Fitness & Nutrition

How to set realistic training goals… and stick to them

Struggling to stick to your targets, having started the year with a bang? Here's where you might be going wrong...

January is over and for many it’s the same old story. At the turn of the new year we set ourselves ambitious goals, yet after a few dry weeks of dedication, the wheels have become to come off.

And, it’s not like this hasn’t happened before. Time and again, thousands of riders fall off the bandwagon of self-improvement, and fall into a familiar pattern of steadily letting go of their lofty goals, and settling for something else. We’re not strangers to it in the RCUK office, either.

So, to explore why this can happen, and to find out how to set more achievable goals, we’ve consulted two expert coaches – Matt Rowe, of Rowe & King Cycle Coaching, and TKC coach Ed Laverack. Let’s see what they have to say.

How can you ensure you set realistic training goals… and stick to them? (Pic: Kalf)

Why do we often fail to meet our goals?

According to Matt Rowe of Rowe & King Cycle Coaching, goals are rarely conceived with a full appreciation of the amount of work necessary to be successful – and, considering the external pressures of work, family and a social life, without taking into account the potential for distraction.

“We normally choose goals without thinking them through, and so they’re very often implausible,” Rowe says. “Unless you set a goal that is first and foremost realistic, your motivation to stick to it will drop. This is especially the case when you factor in other life pressures, too.”

Ed Laverack, a coach with TKC and pro rider for JLT-Condor, has a different slant on it. The connected age we live in means it’s easy to see other riders hitting the highest highs, without understanding everything that’s come before it.

 “It just comes down to perspective and patience,” he says. “Riders may check social media every day and there’s always that one person out there who has what you want.

“The problem is you are only seeing the thing they have now, and not the hours of work they put in to get to it. Many people fail because of their lack of patience. Learning to and accept that it will come – if you are putting in the work – is so important.”

So, what is the key to setting more realistic, achievable goals? There are a number of key things to consider…

Be patient – just because you can see others appear to be flying, it doesn’t mean they haven’t been through the same processes as you (Pic: Kalf)

Balancing ambition and realism

As Laverack hints, much comes down to your mental approach and having a full grasp on the process involved.

“Everyone has the mental capacity to achieve an ambitious goal,” he says. “However, setting an unrealistic goal from the outset sends messages to yourself that mentally you aren’t fully capable of pursuing that goal – a bit like defeating yourself before you’ve even tried.”

Clearly, the power of the mind is key, but Rowe also emphasises the importance of making a full assessment of what’s realistic; a process that needs to be integrated into your goal-setting.

“If you set a goal that is going to require more time and effort than you are able to give, then that’s being unrealistic,” he says. “For example, if my personal goal was to do a lifetime PB for a 10-mile time trial in 2018, then given that I am not training nearly as much as I used to and am not planning on doing so, that would be unrealistic.

“On the other hand, a more realistic goal would be to beat my PB from 2017 [because it was set in similar circumstances to now].”

Be realistic in the goals you set – you can be ambitious, but your goal needs to be achievable (Pic: Jean-Luc Armand)

The time-honoured SMARTER principles

So, we need to ensure ambitious goals are fundamentally realistic and achievable – and be mentally prepared to commit to the process of achieving them. As a result, the SMARTER goal-setting principles can be a good place to start. In other words, ensure your goals are:

Specific – Have a clear and precise goal, to help you quantify it and stay focussed
Measurable – Ensure that you can easily monitor your progress
Accepted – Commit, and make sure your coach and partner know about your goal too
Realistic – Set a goal that is ambitious by all means, but make sure it’s achievable
Time-bound – Set a time limit. Open targets often lead to reduced drive to achieve
Exciting – Make sure your goal and the process will enthuse you until completion
Recorded – Keep a record of your progress and experiences for positive future use

However, both Rowe and Laverack also agree you shouldn’t be a slave to SMARTER, instead using it as a guide.

“I think the SMARTER principles can fit, but the main things to focus on are to ensure your goal is measurable, realistic and time-bound,” says Rowe. “Stick to those three, and you will not go far wrong.”

“Alongside those, assessing progress periodically is important, too. For example, if a rider who I coached had a prolonged period of illness that impacted on their training and progress, I may consider re-establishing a short-term goal to take it into account.”

Train ‘SMARTER’, but don’t be a slave to those principles (Pic: Sportful)

Creating realistic goals

Assuming you are finding it difficult to stick to your training plan or goal, or have given up entirely already because it’s proven unrealistic, Rowe explains starting small might be a good way to gain momentum.

“If you simply aim to be better than you have been previously, then that may be a good starting point,” he says.

“Then, consider how important the achievement of your ultimate goal is, because if you are not super-motivated, there is little value in setting what we call a ‘stretch’ goal.

“If you know, right now, your motivation is not very high, then pick something that will be less demanding to achieve so it’s aligned with your level of commitment.”

A realistic goal balance achievability with your likely motivation to get to the end point (Pic: dhb)

At the same time Laverack says you should have a good grasp of what it’s taken before to achieve your goals, and you can take inspiration from that.

“Creating a realistic goal can be simple: take a look at what you have accomplished in your sporting life so far,” he says, “did you accomplish anything that surprised you or friends or family?

“If you did, ask yourself what you did to achieve it? If it’s a sportive or a time trial time you are aiming for, calculate the amount of improvement you will need to make to achieve said time. If the figure that bounces back seems within reach, then this can be a new realistic goal.”

Staying motivated

Laverack says you need to have a ‘big-picture mentality’ when it it comes to staying motivated on the bike, where the end goal is always kept in sight as a reminder of why you’re putting the work in.

“Fundamentally, I always say motivation is momentary but passion is permanent. If you fall in love with the process of what you do, it will become a whole lot easier to get the work done,” he says.

“The big picture always wins, but you should always set yourself smaller goals to chip away at along the way, and we know variation is key to stimulating improvement.

“If you want to do the same thing for three weeks then that’s fine, but you should change it up a little after that.

“Keep working at different things from month to month to see an all-round improvement and maintain your motivation.”

You also need to learn to love the process, rather than just the end result (Pic: Simon Wilkinson/

Ensuring you structure your training to take into account variation and short-term goals means having a plan is a very important part of grounding yourself and staying focussed, instead of wondering why you’re doing certain sessions at certain times, potentially losing motivation.

“Have a plan that incorporates your smaller goals on the way,” says Rowe. “Also, you can find yourself a coach to give you the best possible chance of success – it’s amazing the difference some quality advice can make to a rider’s performance, which can do wonders for motivation.”

If you want to read more about whether hiring a coach could be a good investment to make, check out our feature on the subject.

Staying the course

If you set yourself up with a plan, complete with a target goal as well as several smaller ‘stepping stone’ goals on the way, and ensure those goals are motivating, realistic and achievable, while loosely adhering to the SMARTER principles, you’ll be well placed to stick to your schedule.

However, we all know life can simply get in the way of our best laid plans, and is something many may be experiencing now as we enter February. Rowe says that, because life is complex, there isn’t usually just one thing contributing to your ‘falling behind’.

“There is no one size fits all answer here – the correct action will depend on the training phase you’re in, your level of motivation, fitness level, the type of goal and potentially other external factors, like family commitments and job pressures,” he says.

“It can be helpful to speak to a coach (if you have one) to understand the best route forward for you as an individual.”

Alongside looking at the bigger picture, set smaller goals along the way to provide short-term motivation (Pic: Rapha)

Laverack agrees, adding: “This can happen so easily with family and work commitments, and even things like the weather.

“Personally, I’d recommend deploying a level of simplicity and common sense; understand these things are going to happen, before they do, and get that into your psychology.

“If you can do this, then it will make your cycling life more relaxed when you understand that missing a few sessions, even a few on the bounce, won’t have a huge impact on your overall health, fitness and wellbeing.

“If you are worried about your end goal suffering because of external impacts then it is not worth putting yourself through it.

“Don’t sweat the small stuff! Always think of the big picture.”

Five key steps to follow

Both Rowe and Laverack have helped to identify the primary reason we fail at sticking to our schedules, as we strive to attain our goals, is because the goal itself is often ill-conceived, and this has a knock-on effect on our motivation as we realise this. In short, to help avoid your goals falling by the wayside, you need to:

  • Choose a target you can physically achieve, while understanding the commitment necessary to put the time and work in to achieve it.
  • Be motivated to not only meet your goal, but enjoy the process along the way – which is not always the same thing.
  • Have a plan that can be tweaked for life’s inevitable and ever-changing demands on our time
  • Remember, just because you’ve hit an obstacle, it doesn’t mean you should forget your end goal
  • Accept interruptions are bound to occur. If you do, you are better placed to account for them, create more realistic goals, and stick to them.
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