Why You Need Goals

This article was written by Idai Makaya for the Setanta College Strength & Conditioning Blog in June 2013.

On 8th June 2013 I found myself lining up my ElliptiGO elliptical bike alongside about 200 other cyclists with their road bikes – all of us waiting for the start of a 250-mile time trial from Manchester to London, with a 24 hour time-limit (an endurance cycling challenge called Ride UK 24). At times like this I try to put it all back into context and to make sense of how one ends up in such situations.

So why would anyone want to ride 250-miles within a one-day time limit? The truth is, there are certainly no additional fitness benefits to doing so. In fact, logic and experience dictate that moderation is a key feature in any exercise programme (and there’s nothing moderate about exercising for 24 hours). So why do I do this? The answer comes back to the subject matter of this article – the significance of fitness goals.

Why are fitness goals important?

Taking on a ‘mission’ without a defined goal or a plan is the same as walking out of your front door and not knowing where you are heading. If you have no plan and no goal destination, it’s only luck that will get you to where you truly want to be. Goals are important because they give us a direction to follow and a way to measure our progress along the way. If you have a goal it becomes easy to say whether you’ve achieved it or not. Goals allow us to succeed and success keeps us motivated.

Most people do have things they would like to do or achieve in fitness – or in life – but often they have not actually committed to them. People will join a gym because they “want to get fitter” or to “lose weight”. This seems reasonable on the surface – but those with experience will tell you this sort of motivation does not last and is difficult to sustain for the long term. The people who have been shown to have sustained life-long fitness are always those who have had very specific goals.

Our goals need to have a defined form. If, for example, a man of average height weighs 300 pounds and manages to lose 30 pounds in weight – that’s a 10% weight loss – and is a lot of weight to lose. But it does not make him any less morbidly obese. So the weight loss, in its true context, means absolutely nothing. It has no benefits to his health and wellbeing. Such an individual needs more meaningful goals.

He needs to calculate his ideal healthy GOAL weight first of all – which is in the region of 165 pounds – and then he needs to work towards that specific goal. That goal is finite – it can be measured – and achieving it has a positive outcome for his health. Simply “losing weight” is not a goal. Goals need to be specific and meaningful, in order for us to access the specific tools and the motivation we need to achieve them.

Finishing Ride 24, in June 2012 (232.8 miles in a single day).

Our fitness goals should be both short term and long term – but it is very important to focus on our short-term goals, primarily. Live in the moment, so to speak. You can’t achieve the bigger goals without achieving the smaller interim ones. When you begin a fitness regime or target a fitness goal you must set interim goals and fixate yourself on those interim goals – as much as you fixate yourself on the final big end-goal.

A big end-goal is usually something stretching and when you set long term goals they are often unachievable for you at the time you set them. For instance, a person just taking up running, with the aim of running a marathon, is incapable of completing a marathon at the time of setting the goal. But he or she can realistically work towards it over a reasonable timeframe, using a rational training programme. By working on a framework of ‘easier’ interim goals, one gradually progresses towards the bigger goals. A journey of a thousand miles begins in small steps.

There’s nothing new in goal-setting for fitness…

When I started out as a martial artist – studying the centuries old principles of Taekwondo training – I often wondered if I’d ever be as good as the Black Belt guys I often saw at demonstrations and tournaments. But I did feel like I could definitely get to my first Yellow Belt grading. And over a couple of years I kept getting to more senior belt grades, until I finally got that coveted Black Belt status. And guess what – I realised at that point that I was just as good as those guys I had once idolised! So even thousands of years ago, when martial arts training was first formalised, they knew that people thrived on short term goals when working towards bigger goals. It’s nothing new – and it works.

In fitness training we need to keep things interesting and to keep ourselves engaged, because fitness training only really matters if it can be sustained for your entire life. Short-termism is meaningless when planning for health and fitness. Always have a goal of some sort, towards which you are working. Make such goals reasonably attainable – initially – and then gradually make them more challenging as they become easier to achieve. These short-term goals will often give you good ideas for more challenging, longer term goals; which you can then set for yourself.

So – getting back to my 250-mile cycling challenge – how did I end up there?

By simply setting lots of interim goals and then realising that after I had eventually achieved them all I still needed further goals, to keep me motivated.  What I do is extreme, but it demonstrates my points completely. I’ve been in top shape since I was 8 years old – and I have done so by setting goals which would motivate me to keep on training.

And that’s what true fitness is about – achieving interim goals and then setting even bigger ones – all through your life. Succeed or fail, it’s the goals that keep us motivated and at our best – because as soon as one goal is achieved it becomes necessary to set the next one….