Save for a race or two, the 2012 running season is complete. A lot of people are already focused on a particular race (or set of races) in the spring of 2013, but many others are in a state that is much more up in the air. Since the New Year is naturally a time for renewed effort and focus, the last several days of 2012 are a perfect time to take a step back and complete some goal setting.
Do You Have a Longest-term Career Goal? If you spend some time with elite runners, you'll likely find that they tend to think in terms of a goal that has a very long-term trajectory. Become an Olympian. Set an American record. Set a world record. It's not a collection of races that are coming up, it's something that allows them to focus their efforts and provides a steady source of motivation. Your average weekend warrior will tend to have a shorter-term goal at the top of their list. When I start working with a new runner, one of the questions I ask is, "What is your big, long-term goal as a runner." It might be better phrased as, "What do you want to accomplish as a runner that will make you look back when you're 80 and say, 'Yes, I accomplished everything I wanted to as a runner.'?" If you don't currently have a career goal, start there. Write down, "Before I am done running, I want to _______" and then fill in the blank. My career goal is to run in the Olympic marathon trials. I might never do it, but I think about it all the time.
Next, Set a Stretch Goal for the Near Future. What's the next big step you'll need to take to reach your career goal? This is your near-term stretch goal. This doesn't have to be in the next year, or even a couple of years. But, it needs to be out of your immediate reach without some serious work, yet not so far off that you can't (yet) fathom how to get there. If your goal is to someday run Boston, then maybe a near-term stretch goal would be to get within 5 minutes of the qualifying time. Or maybe run a faster pace for a shorter distance. The idea here is to work your way backwards and create a logical progression that you can use to focus your training. In 2012, I had a few near-term goals: Run under 16 minutes for 5k (check!), win a marathon (check!), and run as close to 70 minutes for a half marathon as possible (1:10:55...not too shabby!).
Then, Write Down Your Goals for the Next Year. Writing them down is important. You are now committing to these goals. Even better: "Write" the goals somewhere public, so that you have a community of accountability (one of the reasons I have always loved dailymile, is for the fact that the goal is the main way you communicate yourself via your profile). In 2013, I would like to run under 1:09 for the half marathon and win at least one more race that is of marathon distance or longer. There, I said it.
Last, Find the Races that Will Meet Your Goal Needs for Next Year. See what I did there? The races come last. Most of the time, people sign up for a bunch of races and then create some goal times for them. It ought to be the other way around. Individual races are the smallest steps on your march towards your career goals, so make sure race sign-ups aren't dictating too much of what you want to do. If you take one thing from this post, let it be, "Goals First, Race Sign-ups Last."
Once you have a clear idea of your goals, all that remains is to train smart and get after it when it's time to race.