Two questions to set the right goals

“How do I improve my performance?” is not a very good question to ponder, in fact, it’s a really poor question. Like so many pseudo-philosophers, when the brain is not busy it tends to ponder meaningless questions such as “What’s the meaning of life?”. This old question and all the other “big questions” like it “use terms so undefined as to make attempting to answer them a waste of time” to steal a  quote from Tim Ferriss, author of the “Four-Hour Body”.

Tim’s right and we need to use this knowledge to inform the way we ask ourselves questions about our running too and here is the shrewd American’s advice in a nutshell: “If you can’t define it or act upon it, forget it.”

For every question you ask yourself about your life or your training, Tim Ferris suggests you ask two questions to determine whether it passes or fails the above definition:

  • have I decided on a single meaning for each term in this question?
  • can an answer to this question be acted upon to improve things?

Take the question “do I have talent?” This question fails the first test because in order to answer it you need to define exactly what you mean by “talent” and then you need to define how you measure whether you “have it”.

The question: “What if the race get’s cancelled?” passes the first question but fails the second as you are unlikely to be able to influence whether it is cancelled or not and should therefore be ignored.

More specific and useful questions similar to the above could be “What’s my VDOT level?”, or “What measurement or test would best provide a picture of my current fitness level?” whereas a better question to ask if you fear a race will be cancelled is “What is my backup plan if the race is cancelled tomorrow?”

You will find yourself liberated if you rid yourself of questions which contain words that you cannot define precisely (if you don’t know what you’re actually saying, how can you expect a meaningful answer?) or which you cannot act upon improving.

But be careful: some questions are tricky. “Am I a poor descender?” sounds like a useful thing to ask yourself because if the answer is “yes”, you can act upon improving it, right? Well, potentially yes, but the problem is that you haven’t defined “poor”. Once again, you need to ask yourself more precise questions. “Do I lose places on the descent?” is still not good enough because there is no guarantee you can act upon improving this. Rather ask for the things that contribute to a good descent: “Could I improve my stride-rate?” or “Could I improve my balance?” and so on. The answer is likely always yes, so you can go work on these specific components.

The classical error is the question “What if Mr X finishes ahead of me?” Well, stop worrying about it because you cannot control whether one person finishes ahead of you or not!  What you can do is train the best you can, recover the best you can, eat the best you can and be as smart as you can with your tactics and as brave as you can in your attitude. But even then, “Mr. X” may beat you. Irritating as this may be, it should not be one of the questions occupying your mind in the run-in to a race.

So start asking the right questions and you will get the answers you need to improve your training, and your performance in all walks of life.

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Director and coach at Borg Coaching Services
Rene Borg is the head coach of Glendalough AC and a passionate runner competing over all distances and terrains.