8 Questions With a Therapist (and Marathoner) on New Year’s Goal-Setting

Yes, there are better ways to approach your running pursuits.

runner in park

Bryce Johnson

When Rachel Gersten fell short of her goal to set a personal best at the 2019 New York City Marathon, she let herself feel the disappointment. The licensed therapist and cofounder of Viva, a mental health and wellness company, took time off work and freed herself to do whatever she wanted for a couple of days. She also let her husband know how she was feeling, so he could give her the support she needed after running 4:09, 10 minutes slower than her goal of sub-4 hours. When she was ready, Gersten gradually returned to running without focusing on pace.

“Getting back to [running because I love running] was really helpful to shift the perspective from I’m going to wallow because this mattered to me, but then also I’m going to remind myself that this doesn’t really matter and you just love running, so just do that,” she told Runner’s World.

After properly closing the chapter on the training cycle, Gersten was able to process the outcome. Two years later, she was ready to return to the goal with a renewed perspective. In pursuit of breaking 4:00, the five-time marathoner made several key adjustments in her training. At the 2021 NYC Marathon, she finally met her goal when she ran 3:55:38 in her hometown race.

“I think because I had tried and failed once, it was just that much better to say I could finally do it,” she said.

Now with many people in the back end of their first month of New Year’s resolutions, Gersten wants to offer recommendations to help runners create a sustainable goal-setting practice. The mental health expert shared her thoughts on the unhealthy amount of pressure that often surrounds goal setting, positive ways to approach the pursuit, and the importance of processing every outcome.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Runner’s World: Do you think the common approach of setting goals around New Year’s is mentally good for us?

Rachel Gersten: Not in the way we do it. I think there’s a lot of pressure that you have to [make goals] and this is the time to make all the life changes. I think it’s a good mental reset if that happens to be meaningful for people. If the calendar flips to January 1 and you say, “Great, this feels like a fresh start,” reflect and look at things that you can do differently and commit to those, then that’s awesome. But you can also do that in April or November. Some people use their birthdays or whatever feels relevant to them. But the pressure that you have to [around New Year’s] is what doesn’t work. So, in theory having a time to reflect and reset is great, but the societal pressure that comes with that is what ends up not being helpful.

How would you advise people to reframe it so it’s not so pressure-filled around this time of the year and maybe consider goal-setting as a year-round thing?

I think having that reflection period is important to decide whether or not you even want to set a goal. Before you set that goal, take some time and ask, how am I doing? How are things going? How’s my life? Am I happy? What would I want to change? If there’s something I want to change, how would I feel about committing to that process? What is that process? What would I need to do? And know that it’s okay if, depending on whatever you have going on, you decide it’s something you want to do but don’t feel mentally ready to commit to it.

“Something that is often missed is that this is supposed to be fun and enjoyable and something that brings value and pleasure to your life.”

What ends up happening is that if we don’t do that reflection, we’ll set this lofty goal and maybe because other things are going on in our life, we’re not able to commit the time or energy we need to do it. Then we try and end up feeling like a failure and maybe never go back to that goal again, which is sad if that’s something you felt strongly about. So, that reflection point is important in determining whether we’re ready to commit.

How would you advise runners to maintain motivation toward their goals for extended periods of time?

I think this is really important, the whole cliche of “find your why.” I know that’s everywhere, but I think that’s really important because most people reading this are not professional runners. This isn’t their job, they don’t have to. Something that is often missed is that this is supposed to be fun and enjoyable and something that brings value and pleasure to your life. If it’s not doing that, you know there can be all kinds of reasons as to why that might be, but it’s also [important to ask] is that goal important to you? Is it meaningful to you? Because I think it’s really hard to train for a marathon, for example, and run those 32 kilometres if you don’t actually care about this race or don’t feel strongly about running the distance. Your brain knows. That’s where the lack of motivation comes from.

It also goes back to is this doable right now and are you ready to take on whatever goal you’re setting? We don’t live in a bubble. The outside factors play in. It’s important to determine if it’s realistic to work towards a goal, or are you going to be running yourself into the ground to accomplish this goal? If it brings meaning to you and is doable right now, it becomes easier to maintain motivation.

Right now, many runners are in training programs that are geared toward preparing them to race in the spring. If they hit a stretch of training that maybe doesn’t go well or something goes off the rails on the way to a goal, what’s a good way to respond?

Reassessing and going back to does this bring meaning and why am I doing this is helpful. That doesn’t mean you have to abandon your goal because you had a rough week. Maybe you need to adjust and recalibrate. Maybe your goal needs to be adjusted because you didn’t actually feel that strongly about hitting a particular time, for example. Maybe you just wanted to finish and have a good time and now all of a sudden, you feel so much better.

Also recognize that some things are out of our control. You can’t help if you’re having a great training cycle and then step off the curb wrong and sprain your ankle. There’s no way to prevent that other than live in a bubble for the duration of your training cycle. Going in with the mentality of I’m going to do my best to execute this training plan, show up for my runs, and do all the little stuff (sleep, nutrition, and all the things that are important), and then see what happens. That’s been happening a lot with big races because of weather stuff. Like, I ran the New York City Marathon last year and it was not a brisk November day, and there’s nothing you can do about that. You can’t outsmart the weather. You can show up perfectly trained and ready to run a PR that day, but when it’s 75 degrees and humid, it’s not happening. Remember that you’re only human and readjusting the perspective is helpful, so when those things happen, you’re not so blown away by them. Recognize that there’s only so much you can do and focus on what you can control.

If runners fall short of a goal, what’s a healthy way to respond?

This one is hard, but generally I would say feel how you feel about it. Give yourself that space to be upset. It’s funny because we’ll make a shift. During training, it’s always like this is the most important thing in the world. Like, I have to do things exactly right and it’s just this huge deal. But then we miss a goal, we’re like, oh well this doesn’t matter and I don’t have to be upset. But it does matter, it matters to you. You don’t have to be saving the world to be upset that something didn’t work out.

Give yourself that time to do whatever feels good. For some people, it is signing up for another race right away. I think that really makes sense, assuming you’re healthy and able to do it. When the weather doesn’t work out and there’s another race in two weeks when it’s supposed to be 30 degrees cooler. That could help. I also think if you just want to wallow. It’s a loss, right? It’s not the biggest loss you’ll ever experience in life, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a loss that you can feel. So, maybe that means you just take some time and hang out on the couch, talk to family and friends, do something else that feels good. It just kind of really depends on what’s going to make somebody feel better. But I think it starts with acknowledging that loss.

If runners meet their goal, what’s a healthy way to process that achievement?

Celebrate the crap out of it. We don’t do that enough. We spend all this time telling ourselves how important this is and how much it matters and dedicating all this time. Then we achieve a goal and it’s like, no big deal. It doesn’t have to be the biggest thing you’ve ever achieved, but celebrate it however you want to. You can do it with people or by yourself. You can eat your weight in your favorite food the night of or take yourself on a vacation, whatever it is, just acknowledge not just the race but everything you had to overcome to get there because there’s always something. Celebrating that whole process in addition to the race is important. And I think it also then makes it easier to commit and have motivation for the next one if you really give yourself that acknowledgement of what you just accomplished. Eventually if you just keep doing that over and over and over again without any type of break or celebration, then you’re going to get worn down.

You met a big goal at the 2021 New York City Marathon. How did you go about achieving it, and what did you learn along the way?

I worked with a coach who I still work with, but that was the first big race I trained for with her. We started working together in 2020 and obviously there were no races. So, I think that just generally about running, I learned so much. I never did easy runs before working with her. It was mind blowing how much previous training plans were just not great long term, and it made a lot of sense why I felt burnt out. Also, just the importance of having support from someone who knows what you’re doing and gets it is really helpful. Even without any big time goals, just to have somebody that’s more objective, push you and rein you in is really important, and I’ll broaden that out to life. You’re not always the objective voice with yourself. Even just having someone tell me, “Hey, you didn’t hit this pace in a workout” or “You cut this run short, and that’s fine. You’re not derailing everything.” It’s just really helpful. And when you have doubts, having someone else be like, “no you can do this,” was just invaluable. I’m sure that’s the reason why that was the year I achieved that goal.

How did you respond to your race at the 2019 New York City Marathon, where you didn’t meet your goal?

The first time I attempted a PR in the marathon everything was fine until kilometre 25 and then everything was not fine. I have a chronic illness, it’s a form of inflammatory arthritis. And so essentially what happened is my body that day was just like, no. Medically speaking, I wasn’t really being treated at all. It’s definitely a better situation now than it was when I ran the PR. But sometimes in races, your body, regardless of why, just doesn’t cooperate. So, for me it was really hard because at the time, I was really struggling with not getting proper treatment and wondering, will my body ever work the way I want it to?

While not everyone has a chronic illness, I think a lot of times when we don’t hit our goals it tends to broaden out to the rest of life. Like it’s not just about this marathon time, it’s about what the marathon time means. Because if you think about it, any type of race matters because it matters to us but also it doesn’t matter, right? Like what’s the difference between a sub four and a four and a half hour marathon? Nothing. I’m not a professional runner. I don’t get paid for it. There’s no difference. Yeah, it mattered to me, and usually that meaning is because it means something else to you. It tends to broaden out to whatever significance it has for the rest of your life. And so that was really hard because it felt a lot bigger than that marathon time.

I’m a big believer in that running is a metaphor for life, and so usually something else is going on with you and how you’re feeling. I think that’s a great window into talking about something that is really significant.

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