A goal without a plan is just a lofty idea that circulates our brains but we never really do anything about. A plan without a goal may give us something to do, but without a concrete idea of what the end result ought to be, ultimately causes us to do a lot of work - or the wrong kind of work, or not enough work - for nothing.
If you are dead-set on a specific result (and this is not just pertaining to fitness), then you need a goal-based plan. That is, you will focus all of your efforts and hone your skills and work with unrelenting perseverance. This is what most people who come into my gym set out to do. "I am going to lose 50 pounds in 6 months!" someone may say. Is that doable? Absolutely. But if that person embarks on a goal-based plan she is going to have a LOT of work ahead. If The Goal is addressed as the primary concern and The Plan is secondary, you run into a situation that I see happen in the gyms every year, right around January: Everyone comes in all gung-ho, Instagram feeds are clogged with #fitspo posts and treadmills are clogged with people taking selfies. Cut to a couple months later when the gym is empty as 75% of those people realized they really can't work out e.v.e.r.y. day. Their efforts becomes shorter and less focused, and the determination withers.
Plan-based Goals, however, require a different approach. They require one to look at his or her schedule, consider all barriers that may prevent a consistent routine, take stock of all previous excuses, and carefully and methodically eliminate each roadblock on by one. The Goal is a little less specific, such as to simply "lose weight" or "gain strength," but can become more focused over time as the plan unfolds. A Plan-based Goal takes longer, too, as it is more about developing the habits that contribute to a lasting lifestyle change rather than just changing ones' dress size. It's about keeping a constant and consistent forward momentum - not flooring it and then crashing in a matter of weeks.
Plan-Based Goals in the Fitness World
When someone embarks on a new fitness regimen, the results are often the most dramatic in the first 1-3 months. This is when the body adapts from being constantly sore to starting to feel strong and capable. The first few pounds start to slip off rather effortlessly. And of course when the going is relatively easy, our goals seem to be well within our reach. But if we only focus on that goal, rather than the plan that leads up to it, we are likely to face a lot of frustration as our fitness gains and weight loss begins to slow - as will naturally happen once the body adjusts to the increased physical demand. This adaptation is the root of frustration for many people, and the reason why many give up. They just think that they weren't meant to reach that goal, after all.
So now a "cheat" meal turns into reverting back to old eating habits because, well, that extra weight's not coming off no matter what. Or someone attempts a new race distance but falls short and bows out early, ultimately deciding that maybe he wasn't made to run. Or, in an impatient rush to max out on squat instead of continuing on a methodical workout plan, someone throws out her back and can no longer lift again.
The common denominator in these hypothetical scenarios is that these people either did not truly do everything they ought to do to reach their goals, or their goals were not realistic for their current abilities.
For the longest time, I assumed that I was not cut out for marathons. Not for the lack of desire to go back to the race or to improve on previous attempts, but because my legs were just trashed each time I tried one. My IT bands screamed, my ankles yelled, and my internal organs all but checked out completely. Never mind that I didn't fuel or hydrate properly. Never mind that I didn't really follow that training plan. Never mind that I didn't cross-train. Fast-forward seven years and with a lot more patience, know-how, and commitment, and I'm running my sixth marathon and fifth ultra marathon before the end of 2015.
Although I went to school for personal training, the revelation I had about my own training came from recognizing my mental hurdles as well as physical ones, and it was up to me entirely to conquer them if I truly wanted to improve. To do this, I had to address the real issue, which was that having a Goal-based Plan - "Run a sub 3:40 marathon" - was not right for me. It was completely unrealistic to stick to the weekly mileage and pace goals that would be required of me to achieve such a feat. Instead, created a Plan-based Goal: Become a stronger runner. That is, to be able to run long distance events, recover quickly, and get right back to running for the next big race. This allowed for a little more leniency with my mileage, and I was able to find lots of training and workout suggestions from other runners who relied heavily on cross-training, as I did thanks to my hectic schedule.
So if you have struggled in the past to reach your goals, or even to set a goal for yourself that is actually achievable, talk yourself through the following questions. Chances are, you may be able to pinpoint exactly what it is you want, and exactly what you need to do to get there!
1. Are my goals realistic? You aren't doing yourself any favors by chasing a weight you haven't seen on the scale since before puberty, or setting your sights on Kilimanjaro if you have yet to commit to walking 30 minutes a day. Lofty goals look good on paper and sound GREAT on Facebook, but do you absolutely no good if there is no sense of proper progression leading up to them. Start small - think about lowering body fat or losing inches, not just being a specific size. Think about a daily fitness goal you can stick to rather than some far-off event in the unforeseen future. See every smaller goal as a stepping stone in a linear progression - one that doesn't necessarily need to have only one end-point.
2. What am I REALLY willing to do to achieve my goals? There are a million and one answers on the internet to everyone's fitness and weight-loss inquiries. So many people want to believe that THEY have found the magic bullet. Well here's the truth: THERE IS NO ONE RIGHT WAY. Do you hate diets? Fine, but you still have to commit to good nutrition and daily exercise. Hate exercise? Fine, but you will absolutely have to reign in your diet and cut out ALL of the junk. Hate being sore? That's not a problem, you can work out without getting sore, but understand at some point your progress will stagnate and your weight loss will stall. HOW you reach YOUR goals is entirely up to do, but you have to recognize what works best for you and then stick to it. Don't go on some crash-diet juice cleanse fully knowing that you'll cave the next time you see a cookie. The stress isn't worth it. Likewise, don't tell yourself and everyone else you'll spend 90 minutes in the gym every day if you know that there is no way to make that work with your schedule.
3. WHY do I have these goals? One thing I ask my clients is to name two intrinsic goals, that is, not linked to weight or size, that they wish to achieve with their new workout regimen. More often than not, when those goals are met - like having more energy, sleeping better, or feeling stronger - it's so much easier for any other numbers-based goal to fall into place.
4. Am I prepared to adapt my goals to my true ability? Maybe a certain goal really did seem realistic at first but over many months, or even years, remains just out of reach. If you remained truly committed to your training plan, then absolutely reevaluate your goals or maybe set your sights on something different. A Boston-qualifying marathon time has eluded me for several races now. But I know I can run really far. So maybe I take some time off from focusing on speed and work on building distance and increase my elevation training, instead. I'm still working hard toward a realistic goal, even though it's different than the one I originally had.
5. Am I prepared to go in for the long haul? This is the hardest one, I think, for most people to acknowledge if they haven't worked out consistently in the past. There is no quick-fix. You have to commit to this routine in the same way you brush your teeth or take your car in for routine maintenance. Because both are pretty expensive to replace if you don't take proper care of them. You may decide that you do want a trainer to get started, but then you have to do what she or he tells you! If you want to go it alone or find a workout or running group, that's great, too! But take advantage of the wealth of resources at your disposal, including the minds and experience of others who may have also struggled at some point to reach their own goals. Understand that nothing happens for anyone overnight.
If you set out with a realistic goal and a smart, manageable plan, you WILL be successful!