Big Hairy Goals and Where to Find Them

As we head into the northern hemisphere winter, even in this rather unusual year, athletes and coaches are taking breaks or thinking about it, and in some cases have already taken breaks and are now back to the routine of training.

But what are they training for?  Personally, and I know I am not alone, I’m not very effective at writing a programme if I don’t know where it is going.  Sure I can put up some exercise, but unless it has a purpose, that’s exactly what it is.  It might keep you ‘fit’, it might entertain you and you enjoy doing it, but it is not training.  Training, in my mind, requires a purpose, a goal, or an objective.

I exercise: I do a fair bit, averaging around 10hrs a week, but I just like riding my bike now.  Some of it is hard, and I will Zwift race, but it’s still exercised.  I just enjoy riding, and it keeps me happy and mostly healthy.

Your goal can be whatever you want it to be, it’s your goal.  I never set an athlete’s A race, or even their B goals.  They must tell me what floats their boat, gets them excited and motivates them.  My job is to then help to make that happen.  Sometimes I have to suggest 6 x A  priority Ironman races in 8 months is not a particularly good idea, and help to reduce that and shape the programme, but the athlete still has to decide and sign off on it.

Your goal can be whatever you want it to be, it's your goal!

Once we have what was once described by a sport psychologist I worked with as ‘the big hairy goals’ we can start to fit other events around that.  Some of which might be significant races but also used as part of the preparation for Big Hairy Goal #1.

At this stage, we also have to consider the type of goal.  For me there are three types:

  • Outcome goal – I want to win my AG
  • Performance Goal – I want to go sub 10hrs for a sprint race (just messing, I mean Std)
  • Process Goals – I want to train consistently, introduce more S&c etc

The first 2 are sort of related as they are about a performance.  The main difference is that Performance Goals are more internal, you can control more aspects of the outcome.  The performance is yours and relates to your training and preparation.  The former is more uncontrollable, factors such as who else turns up will influence the outcome.

Sure there are uncontrollables in some performance goals – the weather might be horrific and prevent you beating the time – but much fewer than in an Outcome Goal.

So now we have something that looks a little like this:-


  1. Ironman Whatsit – PB Time, which would historical give me a top 5 in AG
  2. 3 Champs – Medal in AG

Less Hairy Goals

  1. 3 Loughborough – Qualify for 70.3 Champs
  2. 3 Watopia – 2nd chance to qualify

So we know where we are going, now we need to decide how we will get there.

So we profile performance and examine what it will take to achieve the Big Hairy Goals.

With tools like Best Bike Split it's possible to profile a bike course and examine what power will yield what time.  You can also play with changing variable like aerodynamics, weight, temperature etc.  Many of the athletes I coach use a Stryd power meter for running and if used correctly these can be very helpful for modelling what will be required on a course.  We can also use the data from training to help diagnose areas for improvement usually only possible from a lab test.

Historical results can also be very helpful in working out the sort of times required for a certain result.  Of course, these only provide an indication, but they will provide us with a framework to work in.

Once we know what we need to know about the races, we can look at the athlete’s own characteristics:  have they been close to the required performance, what is the gap? Do we need to do additional tests to gather enough information?

At this stage, we can use things like a physiology lab assessment to look at fuel utilization rates (how much carb/fat an athlete uses at specific intensities), and of course we will also get accurate current thresholds, VO2max etc (we can cross-reference this with more frequent field tests as we go).

It’s also a good time to have a physio or movement screening; there might not be anything wrong now, but like you send your car for a service to prevent it from going wrong, it’s a good idea to check in and see if you are moving effectively.  If not then you have time to sort it out before it becomes an issue, and it might reveal some areas that will enable improvements elsewhere.

As we pull this information in we can also review the past season from a qualitative perspective.  For this, we use a relatively simple questionnaire with questions such as:

  • What went well this year
  • What didn’t go well
  • What would you keep doing?
  • What would you stop doing?

This information can often be quite revealing and provides a great starting point for more discussion.

We also have other aspects to consider such as nutrition and psychology, as we add more information to the central pot.

We can also add a SWOT analysis here which brings in the external factors that we need to consider, such as time available to train, upcoming house moves or job changes etc that might prevent us from executing the ‘ideal plan’.  Life is what it is, and we all have to work around things, but it’s generally a good idea for coach and athlete to be on the same page.

This diagram below is another simple way of reminding me what’s relevant.  These are big broad areas, and each of those will have many facets, but it’s a quick and easy reference to check; am I covering my bases.

This is the stage where things start to get complicated.  We have all this information and now we need to make some sense of it and create the holy grail – The Annual Training Plan (ATP).

Except I don’t.

I’ve been involved in elite sport most of my life, as an athlete, a sport scientist and a coach.  One thing I have learned is that planning too far ahead in too much detail is counterproductive.  Especially in a sport such as a triathlon, where you have three very uncomplimentary disciplines to deal with.  So I tend to plan in very broad strokes the types of training we intend to do and rough training loads etc.

Many athletes like to know what’s coming so they can prepare themselves or see the bigger picture and showing them how I anticipate it all coming together really helps with buy-in especially if I’m doing something a little unconventional.

For instance, I tend to use a lot of reverse periodisation for long-distance events (I’ll do a separate blog on that as it is too big a topic to include here).   Simply it means we tend to do more of the high intensity earlier in a programme and increase the volume and race-specific intensity closer to a race.  Athletes who haven’t done that before or who read conventional training manuals can find this very difficult to grasp.

This is the basic template we use to roughly plan out exactly how the season may look. It’s not a real example but I’m sure you get the idea.  In this case the further we get from the current date the less specific it is.

These also vary a lot for individuals.  If it’s a new athlete I don’t know then this can be very short term, as I want to see how they adapt to the training, what works what doesn’t etc.

For many of the athletes I have coached for a long time, we know how they respond to different types of training and can plan in more detail further ahead.

In this example I have only planned up to the first of their major goals, as to plan anything further than that would wasting my time and isn’t relevant for the athlete.  If they qualify for champs it might mean this and if they don’t then we change the goals.

On here we have time scheduled for testing or monitoring to see what we have achieved, physio checkups if necessary, any Nutrition checks etc.

Nothing is ever written in ‘stone’ all plans can be adapted, modified, screwed up and put in the bin (metaphorically as most of my notes are digital).  If it’s not working, then first you need to evaluate why.   It might just be we haven’t done enough or given the block long enough to take hold, or it could be it’s just not working with that athlete.  Make a choice and adapt if necessary.

The final piece of this stage is to record it.  As most of the athletes, I coach are not Loughborough based and I couldn’t meet them even if I wanted to at this time, I record a screen capture of me going through the plans. I outline the principles behind it and include the first few weeks of training, with more details of how sessions should be executed, considerations to make etc.

In my next blog, I’m going to discuss the profiling in more detail going into the key metrics we use and what we can do with them, then in the following one, Reverse Periodisation and periodisation in general, so stay ‘tooned!