Goal: I want to get faster each race.

“I just want to be faster each race.”

“I want to progress every race.”

“I want to get my PR each race this season.”

Outcome thought: “…and if I don’t I’m a failure…”

I hear comments similar to these weekly from runners all around. Some are athletes I coach and others are from responses to my blog articles or mental game inquiries. On the surface these comments appear to reveal a motivated, dedicated driven athlete willing to work at doing their best and having continuous improvement.

However, these comments are actually a slippery slope to disappointment, feelings of failure and a “what am I doing wrong” or “what’s wrong with me” attitude.

Though there may be some seasons an athlete may improve fairly consistently most races it is simply uncommon [Notice I didn’t say EVERY race I said “consistently” because it is rarer yet that EVERY race is faster]. If you ARE one of those athletes – congratulations. You have experienced what most runners never will. Oh ya, and if you think you will continue that pattern indefinitely – think again. (Sorry – the voice of reason and reality has to be stated here.)

The unfortunate thing about experiencing a season with continuously faster races is that you come to expect it. Then the next season of course we expect to start off where we ended and continue to progress from there. It also leads us into some complacency with our training. After all, what I was doing got me to where I am so why change right?

The reality is that at every level clear on up to world record holders athletes do not improve every race. In fact, at every level runners do not improve every season. Though the trend for improvement (actual PRs) year-to-year is often seen it is more common to see jumps in various seasons. Elite runners tend to think in four-year blocks (Olympiads) or at least two-year blocks if you include the World Championships.

One of the things I enjoy reviewing each year is the progression of “leading” times (high school, collegiate, elite, Olympic level) throughout the season. It is also interesting to see the patterns of performances for individuals each season. I also read articles and interviews with these athletes or their coaches. The best tend to have a much bigger picture in mind. Yes, each race they want to do their “best” but that best is their best for that day, best for that race, best for that stage of training, best for that stage of recovery, best for an early season, etc.

This lesson is lost on most age group and high school runners who mistakenly believe that the elite runners just keep improving, never have bad days, never race while tired, never test different strategies, never run slightly injured, never race in other than their specialty race distance or under par physically or mentally.

A Point of Logic
If a world record holder had the attitude that he/she must improve every race then we would have a new world record every time he/she stepped on the track – right from the beginning of the season. If they held that belief about racing and this didn’t happen – he/she would view themselves as failures.

To begin to fix this mentality runners and coaches need to keep longer term goals in mind with the full understanding that it is NOT a straight-line progression to that ultimate goal. Some races are “off” and some seasons are “off”. It also means that getting to a goal is circuitous and you need to have a variety of ways to get there including just backing off. Sometimes doing less is doing more.
If you continue to do the same things – speed, duration, intensity – that got you your success you will hit a wall eventually. Your training must progress on all of those fronts if you expect improvement (of course combined with some rest to let the training effect take place in your body). So, one of the first things to do is analyze your training, how it is put together, and evaluate if it really is setting you up to run faster this season. Evaluate your rest and recovery status.

Next, if you only focus on one distance the odds of continuous improvement is less likely after awhile. Though you do need to “specialize” in order to truly get to your best performance at any single distance you also have to drop down in distance to gain speed and step up in distance to gain strength and endurance. If you’re hitting plateaus and not improving, this is something to look at.

Mental Game
Left behind most often in this never ending quest for improvement is the mental game – on a couple levels.

One – goal setting to “improve every race” is a very poorly stated goal. One exception (i.e. one bad race) means you have already failed at this season’s goal. It also is not specific enough. Are you only measuring time/place? Define “improve”.

Two – integrating mental game goals into your season allows for you to pursue multiple goals that will serve you long term. Even if your time is off in a given race; perhaps you were mentally tough by running in the pack, taking a lead, finishing fast, clicking off perfectly paced splits, beating someone you don’t usually beat, handling race day pressure, perfecting your pre-race routine.

If you integrate mental goals into your physical (time/pace/place) goals you increase your chances of having success in a race. You learn and grow – and that is never lost on an intelligent athlete. The lessons you learn about mental toughness, handling bad days or yes… bad seasons will serve you for life.

If you have that propensity for looking at your running as “always” needing to improve – broaden your scope, check your training program, integrate reality, stop beating yourself up, learn how to learn and grow, and enjoy the process along the way.


About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - trailrunningclub.com. I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for Running-Advice.com. I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
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4 Responses to Goal: I want to get faster each race.

  1. Jason says:

    Great post coach, but I PR just about every run! All kidding aside I used to think that you should PR in every race or come close. Well, that sure ain’t happening! This post is right on, especially the mental aspect. It’s not the destination, it’s the journey, some days are good, some not so good but that’s how it goes!

  2. Rick says:

    Excellent post, I did have one year that I improved in just about every race from Feb until the end of August where I burned out bad!
    I guess it was my ‘purple patch’!

  3. Melanie says:

    Thanks for this post. This is exactly what I need to read right now. I’m training for my second half marathon and the race is next weekend. My training has been going great…until 2 weeks ago. I became very ill with an upper respiratory infection which triggered my asthma – makes for very poor endurance. I rarely have trouble with my asthma, but have ongoing problems for 2 weeks now. Not sure how the race is going to go and I am very stressed about it. Your post has helped me put this into perspective some. Thanks.

    • Dean Hebert says:

      Half and full marathoners are often even more prone to the improvement-every-race thinking because they often race less frequently (it’s not like a 5000 runner in track who races every week or even sometimes twice a week). Though this offers longer build ups for a race and opportunity for training improvements, increased pacing, etc. It still holds true that to expect to improve every race is unrealistic. It may occur early in one’s distance career but just not likely as you move along. One thing you can do is use this race as a “practice” race. Find some other aspect of your racing that needs attention – like the mental game, drinking more efficiently @ the water stops, etc. Hang in there.

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