The dead of Midwest winter is the perfect time to start planning out the upcoming season, but how do you set those goals that keep you motivated? Two Chicago-area athletes with heaps of winter training and goal-setting experience weigh in: Meet Marissa Castner and Maria Larkin. Castner runs competitively both locally (Team Sugar Runs) and nationally (she’s a member of Oiselle’s national running club, the Oiselle Volée). Larkin is the reigning state cyclocross champion, a three-time medalist at the Irish National Cyclocross Championships, and the first woman to represent Ireland in the Elite World Championships.
Before you plan your season, ask yourself: Why are you doing this? Are you targeting a result at a specific event? Do you want to set a new PR? Do you simply want to get healthier and stronger? These motivations determine your goals and approach to season planning.
If you’re brand new to a sport, you’ll want to aim to do a broad spectrum of events in your discipline—and under a variety of settings and weather conditions. It takes a season or two to figure out your niche. Once you figure out what you really want to do well in and enjoy, you build out a schedule.
For Castner, the marathon takes center stage in goal setting and planning.
“I usually choose one or two goal marathons a year and add in a couple races of shorter distances ranging from 5k to half-marathon as fitness check-ins and to keep training interesting,” Castner says. These key events dictate everything else in the season. All other races are treated as “workouts that won’t interfere with the rest of my training…[and] sticking to one or two marathons a year also ensures I can get adequate recovery time and prevent the mental burn-out that often comes with racing too often.”
Larkin breaks her goals down even further; some rooted in experience, others in results.
“An experience goal is something like ‘do X race’, ‘ride a world famous climb’,” whereas results goals are more associated with metrics, like “I will upgrade to Cat 1, achieve a top 20 at a UCI race, etc.” As the year progresses, “you have a variety of goals that you can meet.” It keeps your mind fresh, and your outlook positive.
Always keep in mind that sometimes the stressors of a results-based goal (particularly if you miss the mark), need to be balanced with accomplishing an experienced-oriented goal. Recognizing Annie Byrne, owner of BFF Bikes and mastermind behind Feel the Byrne, on this score, Larkin says she always tries to set S.M.A.R.T. goals for the season.
“That means specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely,” Larkin adds. “It sounds cliché but it does really help to evaluate.”
Though both are committed athletes, they also have careers they balance their training and racing alongside—Castner is a chemical and biomolecular engineer, while Larkin is an architect. Work-life and training-life have to hit some sort of balance in order for goals in either to be achievable.
Castner stressed the need to trust your intuition and self-knowledge, and often reminds herself that a training plan that is executed with 100 percent perfection is the exception, not the rule.
“My work schedule can be unpredictable, but I’ve done my best to break down the barriers that prevent me from getting my workouts in,” Castner says. “Someone once told me there was no way I’d ever hit my marathon goals working a job where I regularly get 10,000 steps a day. Not enough recovery, they said. [But I know] I am a better human mentally and physically when I am not stuck in a cube all day….You have to find what works for you, and it doesn’t have to be what works for anyone else.”
While it’s important to set goals that push you to your limit, you also need to remind yourself to practice a bit of grace and forgiveness during the process. Training is 80 percent of the battle, but sometimes life gets in the way. You can get sick. You can mentally pop on race day. In any season, you will never meet 100 percent of your goals, 100 percent of the time.
“Sometimes there’s just someone else who’s better,” says Larkin. “Each year I have to deal with the disappointment of putting in the work and not coming away with the final prize. It has been important for me to remember that no matter what goal I’ve set, I’m never ‘entitled’ to achieve that goal simply because I’ve put in the work.”
Throughout the goal-setting and training-plan process, always know that there’s a community out there who will happily provide guidance and support. Books are great, but your fellow athletes are a real resource.
“Seek out more experienced athletes and pick their brains,” Castner advises. “We all love to ramble on about this stuff!”