Start Your Season By Setting the Right Goals

a triathlete with her podium award
January 16, 2018

D3 Staff


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While I am a big fan of the holidays (I’m lucky enough to have my family close enough for long visits, but just far enough away to make it a real trip), I love this time of the year for our sport. It’s a chance to look forward at the coming season, or seasons, and revel in the amount of possibility there is. Even if you’ve had a less than great year due to injury, illness, lack of time, etc. getting to play that wonderful game of  ”what do I want to do” is just plain good fun. But after you finish the dreaming part, the work of planning needs to be pushed into high gear and bringing a high midseason focus into the offseason for just a short while will be necessary.


Before setting your goals, it's important to define just what a goal is. You can write out any number of things on a piece of paper or in your TrainingPeaks account, but if they don't have the right elements it will be hard to achieve them. The following three elements are a part of all good goals.

  • Goals needs to be measurable and concrete, not necessarily in time or miles, but in a definitive “yes/no” quality.
  • Goals need to within your control, although this does not include the weather. You never can predict when former champions or rising professionals are going to show up, so making a goal of “win X race” is not within your control. You could make it into a goal to be competitive based on a previous year’s results, but that will still be quantitative.
  • Goals need to be something you get excited about, even if you really don’t want to express it. Without that little itch in the back of your mind, you won’t get out of bed early enough for yoga, do that extra hill repeat, or keep your swim analysis appointments.


Many athletes fall into three categories; the dreamers, the check marks, and the just do-er’s. Dreamers are fun (being one I have to lobby for them); they want to get to the top of the mountain, then jump off. They go big, but often are overzealous in what is really accomplishable in a single season. They are the “qualify for Kona” having never done an IM or “Run my half marathon in less than 1:30 at Silverman 70.3” without breaking 2:00 first. While these goals are not necessarily unachievable, from a coaching perspective these athletes to see that there are other goals that need to be reached first or that their particular goal needs to be pushed (gently) to two or three seasons down the line.

Check marks are the opposite; they pick out goals that have already been attained or are below previous marks. For someone who’s qualified every year for the Age Group National Championships race, “Qualify for AG Nats” is a check mark-something easily attainable. For the athlete  that finishes just over 5 hours for a Half Ironman, “Run all of the 13.1 miles at Boulder 70.3” is a check mark. These athletes often need to be prodded into picking goals that they have not already attained in previous seasons. That said, if this is an athlete coming back from physical or personal setbacks, allowing a few checkmark goals to help build confidence.

There is another particular brand of athlete that is very similar to the check mark group is the just do-er athlete. They are the “Enjoy triathlon” and “Gain fitness” types. While I truly applaud those looking to simply enjoy this sport, as a coach, athletes who don’t want to move out of this type can be frustrating. Without a specific direction, it becomes difficult to be effective in your coaching. If you fall into this area, have a talk with your coach about possible goals they would pick for you or just brainstorm for a bit. Even goals that start off as “be a better swimmer” or “not die on long climbs” can be moved into goals and measurable achievements.

When setting your goals, where do you lay? Do you stand out as an obvious type? Or are you not sure? Once you’ve figured out what you’re excited about, engage your coach on the complexity and reality of your goal (dreamers), the steps required for your goals (checklisters) and how you will measure your goal (just do-ers). One of the great things about good coaches is being able to push the checkmarks to make goals that require some level of overreaching and dialing back the dreamer to something both measurable and attainable while getting the just-doer to define their goal.


When defining goals, start with your crown jewel, A+ objective and work down from there with the supportive goals. The weekly training goals and benchmarks will come from your conversations with your coach, their knowledge base and their knowledge of your strengths and weaknesses. For instance, a strong runner with limited abilities in open water looking to improve their Olympic race time will spend more time in the pool and in open water sessions rather than extra time on the track (but will still have running speed sessions to keep at minimum their current fitness and speed). Also help your coach by giving them as much advanced warning as possible on disruptions and adjustments to the plan.


Goals don’t necessarily need to be about times or distance, or going longer every season. Are you unhappy with your Half Ironman results? Going for shorter races could allow you to gain speed that with the right steps, translate into longer distances at better speeds. Spending a season working on the mechanics of form and speed also allows for more recovery (shorter sessions means more rest) and a better season after the next with fewer niggles and more energy. A shift to shorter races could also mean a happier significant other, something one could possibly cash in to do several high end or long distance races in seasons beyond.

Goals and steps should be phrased in the positive. Someone looking to make more early morning masters swim sessions could avoid using the phrase “Don’t sleep in” to “Pack bag and set timer on coffee pot the night before”. Too often the brain ignores the negative words, making “Don’t sleep in” to “Sleep in”.

Whatever your goals are for the year, digging in for a repetition of a demanding race or a first time plunge into something that may not even be swim bike run, hopefully you’ll be able to see where you need a tap on the gas pedal or the brakes, redefine or even just reword your goals for more success season…in a few months down the road. Enjoy the offseason while it lasts folks!

Coach Leigh Dodd is a USAT Level 1 Certified Coach who has helped coach the University of Colorado Buffaloes to seven straight Club National Championships. Coach Dodd has a specialty in swimming, helping swimmers become more well rounded triathletes as well as helping non-swimmers improve their ability in the water. She's most inspired when coaching beginners and has coached many athletes who have achieved their goal of qualifying for the Age Group National Championships.

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