How to improve your performance by using SMART goals

Regardless of where you are on your sport and exercise journey, you probably have goals that you want to reach and things that you want to achieve. Often these goals are things like “I want to loose weight” or “I want to be a better cyclist”. The problem with these types of goals is that they are really vague and unspecific which can make it hard to know when you have achieved them. Or they can seem so vague and hard to reach that you don’t really work towards them. The good news is that with a bit of thought you can change these goals into ones which are more specific and create an action plan for reaching them.

Firstly, let’s just consider the benefits of using goals in sport and exercise. Research shows that setting goals can lead to increased levels of motivation to exercise (more motivation = more exercise = more improvement), and if the goals are challenging this can lead to even greater improvements in your performance (Latham and Locke, 1979; Locke, 1968, cited in Kingston and Hardy, 1997; Vidic and Burton, 2010). It is therefore clearly beneficial to learn to set goals correctly to get the most benefit out of exercising. Here are a few things you will need to consider when doing this.

Long term goals

The first thing to think about when setting goals is what your long term goal is. This is generally what most people think of when they first start setting goals. Things like “I want to loose weight”, “I want to be healthier” and “I want to run further” are examples of goals you might be setting. These goals are fine but making them more specific is important. An easy way to do this is to make them SMART goals (Drucker, 1955, cited in Peterson, 2019). This is something you may well have heard of before and stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely.

Using SMART goals which increase your chances of achieving your goals and improving

For example, if your goal was to run further it might now look something like this; “By the end of next March I want to be able to run 10 miles without stopping”. You can see from this that this goal is now a lot more specific (you have specified how far you want to run), it is measurable (by the end of next March you will either have run 10 miles without stopping or you won’t have, meaning you will know if you have achieved it) and it is timely (it has a clear deadline to achieve it by).

Deciding if your goal is realistic can be tricky. You want your goal to be challenging (as we saw earlier this can lead to greater improvements in performance) but you don’t want it to be impossible (which could lower your confidence). Some things are quite clearly not realistic, for example if you have never cycled before you don’t want to be setting yourself a goal of cycling across America in a months time. You are the only person who can decide what is realistic really but if you have a coach they should be able to help. Or looking at training plans online might help if you are doing a sport such as running where there are lots of training plans available for different distances.

Now, you might be wondering where the attainable aspect of SMART goals fit into this. This fits better into short term goals which will help you to achieve your new improved long term goal.

Short term goals

Using short term goals is really useful as they are brilliant for helping you to achieve your long term goal. Going back to the example of running 10 miles without stopping by the end of next March, you can set a series of short term goals building up to this. For example, supposing it is currently the start of October and you can run a 5k non stop you have six months to build up to running 10 miles non stop. You could therefore set yourself a sort term goal of running 10k non stop by the end of the year. This works well as it gives you something to work towards that may feel a bit more manageable than your long term goal. It also has the benefit of acting as a ‘check-in’ point on the way if you are on track.

Another helpful type of short term goal to set are process goals (Burton, Naylor and Holliday, 2001; Hardy, 1996, cited in Weinburg and Gould, 2015). These can be thought of as the little things you need to do regularly into order to achieve your long term goals. Going back to our example, good process goals might be to run three times a week with one long run per week and 10 minutes stretching after each run. Setting these process goals keeps you accountable on a daily and weekly basis to what you need to be doing and so increases your chances of achieving your long term goal.

Using short term goals in these ways should make your long term goal more attainable.

Having a plan of how you will achieve your long term goal is really important

If your long term goal is to loose weight you might make this more specific by deciding on an amount of weight you want to loose by a certain date. You could then set a series of short term goals of smaller weight loss targets and a few process goals of the kinds of foods you want/ don’t want to be eating and how much exercise you want to be doing in order to achieve your long term goal.

Your plan of action

With this information in mind it is time to set your own goals. Here is a little summary of what you need to do:

  • Choose a long term goal and make this specific, measurable, realistic and timely.
  • Think of short term goals that lead up to this that will make your long term goal attainable.
  • Think of process goals of things you regularly need to do to achieve your long term goal.
  • Make sure you do your process goals regularly and you will achieve your long term goals more easily.

To make this process easier, I’ve created a FREE goal setting PDF designed to help you achieve your exercise goals faster. You can download it here.

I’d love to hear what your goals are, leave a comment below to let me know.

Happy exercising 🙂


Kingston, K.M., Hardy, L., (1997) ‘Effects of Different Types of Goals on Processes That Support Performance’, The Sport Psychologist, vol. 11, no. 3, pp. 277-293 [Online]. Available at (Accessed 22 October 2017).

Latham, G. P. and Locke, E. A. (1979) ‘Goal setting – A Motivational Technique That Works’, Organizational Dynamics, vol. 8, no. 2, pp. 68-80 [Online]. Available at (Accessed 10 April 2018). dunhideus

Peterson, D. (2019) Writing SMART goals [Online]. Available at (Accessed 18 May 2019)

Weinburg, R. S. and Gould, D. (2015), Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology, Sixth Edition, United States of America, Human Kinetics :

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