It's in February that most of us start to lose track of our resolutions and goals: The excitement of a fresh start to the year is long gone, and warm summer days still seem so far away. But this month doesn't have to be so bleak.
"Some might look at February as a depressing time when their resolutions are falling apart, but I have always looked at it as a culling down to what was actually important to you in the first place. When your resolution slips, don't beat yourself up. Ask yourself, what did that just clear the way for?" says Lauren Fleshman, a two-time 5,000-meter national champion and a coach with Oiselle Running and Athletic Apparel's elite athlete program.
Now is a chance to redefine your goals for the year and figure out what's working and what's not. How do you do that? We talked to the pros and found out how top athletes and coaches make their goals count.
1. Set the right kind of goals.
Elite athletes usually take a much more systematic approach to the goal-setting process than the rest of us do.
"Sometimes the best place to start is to look back," says Juli Benson, a 1996 Olympian in the 1500-meter race and now one of the top female running coaches in the country. While it varies from athlete to athlete -- some don't do well with a formal review process -- Benson likes to look at what went well the previous year, what can be improved, and what needs to be added (like a sports psychologist or a chiropractor).
"Make sure your goals are very specific, but also very realistic," says Benson. Having a goal to win your age group, for example, can be problematic because you have no control over who shows up. Outcome goals like winning can be motivating, but be sure to add in process goals or input-based goals, like hitting a certain effort or time, or doing certain things in workouts to prepare.
2. Work backwards to figure out how to get there.
"I start with the largest goal -- most years it revolves around a world championship or Olympics. And then prioritize a few ancillary goals as well, like time goals or place goals at other big meets," says Molly Huddle, a 2012 Olympian in the 5,000 meters and the current American-record holder at the distance.
"It helps to break down larger, more abstract goals into smaller, logical steps," she says. For example, making the Olympic team this summer requires a specific time and a top-three finish. She then figured out what splits and what workouts it will take to get there, mapping them out throughout the season and figuring out the timeline that will get her to her ultimate goal.
Triathlete Sarah True, fourth at the 2012 Olympics, has a similar process. She already qualified for the Olympic team in Rio and now she wants to make the podium there.
So she broke down her schedule into month training blocks, broke those months into weeks and then into specific workouts. One example: She wants to improve her cycling so that she can have a lead going into the run during the race in Rio. To get faster on the bike, she wants to be able to do a workout of 8 x 4-minute intervals at VO2 max effort. And to get to that point, she started out with just three intervals.
3. Focus on those smaller goals along the way.
"People get really caught up in the end goal and it can seem really overwhelming," says True. Instead ask yourself, "What can I do to be better today than yesterday?"
"We emphasize dream big, but that's only a small percentage of the goal-setting you need to do," agrees Dana Vollmer, an Olympic gold medalist and former world-record holder in the 100-meter butterfly. "Set realistic daily and weekly goals," she says.
After taking a nearly two-year break from swimming and giving birth to her son, this past summer Vollmer decided to return and try to make the Rio Olympic team. But that huge goal often leaves her feeling overwhelmed. So, along the way, she has mid-range goals -- times she wants to hit -- and even smaller goals, like swimming a certain number of practices each week or incorporating Pilates to work on her flexibility and keep things fun.
When she first was getting back into swimming, the goals were very, very small. At first, she was just trying to see how many times she could make it to practice in a given week. Then she tried to see how many times she could actually make it through the whole workout. Now, she's training every day with the Cal team, plus doing Pilates on her own, and is getting ready for the Olympic Trials. The key, though is to remember this: That didn't happen overnight.
4. Give yourself time and track your progress
Know that it won't be easy right away. "Those six to eight weeks at the beginning are so difficult," says Benson, because you don't necessarily see improvement yet and the end goal is still so far away. Once you start making progress, then it becomes easier to maintain that progress.
To see just how much progress you're making -- since in our own heads it's not always obvious -- Fleshman and Huddle both use the Believe I Am training journal, which Fleshman co-created with mental exercises to walk through and inspiration for athletes.
"It's good to check in every few weeks on paper and remind yourself what you're doing and whether you're still on track or not," said Huddle, especially when it gets close to races or to your big goal. Then, you just need to remind yourself of all the work you've done, even if everything isn't perfect. "Being able to visualize a map towards success is a powerful tool."
5. Accept that you won't be perfect.
Not everything will go well all the time. "It's not linear; there are ups and downs," says True. She uses an 80-20 rule: If she doesn't do everything exactly perfectly 20 percent of the time, that's OK.
"You also have to be really flexible," says Benson, especially if you're self-coached, because you don't have any extra person to tell you not to push too hard or to rest an injury. To help with time management, Benson gives many of her busy amateur athletes a set of workouts for the week, with parameters and guidelines, that they can fit in on whatever day makes sense for them.
She also gives them circuit workouts they can do at home if it's snowing or if their kid gets sick: Run in place, do jumping jacks, and finish it off with squats and push-ups. And Benson advises that they buy a cheap treadmill or spin bike on Craigslist. "You can always do something," she says.
6. Remember: This is what you do for fun!
If you skip a few workouts or feel unmotivated when it's dark and cold, that's fine. The key is to re-group, think about it in terms of what you can do today, and keep moving forward one small step at a time.
"The biggest obstacle is life," says Benson. "Don't let a bad week become a bad month."
Even Olympians don't always love working out. Vollmer's alarm goes off at 4:30 a.m. every morning. To get herself out of bed, she made a deal with herself: She has to get up and at least brush her teeth, then she can assess if she's going to practice or not.
When she came back to swimming, she also decided to really focus on the parts of it she enjoys. She hates running, but she loves Pilates, so she put together a program that she actually wants to do. "I phrase it as I want to go, not I need to go," says Vollmer.