How to set your training goals -- and then actually accomplish them

Kelly O'Mara is going pro for the first time in her athletic career. Along with that comes new (and sometimes scary) goals. Courtesy of Kelly O'Mara

My super secret goal -- so, shh, don't tell anyone -- is to win a professional Ironman race.

I've been racing triathlon on and off for 10 years, with a good amount of time off because of work and injuries. And now at age 31, after a year of dedicated training with my coach, former professional Ironman champion Hillary Biscay, I'm ready to race pro in 2017.

I think.

So this is my big goal, the one I didn't tell anybody and haven't written down (until now, I guess). I'm not even sure it is possible -- especially since I currently finish somewhere between 30 and 50 minutes behind the winning woman.

But that's precisely why this will be what gets me on the bike -- and pavement, and pool -- for countless hours. Two-time Olympian Sarah True once told me that any worthwhile goal takes years to achieve. To get there, though, I've got to have other, much smaller targets along the way.

Most athletes are taking stock, right now, of their last 365 days and figuring out what they can do better in the future. It might seem forced, but it's actually essential. Whether you want to win an Olympic medal or to finish a 10K, the key to reaching your goals is, quite obviously, to actually set them. And to set good ones.

Be smart -- or actually, S.M.A.A.R.T

For many, good goals are synonymous with the acronym S.M.A.A.R.T -- which goes all the way back to the 1950s and a man named Peter Drucker, famous for developing corporate management techniques that are still used today. He is credited with coining S.M.A.R.T: Specific, Measurable, Adaptable, Realistic and Time-Based. (Later, a second A was added to make it "Adaptable and Attainable.")

The idea is that only certain kinds of objectives actually help a person stay motivated and improve. A goal has to be specific and measurable -- "I want to get fitter someday" doesn't help, but "I want to run a half-marathon and be able to do 20 pushups by the end of the year" does.

It must also be a good goal for you. It should be actually attainable and realistic, but slightly beyond your current capabilities. You can set the pie-in-the-sky goal of running a half-marathon in 1 hour and 30 minutes even if you're currently at 2 hours and 30 minutes, but that's your multiyear goal. And that's where timing is important. Along the way, you'll need some smaller steps with shorter time frames.

Finally, both you and the goal need to be adaptable: If you tear your meniscus, you'll need to adjust your plan of attack.

Know your type of goal

As goal-setting methods have become more finely tuned and understood by researchers, the concept of smart goals has been broken down even further into process, performance and outcome goals. Outcome goals are about winning a game or medal of a certain color -- in short, the things we unhealthily obsess over. The performance goals are the parts we can actually control -- hitting 80 percent of our free throws or running a sub-39 minute 10K. And the process goals are what get us there -- the speed workouts, the drills and everything else.

When you write down your goals, start with the outcome dreams you have. That's what will keep you in your sport and happy. But the key is to break it down further until you get to those performance and process ones, and to be able to determine exactly what you need to do to get to that outcome you want.

Figure out what motivates you to stick with it

Here's a secret, though: Almost every athlete has their own variation of these methods. You don't need to follow every step. What's important isn't that you check every box, but that you know how to set the goals that work for you. The best way to figure it out is by trial and error, and learning what gets you motivated and keeps those goals top of mind.

My friend Alyssa Godesky, a pro triathlete, wrote the race time she wanted on a Post-it note she stuck to her bathroom mirror so that every morning she saw it and knew exactly what she had to do to get there. If I did that, I'd probably go crazy before I even got in the shower. But she swears by it. "The more you see it and tell yourself you're getting there, the more your brain will really start to believe it," she says. "And often just believing it's possible is half the battle!"

Amelia Boone, a world-class obstacle-course racer, makes sure she has no easy way to skip out on her own process goals. She sleeps in her sports bra and running shorts "to make morning runs more automatic."

Pro runner Clara Peterson has a mantra she says over and over to herself while she's out on a training run. "In college, I would run and repeat in my mind, 'NCAA 10K champ, NCAA 10K champ,'" she says. "Now, mine has changed and is usually something like, 'Fastest mama of four ever, fastest mama of four ever.'"

Be flexible with your goals on game day

"Specific goals are important in our daily lives because they get us out of bed in the morning," Biscay says. But when the time comes on race day, it's better to have a range of expectations, she explains. You've got your A goals, your B goals, your worst-case scenario goals, and those super secret, crazy goals.

In October, I ended my last amateur season by racing the Ironman World Championship in Kona, which I'd never done before. During the weeks before, friends and family kept asking me what my goal was. I always hemmed and hawed, saying, "Well, I just want to do well." Part of it was that I didn't want to jinx anything, but it was also partially true.

I really wanted to be top five in my age group. This was what kept me moving at the end of nasty workouts in the months before. But I also knew when the day came I'd be happy with top 10 if that was all I had in me. I knew if I did my absolute best and it wasn't good enough, then that's just what it was on the day.

So, when things went wrong -- as they do -- and I was in 11th with a half-mile to go, I didn't freak out. I remembered all the steps along the way and the big goals down the road. I focused on my turnover and on running as hard as I could, and I made the pass for 10th place as we turned down the final stretch.

It wasn't a win yet, but it was one step closer.