Goals, reimagined

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Navigating and getting the most out of a cleared calendar

Editor's Note: Dave McNeill is more than a TEMPO columnist, he's a 3 time Olympian, a physiotherapist, and a run coach. Catch him writing for us every couple of months.

As Melbourne’s sixth lockdown shows no sign of ending, and the rest of Australia tastes the agony most Victorians have become accustomed to, the phrase “cancel culture” is beginning to take on a much more literal meaning.

For runners, races continue to be cancelled. Perhaps the biggest collective blow was Gold Coast Marathon weekend. The proverbial light at the end of the tunnel for many. Set to be the coming-out party for many Aussie runners, deprived of a goal race for over a year. And in the blink of an eye – gone. Delta took its dump on the east coast of Australia.

With much admiration, I had the privilege of being part of a few runners’ road to the Gold Coast. On top of the traditional 8-12 week marathon-specific build up, most had endured a year feeling – at times – devoid of meaning. “What’s the point” was a sentiment that had become a norm rather than an exception. At every level – elite and recreational. All had grinded it out, only to be turned around at the precipice of their destination. Heart breaking.

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In its wake, goals seem redundant. It feels like bad luck to even mention Melbourne Marathon weekend at this point...Yes, I’m talking about the rescheduled weekend in mid December.

While goals typically represent a destination – something aspirational – they are so much more than that. The goals most of us think of have an outcome attached to them. A race, a time, qualification to a team. These are outcome goals. There is a saying that success is where preparation meets opportunity. But many of those opportunities keep getting cancelled.

Goals need not be though. Now is the time to invest in our process goals. These are the goals that don’t have a destination. They have an ever-present intention in the now. They come from asking the question, “how can I be better now?”.

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Process goals are a way of staying connected to an outcome goal, as preparation ebs-and-flows, as good days and bad days come and go, and as finish lines and destinations move – especially because of COVID.

Process goals tend to have a ritualistic characteristic to them. By definition, a process goal is a practice we aim to repeat on a regular basis. Just like a ritual. If outcomes goals are destinations, process goals make up the route.

For process goals to be repeatable, they must be sustainable. And for any process to be sustainable, joy is a necessary ingredient. It’s much easier to stay present and connected to something enjoyable than to something that is not. When devising process goals, don’t sacrifice joy.

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But where to start? There are as many processes that bring about growth as there are runners. Perhaps it's making a nice flat line on your Strava weekly mileage graph, without the dreaded dip to 0km. Perhaps it's hitting a gym or pilates session twice a week. Perhaps it’s to do a hilly long run every week during the winter. Perhaps it’s to meet up with your running soul mate every week.

And then there are a few less obvious processes that might help spark joy and keep meaning in your runs – especially during these times of uncertainty.

One such would be practicing some daily self-compassion. Everything is a bit harder when you’re isolated and when the future is uncertain. Resilience is a great quality to have, but not at the expense of self-compassion. Next time you are overcome with anxiety about skipping that run because you’re just tired of it all and you can’t see the point - let it be.

Take a deep breath, cut yourself some slack, then try again the next day. It’s much more sustainable to ride the ebs and flows than to always fight them – especially when our mind is tired. Practice riding more, and fighting less. Aim to be as compassionate as you are resilient. Because we often end up more resilient if we are first compassionate.

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"Everything is a bit harder when you’re isolated and when the future is uncertain. Resilience is a great quality to have, but not at the expense of self-compassion."

Dave McNeill

Another would be to practice and prioritise those runs that spark joy, and breed a sense of wonder and awe. Sometimes, they are forgotten at the expense of runs that are convenient. Joy, wonder, and awe might come from a place. A particular trail. Or it might come from a person. A run group. Or a rewarding brunch at the end of a run. Make these runs a habit. Make them a weekly tradition. Don’t skip them at the expense of what is most convenient. Mental and emotional fitness is just as important as physical fitness, and these sorts of runs can have a far greater impact on our mental wellbeing and the sustainability of our endeavours.

And at the risk of sounding like a broken record (see previous publications), practice being present on your runs. Observe the trees around you. Feel the wind on your face. Listen intently to your run buddy. Focus on the rep you are in, not the reps you still have to go. Hear that inner voice distracting you with your past and your future, but then tune it out. Stay here, and enjoy now. If your surroundings aren’t beautiful, remember that you are. Be in awe of your moving body. What a gift! Be with it.

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If cancelled races have you asking “what’s the point?”, detach from the outcomes, and start investing in the processes. Even at the best of times, outcome goals rarely follow a linear pathway. We don’t always reach them on time. And they often include detours. Think of outcome goals more as a compass than a destination. You may veer off path, but it doesn’t mean failure. Hold onto the processes, enjoy them, and you’ll find your way back.

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