we don’t have the chance to achieve many of our big goals; partly because some, like my goal to get a Boston qualifier, are impossible outside of a certified marathon, and partly because it’s close to impossible for most of us to run as hard in a time trial or virtual race as we would head to head with others. But we can create our own mini-season where we build toward a goal.
Even elites are doing this. NAZ coach Ben Rosario told me, “We’re going to ramp up training and create some non-traditional racing opportunities for ourselves over the summer.” Recently they pitted runners against each other in handicapped time-trial 5Ks.
For me, given the long-term goal of a fast-for-me marathon, and the short-term goal of seeing progress, I’m going to work toward improving my speed (which many recommend as a great precursor to a marathon build-up).
Here’s the spring season plan to find flow:
Set a baseline.
The time trial I ran last week serves this for me. For the record, I ran 22:03, a 7:04/mile average. I’m working to not compare this to what I used to run, or what I think I could run in a “real” race right now. This is my age-56-in-the-time-of-coronavirus-time-trial baseline.
Set a goal, with a date.
Besides the lack of competitors, one of the weaknesses of virtual races is the lack of a definite date which removes the imperative both to train now, and, on race day, not to bail when it gets tough. I need a date to compel me to prioritize the necessary work. For me, the “clear goal” required for the focus of flow includes knowing that today is the day this happens, or it doesn’t.
My realistic “season” goal is to at least break 21:00 by the 4th of July. The closer I can get to 20:00 the better, but anything with a 20 in front of it will be a success.
Train for the 5K within the context of COVID-19 and long term goals.
I asked Rosario about this, and his answer seems spot-on for me. “I find too many 5K specific workouts over a short period of time tend to leave most distance runners flat,” he said. “The way I like to do 5K work is to sneak it in here and there, e.g., adding 200s or 300s or 400s at 3K–5K pace to the end of your traditional workouts. And then every couple of weeks doing something more 5K specific.”
I’ll maintain the mileage I’ve worked up to and schedule in this faster work being careful not to overload myself in this risky time. I haven’t done any structured workouts for a while and am looking forward to reacquainting myself with them and their opportunity for flow.
Set intermediate goals.
I’m going to run a time trial every 2 weeks and watch my progress. Getting under 7’s is the first step. I’ll celebrate every mark and assess my next goal. If last week is an indication, the celebration will continue throughout the week as I feel faster, stronger, younger.
I may not be able to do anything about the larger issues in the world or our sport, but I don’t have to let them stop me from setting my own goals, working toward and monitoring progress, and using the focus to find flow. It’s nice to be back.