Personal Trainer Sarah Houston discusses goal setting and her journey to the New York Marathon
Setting goals of any type is a great way to motivate you to work harder and stay focused. This is especially true when it comes to fitness and health as it gives us an extra incentive to push ourselves outside our comfort zone, get out of bed in the early hours, or hit the gym after work rather than collapsing on the couch.
One of the most exciting fitness goals to set is finding that big event that will really make you stretch your limits and achieve something great - perhaps something you’ve never done before, or something you never even dreamed possible! This could be anything from a 5km fun run, to the half marathon at the City to Surf or even a full ironman competition. There are heaps of great challenges around, it is just a matter of picking one that interests you, and that you feel will drive you to be better than you’ve been before. What better time than now to pick your next challenge?
Selecting your Challenge
Picking a big event gives you a something to look forward to and allows you to plan for your success. Last year I decided I would run my second marathon, and in order to get me really motivated to do all those kilometres of training again, I knew it had to be a big one. I chose the NYC marathon in November, and from February onwards I set out to run the best race I possibly could. Choosing a full marathon (42.2kms) was an obvious choice for me, as I love running, I love road races, and I had done one before and so I had a time that I could improve on.
But it doesn’t have to be running. In WA, we are lucky enough to have all sorts of big sporting events and activities available to us, from the Rottnest Swim to triathlong and surf lifesafing, paddle boarding, endurance riding and trail running. There are also many multi-sport events and obstacle races such as Tough Mudder. Find something you love doing and use it to train for something big! Anything is possible when we put our minds to it. A few years ago I would never have believed I could run 42 kilometers. If there is something you’ve always wanted to do or try, why not have a go?
Whatever it is that you choose to participate in, the big race or event has to excite you, inspire you and push you to keep going when the going gets tough. Because it will get tough! I had never been to NYC before, but had always wanted to visit. I love travelling, and this way I had a reason to travel and knew it would be something I would remember for ever. It isn’t every day you get to run through the streets of one of the worlds biggest cities with 52,000 other people and literally millions of people cheering you on from the sidelines. This was a seriously exciting prospect for me, and one that kept me running during the cold and dark winter morning and evening runs as I trained. Whether it is picking a new place to travel to for the big race, or catching up with old friends, an aspect of excitement will always help you through those moments when you feel like giving up. So make it something big that you can’t take your eyes off!
Of course, your goal needs to be attainable and realistic - two very important aspects of the goal setting process. A holiday to New York is not cheap and required that I took time away from work and other commitments to get there. Timing is everything, and if you pick a big event some months in the future, you can really plan and prepare and if travel is needed, you have time to take that all into consideration. Travelling for big events can be fantastic, and in my case not only did I get to run the race of my life, but I got to spend time exploring a new city and treating myself after the race was over. But if you choose to travel, give yourself time and plan ahead. Be organised in booking your accommodation and flights - things can get very expensive the closer you get to a big event! Give yourself at least a few days in the new city or location to adapt to the new surroundings, stretch your legs and get your sleeping patterns in order. I had a month in the USA before my race to train and get aclimatised to ensure all my hard work wasn’t for nothing! This is probably at the extreme end of the scale, but it sure did help me on race day, and in aiding my recovery. Travelling internationally for an event is a huge deal, so make the most of it and give yourself the best chance at achieving your goal as possible.
Also worth considering is joining a group or team who are entering an event together. Training and connecting with others who share similar goals is a fantastic way to stay motivated and support one another to achieve. Participating for a good cause is a great way to start, and using the event as a fundraiser for a charity that you are passionate about will give you inspiration, and you’ll get loads of encouragement from your friends and family. I always choose a charity close to my heart to fundraise for at a big race, and in NYC I joined a group of people all raising money for the Jodi Lee Foundation, an organisation dedicated to increasing the awareness and helping prevent bowel cancer in Australians.
Choose something that excites you, something that will continue to motivate you even in the toughest of times, and get a group of friends together so you can support and encourage each other along the way.
Planning and Preparation
So, you’ve picked your event! Awesome!! Now it is time to sit down and think seriously about what you want to achieve, and how you’re going to achieve it. In other words, figure out a realistic goal for the event (for me it was running a personal best time, so under 3 hours 45 minutes over 42.2 kms), and then nut out a training program that will allow you to make this a reality.
Goal setting can be daunting, but a great way to make sure you get to your end goal, is to break it down into mini goals along the way. For example, I had 8 months to train for a 42 kilometer race, so I set smaller races - 5km, 10km, half marathon - to complete in the lead up to the main event. This makes everything seem a bit less impossible. Each month, set a new target, whether it to be run further, faster or more hills to challenge you. At the end of each small challenge, you are well on your way to the end result and you can feel a sense of achievement at each point.
Planning is also about keeping your mind and body in check. You need to set your training schedule to ensure that you are fit enough to achieve your goals, but you also don’t want to get bored along the way, or you’ll lose all motivation. Make sure you include some fun and different training sessions into your program. Try new things - water sports, team sports and other outdoor activities can be just the cure for a boring training regime and get your mojo back! Cross train to prevent injury and ensure your whole body is strong and ready for the challenge ahead. Set new challenges for your body and mind and make the process enjoyable.
During my month in the USA in the lead up to the NYC Marathon, I visited 4 different states and trained in completely different climates and environments. When I flew into LA, it was 38°C and I decided to run up to the top of Griffiths Observatory the day after I landed, jetlag and all. It may not have been the best idea, but it certainly was a challenge! I had a few more days and a few more runs in that heat. I also ran some hilly terrain in San Francisco before flying to the Rocky Mountains in Colorado for some altitude training. This for me was the ultimate in running, and was an incredible opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors. It renewed my love for the sport and gave me a real buzz just two weeks out from the race. As well as being an awesome physical challenge, time in the Rocky’s also enabled me to get some real peace and quiet and focus on my health and race preparation.
This brings me to my next point. Planning for a big race or event is as much about mental preparation and focus as it is about physical preparation and commitment. Make sure you give yourself the time you need to really focus on the race, set a mental plan for race day and visualise your success. It is proven that visualisation and mental preparedness can be as important as the physical training in preparing for a physical challenge. On the day of the event, there will be many moments where your success will depend on mind over matter, so train your brain to deal with this situation, and it will be a whole lot easier when you are out there in the race!
Of course planning and preparation must consider your physical limits and requirements. Train your body gradually over time, build up strength and speed and endurance. This is crucial in prevention of injury, and will ensure you are building strong foundations for sustainable fitness and health. It is no good training too hard too soon, only to become injured and all your hard work will be for nothing. Slow and steady, look after your body and give it time to recover and become stronger.
Other important factors include nutrition and hydration, while training, in the lead up to the event, and on race day. These considerations are different for every individual and should be assessed over time to find what works best for you and how you should best fuel and hydrate your body. Take notice of how your body responds to different foods, how quickly you become dehydrated, and what forms of nutrients best fuel you during the event. There are so many confusing facts and stories out there, so if you need extra help talk to an expert to set you on the right track. Getting nutrition and hydration can be a hugely influencing factor in running an average race or running an awesome race. So play around and ask for advice where you need it. I tried loads of different types of gels before the marathon, and finally settled on a little known brand that uses less preservatives than most others. Try different things and see what works best for you.
After all the planning and preparation is said and done, stick it out and do everything you can to ensure that on the day of the event, you know there is nothing more you could have done. Time to put it all to the test.
Race Day Hype - Time for Action
And you really do need to trust yourself! You’ve done the work, your training is behind you, now it is time to focus on putting your plan into action. On the day, there is no telling what the conditions will be like, but hopefully if your preparation has been good you will at least be feeling ready to go. Anxiety and nerves are normal, and I once read a great quote that reassured me that when you feel anxious before a big event, you know you are ready for action.
The day before the marathon in New York, the rain would not stop pouring down and the forecast was for 2°C and wild winds. It was a pretty disheartening thought when we knew we had to be up and on a bus to the start line at 5.15am, and wait around in the starting area for 2 or more hours before the race even started! But there was no changing the conditions, only my attitude towards them. It was freezing cold, but I was prepared with extra clothes I could throw away at the start line, and a positive attitude to get me through. The wind was gale force, and a few times along the course I thought I was about to be blown off a bridge or swept away down a tunnel. Mind over matter really has to kick in during times like these, and I had to believe my training would pull me through in the end.
We often get so nervous and lose sight of our plan on the big day, and decide to make last minute changes or decision. DON’T CHANGE ANYTHING!! Stick with your plan - it is a plan that you have specifically made, and you have made it for a reason. The best thing you can do is go with what you know. Your nutrition and hydration plan are all in place - stick with it. Your pace plan is one that you are capable of - stick with it. Don’t try anything new (no new shoes, new gels or new running gear) on race day, it could end badly and ruin all that good work. Stick to what you know, and trust that your plan will work.
Most importantly, on the big day, enjoy, soak it all up and make the most of every moment. This is what you have been training for and you have already succeeded just be making it to the start line. A big event like the NYC Marathon is a heart-stopping experience, and sometimes I wonder if I took a breath the whole 42.2 kilometers! The atmosphere is awesome, the crowds are cheering you on, the scenery is something out of a movie. All your hard work comes down to this moment, so lap it up - and don’t forget to smile. There are even photos of me waving to the spectators as I came out of one of the tunnels at about the 30km mark. I remember the roar of the crowd, it was completely overwhelming and I know I was laughing, perhaps crying as well, and so grateful for all their enthusiasm and energy. Then in the last 2 kms as we ran through Central Park towards the finish line and I pushed my legs further and faster even though there was no energy left in my body, I know I had tears running down my face. It was just brilliant, and I made sure I was soaking up every moment. I will never forget it.
Although the conditions were horrendous that day and my goal was only to beat my personal best of 3 hours 45 minutes, I ran the most perfect race I could have imagined and finished in a time of 3 hours and 33 minutes. I know my training was fairly solid, and the excitement of running through the streets of New York was a factor, but the main thing I put my successful performance down to was positive self talk. I told myself the whole way that I could do it, that I could run an amazing time, that nothing could stop me. My mental preparation worked a treat, and I was able to overcome physical limits I never thought possible. And as soon as I’d finished… I realised I’ll have to run another marathon now, and beat 3 hours 30 minutes!
On the day, you give it your best and you never give up. Trust yourself that you have prepared enough to achieve that goal, and believe that you will succeed. Leave nothing left in the tank, have no regrets, and be able to say when you cross that line that you gave it absolutely everything you had. Mission accomplished.
Success, Recovery and Return to Training
Bask in your glory! Enjoy the feeling of finishing and take it all in. You’ll be hurting, but look around and give yourself the credit you deserve. After the marathon, we were ushered through the finishing area for another 1.5kms before we were allowed to stop. It was almost more painful than the race itself! But along the way we were given our finishers medals and ponchos, and I think I hugged about 5 strangers. I cried and I laughed and I wailed in pain (I could no longer feel my legs). But it was awesome. Everyone around me had achieved something great, and I had just smashed my personal best and could not have been happier.
So enjoy the moment! Make the most of any event festivities going on in the race complex, like photos, music, food, massages or other recovery activities. Everyone is there for the same reason, so feed off the energy and enjoy the ride. This is especially enjoyable if you have family or friends to celebrate with, or a group with whom you trained with and can share your stories of triumph and glory.
Post race is what you’ve been waiting for, so make sure you treat yourself in some way, regardless of your result. Be positive even if you didn’t quite get a PB or your knee didn’t hold up as well as you wanted. Treat yourself, have a nice big feed, a big drink and a looooooooong hot shower. There is no feeling quite like it.
Something we forget to address too often is to make sure we have a recovery plan. This encompasses immediately post race, but also the days and weeks that follow as well. Give your body time to rest and recover, then slowly ease back into some light exercise when you feel ready. Set a plan for this recovery period beforehand, and this will give you something to focus on, and hence avoiding that come-down feeling and losing all that hard work.
As soon as possible after the big day, set a new goal while you feel inspired! It doesn’t have to be something quite as big, but give yourself a reason to keep your training up and use your newfound fitness and motivation to achieve the next thing. Now you know what you are capable of, don’t let it stop there. Anything really is possible; all you need to do is set your mind to it.
Sarah Houston - Edge Fitness Personal Trainer