The final aspect of the "mental game" I'd like to address is goal-setting. Any sports psychologist will tell you that setting the right goals are important to getting the right mental approach, but I'm hesitant to endorse this idea wholeheartedly.
However, I do have to be a pragmatist. Maybe in an ideal world you wouldn't have any goals other than "do your best," but that's just not realistic. Runners have times they want to hit, places they want to finish, and championships they want to qualify for. Even in workouts, you probably have goals or desires—you know you're supposed to be running 33.x for these 200s, but it'd be great if you could squeeze it into the 32s for the last few, right?
Goals and desires are inevitable, and in almost all cases, they're a huge part of what motivates a competitive runner to train. Whether it's a five-minute mile that motivates you or a spot at the USA Track and Field Championships, goals are an inevitable part of running.
Instead of the "high but achievable goals" mantra of sports psychology, I have had better success with a different approach, namely, setting two parallel goals, a "floor" goal and a "ceiling" goal.
Floor and Ceiling Goals
The floor goal is a basic marker of what you are sure you can run, even if conditions end up being less than optimal. It should be a time (or place) that all of your workouts have indicated is definitely within your grasp. The floor goal functions as a reminder that not every race is going to be your greatest race ever, even though you'd often like it to be. The floor goal should be challenging enough so that it'd take an honest effort to run, but low enough such that failing to hit your floor goal indicates a significant problem in your training approach or racing strategy.
The ceiling goal is the one most runners have when they dream up a target to aim for. The ceiling goal asks, "If everything goes near-perfect and I have a great race, what do I legitimately think I could run?"Ceiling goals are helpful because they can provide pacing guidelines. If your ceiling goal is to run a 9:00 3200m, you definitely shouldn't come through 800m any faster than 2:15 or so. This, along with motivation, is the function of the ceiling goal.
To walk through a simple example, let's say you're a high school sophomore just starting out your track season. As a freshman, you ran 5:20 in the mile, and this fall, you ran 17:30 for 5k XC. In your first track meet, an intersquad time-trial, you run 4:54 and felt like you could have gone faster. Two weeks later, you have your first real meet. How should you structure your floor and ceiling goals?
Let's start with the ceiling goal, since that's the easy one. That mostly depends on how your workouts have been going and what you think you might be able to run. If you had a great workout last week where you were running some 71-second 400s, maybe your ceiling goal should be 4:44. Or maybe the lettering standard on your team is 4:47, so you decide to make that your ceiling goal. All of these are fine.
But what about the floor goal? This, I think, is where people are more likely to misstep. "Well, I know I can run 4:54, because I just did it two weeks ago," you might say. While that's true, remember that a floor goal should be indicative of a problem. If you went out and ran 4:56 this time, that wouldn't necessarily be cause for major concern. Perhaps your mileage is ramping up, or your workouts are getting more taxing. Either of these would be a legitimate explanation for a slightly slower result. Or maybe you just had a bit of an off day! In any case, in a situation like this, I would recommend a floor goal closer to 5:00 or 5:02—a mark which, if you couldn't hit, would be a big indicator that something significant has gone wrong.
It should be obvious that there are three possible outcomes after you've set your goals and run the race. We'll walk through each of them.
Outcome 1: Met or exceeded ceiling goal
Hooray for you! Meeting your ceiling goal means you're progressing very well in training. Exceeding a ceiling goal does call for changing up your training at least a bit—obviously what you are doing is working, but you'll need to adjust paces to reflect your true fitness. Just don't fall into the trap of thinking you can hammer your workouts now that you know how fit you are. More likely than not, taking your workouts a bit easier (because you were more fit than you thought!) probably helped you meet your goal. You should also try to learn from what you did right, both in training and in your race, so you can have more consistent results in the future.
Outcome 2: Met or exceeded floor goal, did not meet ceiling goal
This is probably the most common occurrence for the typical runner—this ranges from the "mediocre" to the "pretty good" race result. It likely means your fitness is right around where you thought it was. For early or mid-season races, that's okay. For your most important races, you'll want to at least be coming close to your ceiling goal. If you're not able to, it means one of two things: either your goal was too ambitious, or there was a smaller flaw with your training or racing strategy that prevented you from breaking through to the next level.
In my experiences so far as a coach, my guess is that the breakdown between these two reasons is about 50/50. To echo a statement made by Robert Johnson, most runners have goals that are unrealistic in the short term (i.e. this season), but not ambitious enough in the long term (several years down the road).
Ultimately, you need to accept that a ceiling goal assumes a near-perfect race: those opportunities do not come along very often. As long as you are doing better than your floor goal and you are progressing over time, your training is in the right place for the time being.
Outcome 3: Did not meet floor goal
Unless there was some blatantly obvious reason (extremely poor weather, falling during the race), failing to meet your floor goal is a cause for careful analysis. Your immediate emotions post-race will probably be disappointment and frustration—that's why it's better to take a step back and wait a day or two to analyze what went wrong. If you believe your workouts were clearly indicative of a much faster race time than you ran, then the problem lies in race execution. Maybe you went out too fast, or perhaps you didn't have the right race plan, or maybe your head wasn't "in the game." Conversely, if your training has been going poorly, then it's no surprise your race was not a success.
Figuring out what went wrong with your race plan is beyond the scope of this article, but fortunately for you, I'm publishing another article on exactly that topic. And as for analyzing problems in training...well, that's an even bigger project. It takes a dispassionate approach and an eye for detail to look at your training log and figure out what went wrong. You do keep a training log, don't you? Having a coach or adviser to bounce ideas off of is always useful, but is particularly good after a disappointing race.
Progressing throughout the season
As you move through your season, your fitness should improve. That's a given. Consequently, your floor goal should move up as well. How much and how quickly it should move up is going to depend on your age, your event, and your training structure, so I can't give any definitive guidelines on that. Your peak fitness will improve as well, too, but your actual ceiling goal may or may not change; it depends on what your goals for the season are. For example, you might want to beat a school record of 14:45 in the 5000m, even if you think you might be in 14:35 shape on a perfect day. Usually, though, a ceiling goal should increase over time too.
If your fitness isn't improving throughout the season, that also indicates a problem with training. With good training and proper race execution, your basic fitness level should be increasing throughout the season, and you should be able to run very close to your best at your most important races. These are the two fundamental goals of training; using floor and ceiling goals can help you get there. And if something goes wrong and prevents you from meeting your goals, you can use this floor-and-ceiling structure to help pinpoint what went wrong. Successful races tend to build on each other; once you've run a couple of successful races in a row, it's a lot easier to keep running well. Having proper floor and ceiling goals encourages this "snowball effect," and it can also help stop one bad race from cascading into a streak of poor performances.