December 18, 2017

Setting Goals to Feel Happy and Focused

In the late summer of 2015, I was complaining talking to my friend Thomas about how tired I was of being "fat and slow". After a really rough year with a stress fracture, I had gained weight (reaching nearly 160 pounds) and my running speed (for a 10K) had slowed to 11:00/mi.

That was quite the change from 2013, when I was on top of my game at 133 pounds and running a 7:57 pace for a 10K PR.

Thomas is a pretty fantastic friend when I need some tough love. He told me to quit complaining and DO something about it. Half-jokingly, I made a super bold statement:

"Okay, next year, I will be back down to my goal weight and run a PR in the 10K."

I think I heard Thomas start to choke and spit out his drink before replying, "Okay. That's an ambitious goal." I had expected that we would both burst out laughing about it, and then I would go back to complaining about being fat and slow. But apparently, he thought I was totally serious.

If I had said, "I'm going to try to..." or "I think I'd like to try to..." or "Maybe I'll try..." I wouldn't have even started to work on it. But because I was so bold in saying that I'm GOING TO do it, I would have felt kind of stupid if I made that declaration and didn't follow through.

I was still injured, so I started with my diet. I downloaded the My Fitness Pal app on my phone and began to count calories. It was refreshing from doing Weight Watchers for so long, and I really liked it! I ate whatever I wanted, and I counted the calories in my food. (I wrote a post with all the details of how I counted calories to lose weight.)

By the end of the six-week break I took from running (to heal my stress fracture) was back down to a "normal" BMI, weighing about 144. I started running again, and continued to lose weight.

I wrote a training plan, trying something I'd never done before: Running slower to get faster. I read the book "80/20 Running" by Matt Fitzgerald, and I started using that training method. I couldn't believe how well it worked!

I trained five days a week, pushing myself SO hard on my speed days, and then running at a very easy pace the other 80% of the time. By February, my weight had dropped down to the low 120's, and I PR'ed my 5K--running 24:51. I continued to train my best, following my plan.

Since Thomas was the one who gave me the push I needed to get my ass in gear, I thought it would be fitting for him to pace me during my 10K goal race. Like I said, he is a "tough love" kind of friend, which is exactly what I needed--someone to tell me to shut up and keep moving if when I wanted to quit during the race.

In April, I flew to Portland, and mentally prepared myself to run my best at the race. I had done the work, so I knew I was ready; but I was SO nervous! You can read all the details on my race report, but I had a rough race. I was desperate to quit at mile four, and I told Thomas to go on without me. I was done.

He told me to shut up and keep going, and what would my haters say if I didn't hit my goal? Those were the words I needed to hear in that moment, so I kept going. My legs felt like rubber and my lungs burned, but I pushed myself--and finished in 49:03. A 20-second PR!

I was beyond thrilled. In about 7 months, I had gone from nearly 160 pounds and a 10K pace of 11:00/mile to 121 pounds and a 7:54/mile pace. I had set (what I thought was) an impossible goal, and I crushed it. Best feeling ever!

Before and after setting and crushing my goal

By now, you may know what happened next. I had NO idea what to do with myself as far as goals go. I couldn't come up with any goals that excited me.

And I became depressed. For the next 10 months.

I had just started seeing a therapist before I went to Portland, and when I told her about my 10K PR, how I trained so hard for it, and how I was having a hard time figuring out what was next. She then gave me some advice that I never should have listened to--she told me that I shouldn't make any more goals, and that I should just be content with how things are.

Something I have learned this year about bipolar disorder is that I need a focus. Without something to focus on (a goal) I feel lost and I have no drive. Which easily sends me into a depressive episode. I quit seeing that therapist soon after, and found another (my current one) who I adore. She said that I am a very goal-driven person, and that she understands how good it is to be content as things are, but if setting goals gives me something to work toward (somewhere to channel my energy) then it's a good thing.

This year, I have been very focused on my mental health. The diagnosis of bipolar disorder was completely unexpected and felt like a punch in the stomach. I felt disbelief, then embarrassment, and then acceptance, and finally--finally--I embraced it.

I've spent this year re-discovering myself, and I've been getting happier about who I am. I stopped feeling bad about who I am, apologizing for it, hiding it; and I started living how I want to, saying the things I want to say, doing the things I want to do. I stopped trying to please everybody else, and started respecting my own wishes.

Just ask Jerry and Thomas, who had to wait in line with me for 45 minutes so that I could get ice cream! ;)

All of this has been fantastic. However, I haven't set any real goals, and I'm starting to feel like it's time to do that. I miss the feeling of working toward something measurable, a metaphorical finish line. I'd announced that I was ready to start running again, and I did--but I didn't set any goals to reach for. And because of that, I have only been running sporadically, without any real purpose.

One of the first things I tell people when they ask how to get started running is that they should pick a race and sign up for it--before they even start training. Training is hard enough, but when we don't have a goal in sight, it's very hard to push ourselves to do it. By signing up for a race, we know that we have to train for it.

We also spend money (sometimes a lot of money) to register, and it would be a waste to forfeit that. I also suggest announcing our goals on social media, so that it will be embarrassing if we just decide to quit. I wrote about my 10K training so often on my blog that there was no way I was going to quit! Even if I failed to reach my goal, at least I didn't quit and I know I tried my best.

One more suggestion I have is to have a friend sign up with you. If our friends count on us to train and prepare for a race with them, we would feel really bad about disappointing them. Another assurance that we won't quit.

These steps have been part of almost all of the goals I've accomplished over the last decade or so. It doesn't just have to be for running.

1) Choose a goal. A friend of mine gave me a whole new perspective on goal setting, and I want to share that as well. You may remember Dean from my blog--the first time I heard of Dean was when he submitted a Motivational Monday post. We all watched his progress as he lost 144 pounds and went from couch potato to a sub-4:00 marathoner. My SoleMate friends and I affectionately call him "Dean the Machine".

Dean shared a very interesting idea with me about goal setting, and it made a world of difference. It was actually this that caused me to set my sights on a 10K PR when it was so far out of reach. I'll try and explain it as best as I can:

When setting goals, we tend to choose goals that we believe are within our reach. When Dean was mid-journey, he ran a 2:15 half-marathon. Afterward, he told me that his next goal was going to be sub-2:00, and he asked if I (as a running coach) thought that would be a good goal for him. I told him that he should probably aim for something like 2:10, because 2:00 is a far cry from 2:15.

He politely said that he was going to aim for sub-2:00 anyway. And you know what? Four months later, at his goal race, he ran 1:57! I was shocked. Now, Dean wanted to run a full marathon. I told him that was great, and that his only goal should be to finish--running a marathon is HARD, and I never recommend having a time goal for a first-timer. But Dean aimed for sub-4:00.

Dean the Machine finished his first marathon in 3:53:42, beating his (very hard) goal by more than 6 minutes! At that point, I stopped doubting anything Dean set his mind to. But I wanted to know his secret--why in the hell would he aim so high? Isn't that a lot of pressure to put on himself?

And he explained it like this: If you aim for what you think you can do, then you will do what you can to hit that goal. And if you do hit the goal, you'll be happy with it! Nothing wrong with that. BUT. If you aim for a goal that is much harder, seemingly impossible, you will have to work much harder. And you know the chances of hitting that goal are ridiculous, but you do your best anyway.

If you hit the goal, awesome! Congrats! But if you don't hit the goal, there is a good chance that you'll have done better than you would have if you had aimed for the "safe" goal. In Dean's case: He could set a goal to run a 2:10 half-marathon, and he would likely make it if he trained well for it. Say he finishes in 2:09--woo hoo! He finished a minute faster than he thought.

But if he had chosen to aim for 1:59, he would have to work much harder to hit that goal. And come race day, let's say he finishes in 2:05--a full 6 minutes slower than his goal time. Instead of feeling bummed about missing his goal, he would feel thrilled that he finished a full 5 minutes faster than his "safe" goal! He would never know what he was truly capable of if he didn't aim higher than he thought he could do.

Does that make sense? I love the whole concept, and I've applied it to other goals in my life. After seeing Dean crush goal after goal, I am a believer that setting goals that feel impossible will help us to do even better than we ever thought we could.

So, the first step for me is to set a goal.

2) The second stop that I take is to make it public. I tell my friends, family, and maybe even share it on my blog.

Now, having bipolar disorder, I have set many very lofty goals and/or had some pretty crazy ideas; only to quit before I even start, or to change my goal, or to come up with a "better" idea. This makes it kind of difficult to focus on anything. Since starting my mood stabilizer, I've had a much easier time with it. If I start to have a grandiose idea, I'm able to recognize that and take a step back to think about it. Especially before making it public, hahahaha.

3) Recruit someone who has a like-minded goal to do it with me. If someone is relying on me to help them reach a goal, then I would be a jerk to quit on them.

4) Come up with a plan to work on the goal.

5) Do my very best to reach every STEP of the goal--not just the end result. When I was training for the 10K, I focused on one run at a time. "Today, my goal is to keep my heart rate less than 146 bpm"; or "Today, my goal is to hit my speed work sprints at a pace of 6:30 per mile". I trusted that each step would lead me to the end result that I was looking for.

I apologize for this very long post. The whole point is that I am ready to set some new goals. Nothing overwhelming, but I'd like to set my sights high and work hard. I'm going to give it some thought before I declare anything, but I'm looking forward to focusing on something specific!


  1. Katie, I love this post and thought a lot about it while on a long walk tonight. I too felt adrift after reaching my main 2017 fitness goal- which was to hike Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh Scotland. I had had back surgery and it was a long recovery, then training and I was SO excited when I made that goal on 8/24/17. Since I've returned home, I've been depressed and gained weight. Your post tonight helped me clarify not only the next, bigger hike that I want to accomplish next fall, but the reasonable weight loss goal I want to make before that hike. Thank you so much for blogging. I've always felt you are of the few, lone, sane voices in the wilderness when it comes to binge eating disorder. You are much appreciated.

  2. It’s always so inspiring (and educational) to see how you deal with the setbacks along the way; and the joy you feel after achieving the goal is so very infectious!! I recently set the goal of going to bed and waking up at the same time every day for three months. Which on the surface sounds easy, but in reality is SO HARD. It sucks getting up at the crack of dawn on the weekends when my boyfriend is sleeping until 11am (he works most weekend evenings), it sucks having to leave a party early when everyone else can stay as long as they want, it sucks that I can’t go to a concert or an evening movie. And on, and on, and on. But, I know that it will really improve my health and mood, so I’m sticking with it, no matter what. Looking forward to see what is next for you!

  3. This is a great post! I'm right there with you with setting goals. I love having a goal in mind. Problem is, I'm reeeally bad at following through with said goals :) Signing up for a race is a good example since you usually pay a lot of money for it and that alone should be enough motivation. But I'm kind of scared to start running again. What if I get that burnt out feeling again and I still hate it? I would love to do another half marathon but I feel like I'm just going to get sick of trying to hit all those training runs. I kind of like my carefree workout schedule right now. Exercise when and how I want to and I've been hitting the gym 5 days a week but honestly, not one of those days include running. And I don't miss it. Which should probably be enough of a sign to not set any lofty running goals. Maybe I should start small, like another 5K or 10K.

    Wow okay, sorry for rambling :) Sometimes it good to get that stuff off your chest! I'm going to spend the next week or so before the new year reevaluating my running goals. I think small might be the way to go for me. Thank you for sharing as always! I love feeling as though I have someone to relate to! My friends and family are very strictly NON-runners and they seem to lose interest when I ramble to them haha :)

  4. Many thanks to you for being so open with us. Your story has helped me relate to those I know who are also struggling with mental illness.


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