Skip to main content


As a physical therapist, the first thing we are often taught is how to write measurable and functional goals for our patients. These goals need to be patient directed, addressing the deficits and prior level of function for each patient. Cookie cutter goals don't work in therapy because each patient is different. It is no different as a coach and assisting an athlete writing goals for the upcoming season and even the next few years. The goals have to be written with input from the athlete, directed towards the specific events the athlete has planned, and addressing the athlete's weakness and strengths. They should help the athlete reach the long term goal, but with short term goals along the way to reflect progress. But good goals are hard to write and that limits many people in their ability to achieve their goals. The goals are either too easy and don't challenge the athlete or they are too hard and nearly impossible to reach. The goals are often not detailed enough, making the process required to reach them difficult to plan. How do you write measurable, achievably challenging, detailed goals?

Using the acronym SMART - Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-based.
Specific - You have to identify the target of the goal. Thinking of the W-questions from writing is helpful here to make it even easier - who, what, why, when, where. Who is you, the athlete, what might be the target race or workout, why is the motivation for the goal, when is addressed more in the time section and where is the location such as a specific race or event. So while "Run a marathon" is a goal, it's not a specific goal. There's no process to help reach that goal. A better example would be "Run the Pikes Peak Marathon before I'm 40" or "Qualify for the Boston Marathon in 2018." Those goals are both very specific - naming targets (what and where) and when ( before I'm 40 or 2018.) The who is usually implied to be the athlete and the why can be public or private - just make sure you know the motivation.

Measurable - Quantify the goal using metrics specific for the event. Back to the "Run a marathon" goal. It's not a measurable goal because there's no way to determine success. "Running the Pikes Peak  Marathon in 7:30 before I'm 40" has a measurable component - the time to finish the event. When writing goals that involve finishing times, those are more fluid then qualifying times and can be more personal. Meanwhile, the other goal becomes "Run a 3:30 marathon in 2018 to qualify for the 2019 Boston Marathon."

Achievable - How hard will this goal be to meet? While there's nothing wrong with writing tough goals, there do need to be steps along the way to measure progress. "Run a marathon" might not be an achievable goal for someone who hasn't run mile in years. So we need to break it down in smaller segments - the short and long term goals there can be progress towards the ultimate long term goal. Our runner aiming for the Pikes Peak Marathon might break his goal down into two goals - one short term more achievable and then the long term goal. "Finish the Pikes Peak Ascent in 4:30 the year I turn 38" is a good short term goal for running the Pikes Peak Marathon. The runner trying to qualify for Boston might have two short term goals for for half marathons prior to her goal marathon. This is where a good coach can help with writing the goals - both here and in the next section

Realistic - is the goal something that you as an athlete can accomplish? Setting goals that aren't realistic for current level of fitness is asking for disappointment. The runner doing Pikes Peak marathon might have a realistic goal if he's been active and hiking. It might not be realistic if he's never done any hiking or running and will be turning 40 this year. The runner aiming for her Boston qualification time is setting a realistic goal if she's run a 3:35 or something similar. If her prior PR is over 4:00, there might be some issues with reaching that goal. That's not to say there can't be huge improvements in performance, but it's not frequent that you see that kind of improvement.

Time-based - For athletes, this is an easy one. Every time we pick an event, there is a time constraint on the goal. The date of the event. The short term goals will have closer end dates then the long term goal.

Following this process, the initial example long term goal of "run a marathon" has now become "Finish the Pikes Peak Marathon in 7:30 before I turn 40 in 2020" or "Run the American Discovery Trail marathon on Sept 4th in 3:29 to qualify for the 2019 Boston Marathon."

One more thing to consider while writing and setting goals - short term vs long term goals. The examples above are both of long term goals - the ultimate achievement. It's hard for most people to focus on goals that are so far away and in some cases a stretch to reach at this time. That's where the short them goals come into play. They are more process oriented - the stepping stones towards the long term goal. Instead of being an event a year or more out, short term goals can be as simple as hitting a target workout in the next two months or a shorter distance race that helps build towards the long term goals. Two short term goals for the first runner might be "run a half marathon in October 2017 under 2:20 to qualify for the PPA" and then "finish the PPA in 2018 in under 4:30." Both those goals provide stepping stones and a process to follow for an ultimate goal that is years away. They also address the need for qualifying for the marathon and the process involved in getting into the race. The other runner might have more workout based goals such as "bring my threshold pace down to 7:30 by the end of 2017" or a race based goal such as "finish the 2018 Super Half Marathon in 1:40."

Notice that I did not talk about place or finish position. I don't like using place as a metric for goals because it isn't something you can control. You have no control over who decides to sign up for a race and that has a bigger effect on position then anything. If some real fast people show up, you might reach your goal time at an event and be steps off the podium. Likewise, if it's a smaller field the goal time might not have been realistic and you still win. Goals should be set on variables you and your coach can control.