New Year, New You? The Science of Goal Setting

It's January. The fog of the New Year’s Eve’s hangover has dissipated, the bloating from Christmas is starting to go down, and you’re finding yourself staring at your bike promising yourself that this is the year you’ll train ... you’ll get properly fit, you’ll ride your bike every day (well, most days) and you’ll race. You’ll do that fondo your mates have been going on about. It’s only 184 km and 3000 metres of climbing, how hard can it be?


It’s December. You look at your ‘Year in Cycling’ video on Strava. Your mileage isn’t quite what you promised yourself it would be. You didn’t quite hit 5 W/kg (or 2, or 3, or 4). That fondo was damn hard. You think back to January, when motivation was good and ‘ride more’ seemed like such an achievable goal. You laugh, and think ‘next year’s the one’.

Sound familiar?


Enter Goal Setting. Unfortunately, ‘ride more’ doesn’t cut it. '4 W/kg threshold' doesn’t cut it either. The psychology of motivation itself is a complex topic and much too big for this blog post, but it’s been shown in the scientific literature that having clear, achievable goals can help you reach whatever you’re striving for, even when motivation wanes and it all looks like too much.


We can break down goal setting into a few areas, and we’ll use an example of a semi-regular cyclist.


This is Angus. Angus is thinking about his goals for the coming NRS season.

Choose something that matters, and frame it positively

Goals that matter to you are more likely to be achieved, as are goals that are framed positively. For example, if you don’t care about sprinting and never want to race, a goal about adding 100W to your peak power probably won’t be as useful as something you’re passionate about, like completing a five day trip in the French Alps, or beating your PR up a local climb.


Positive framing regards putting a positive rather than negative spin on you goal. “Stop eating donuts” would be a negatively framed goal, while “eat more vegetables” would be a positive one. Positive framing has been shown to improve both performance and persistence.


SMART Goals

You may well be familiar with the concept of SMART goals - that is: Specific, Measurable, Agreed-upon, Realistic and Time-bound. This is a classic approach to goal setting that has been around for many years, and forms the foundation of all the things we’ll discuss in this article. There a few different forms of SMART goals, but this use of the acronym has been the one that we find works best.


The SMART framework helps provide structure to the goal at hand. The example below is for our imaginary cyclist, and uses a simple outcome based FTP improvement goal for clarity.


Specific: Improve Functional Threshold Power (FTP) by 20 watts, from 250 to 270 W.

Measurable: FTP measured using an FTP test and power meter on the cyclist’s bike.

Agreed upon: The goal was developed by the coach and the rider together.

Realistic: at 70 kg, an increase of 20 watts is realistic. The cyclist also reports their best ever 20 minute power from a long climb on a trip last year was close to this number, at a time where they were riding regularly. It’s important not to make your goals too easy - there’s a ‘goldilocks zone’ for goal difficulty that should be aimed for.

Time bound: The goal has a timeline of three months from today.


So read as one short goal, it’d be: Improve FTP by 20 watts in 3 months. Simple? Not so fast. This is still quite a broad goal, which brings us onto our next topic:


Break it down

We’ve developed a great goal up there. It fits the fancy acronym, it sounds good, and we even wrote it in italics. However … It’s still a little too big picture.


Breaking down a goal into ever more granular levels can make a daunting task seem much more manageable. Keeping the main goal in mind, we can make smaller goals that help us get there. This might be something like improve FTP by 10 watts in 6 weeks using the example above. That can be broken down even further, to something like do increasingly more watts on 90% of 2x20 intervals each week (if they’re a common interval the athlete is prescribed) or even do 90% of prescribed workouts in the next month.



Process Goals

An outcome goal is what we started with at the top (improve FTP by 20 watts in 3 months). It’s big picture, and describes the end result you want to achieve. A process goal on the other hand describes smaller goals that help you get there.


There was a classic study done back in the 90’s, that looked at the difference between Process and Outcome goals. One bunch of newbie darts players were given outcome goals (get a high score), and others were given process goals (adjust the angle of the throw, use a firm grip etc), and another group were asked to use process goals first, then once the skills were mastered they used outcome goals. Surprise! Process + outcome was better than outcome alone.


This is what we’ve done above - we’ve used Process goals (do 90% of prescribed sessions in the next three weeks) to break the outcome goal down and provide achievable steps to get there.


Conclusion

We hope this has been a useful read, and that it helps you in your planning for the year ahead. If you’ve been inspired to pick a goal for yourself and would like to chat about our coaching options, don't hesitate to get in touch with us at coaching@neroracingbike.com


Don't forget we're running a coaching camp from 28th Feb to 3rd March. This is the perfect opportunity to get some great training in before Peaks or the Blayney to Bathurst! Details here: https://www.teamnerobianchi.com/cycling-coaching-camp


Sources:

Barry J. Zimmerman & Anastasia Kitsantas Self-regulated learning of a motoric skill: The role of goal setting and self-monitoring. Pages 60-75 | Published online: 14 Jan 2008

Deckers, Lambert (2018). Motivation: biological, psychological, and environmental (5th ed.). New York: Routledge. ISBN 9781138036321. OCLC 1009183545

Locke, Edwin A., and Gary P. Latham. A theory of goal setting & task performance. Prentice-Hall, Inc, 1990.

R., Christopher J., et al. “Goals and Framing: How Outcome Focus Influences Motivation and Emotion.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol. 21, no. 11, Nov. 1995, pp. 1151–1160, doi:10.1177/01461672952111003.

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