Is There Such a Thing as a Bad Goal?

I’m currently reading The Cool Impossible (and yes, a review is coming, I promise), and within the book, the author talks about the different types of athletes he’s coached. It will surprise absolutely no one that I fit squarely into the type that likes tangible results. I like tracking my workouts, I like working with coaches and trainers and people who can provide feedback, and I like seeing my hard work pay off.

I thought that, after my tri and half marathon this spring, I’d be ready for some serious time off, but as it turns out, I just feel more motivated to keep up the hard work. But, without a specific upcoming race to train for, I’m having to think a little more about my goals.

A friend asked me recently how good I wanted to be at triathlon, and that’s a hard question to answer. I mean, basically, I want to be as fast and strong as I can be, but what exactly does that mean? Even on the exact same triathlon course, the swim distance can vary to some extent, and it’s difficult to compare a time from a hilly bike course to one that’s flat as a pancake. With running, it’s pretty straightforward—you have your set distances, and while some might be hillier or more challenging, you basically know what time you’re aiming for and how likely you are to place within your age group. Triathlon, not so much.

When another friend (and both were guys, by the way—interesting, right?) asked me about my goals last week, I realized I really didn’t have any solid goals set. You know, besides get better. So, I thought for a moment and said, “I’d like to be the first woman out of the water at a race this year.”

I sat back and took a swig of beer, and nearly choked when he replied, “Well, that’s a terrible goal.”


This was a friend from swim class, and although he’s faster than I am, he also knows that, among certain crowds, I can more than hold my own. So I challenged him, asking why he didn’t think I could do it.

“It’s not that,” he replied. “It’s just that you have no power over who shows up, so it’s not a good goal to set.”

I can’t say I ever thought about goals being good vs. bad. I mean, when I played basketball and volleyball, our goal was to win. Always. Even if we were playing a team that was incredibly good. So, the idea of wanting to win (in whatever capacity that might be) not being a good goal? That was foreign to me.

But the more I thought about it, the more I understood. It’s hard to work toward a goal when you don’t have something tangible attached. I can say I want to hold a certain pace on the swim, and while that might give me the finish I’m looking for, if I end up swimming against a bunch of elite swimmers, I’ll probably find myself closer to the middle of the pack. So really, in terms of goal setting, I should focus on myself and what I know.

Although, let’s be honest. I’m always going to want to be the first woman out of the water.

How do you feel about goal-setting? Have you ever set a “bad” goal? —Kristen

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  1. Allie says:

    Somewhere along the way someone told me (or I read it?) to set three goals for every race. The first is always just to finish! The second can be a time goal, PR, better time then last year, etc. and the third should be the ultimate “if-everything-goes-perfectly” goal like winning your age group or BQ. This works out pretty well since you’re probably going to attain the first TWO and if you get THREE, well then it’s time to CELEBRATE!!

  2. Phaedra says:

    It helps when goals are quantifiable, then you have something to measure against. That’s why time goals are great! To change “to be the first woman out of the water” to something more quantifiable, you could probably look at the swim times of the triathlon that you have your eye set on and see how the top finishers finished. Then if you set your swim time goal based on that, chances are you’ll be a little closer to your “first woman out of the water” dream. But your friend is right, you can’t control who shows up that day. But, you can control your training that will get you closer to improving what you can do.

  3. Sara says:

    This may sound odd and extreme to some, but I’ve found that ANY goal involving weight (lose X pounds, weigh X by June 31) tends to be a bad goal for me. It’s something that I can definitely influence but not necessarily control. Water weight, when my period comes, what I ate for dinner the night before . . . even if you don’t weigh in regularly, I find that weight is just kind of a lame thing to use to track progress. It’s not always a reflection of improvement in fitness or health.

    I’ve started focusing more on changes in what my body can DO (which it sounds like you certainly do already, Kristen, but is a new concept for me) and I’m so much happier. I love my fit bottom a lot more these days now that I’ve given up the quest to weigh a certain amount and simply want to haul that booty across a half marathon finish line in a set time or be able to do multiple pull ups in a row. 🙂

  4. Innana says:

    The term bad has a negative connotation. I think what your friend meant is that your goal will not be as effective as you want it to be. In behavior modification, we shape up behaviors, which means, wherever you are at right now, you start increasing your goal to smaller attainable goals until you get to the grand goal at the end. I think your friend was just referring to the fact that your goal was too general to be effective or get what you wanted out of it.

    By the way, congratulations on your hard work! Thanks for a great read.

  5. Lisa says:

    I’m not a competitor, but I think that being the first woman out of the water is a
    laudable goal. Go for it.

  6. Ashley S says:

    Oh my I hadn’t thought about that before, but you’re SO right. Looking back I can see a few places where I set “bad goals” both in life and in fitness. It’s a little bit like setting yourself up to feel like a failure. I’m totally going to remember this for my next goal setting venture!