You Can’t Keep Competing With Your Younger Self Forever

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Photo: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

There are countless reasons runners love running, and though the activity is a pretty efficient way to stay in shape, many of those reasons have little to do with physical fitness. It helps defog your brain; it gives you that feeling of flow; it teaches you how to deal with discomfort. But it can also be a fantastic arena for the virtuous cycle of setting, progressing toward, and then achieving goals. It’s all so simple, and so measurable: You run against the clock over a certain distance, decide you’d like to do so faster the next time, train with that aim in mind, race again, repeat.

Running a race for time, especially longer distances like a half-marathon or marathon, may seem like an inane and pointless goal to some people. But for millions of others — likely for millions of different reasons — it’s a meaningful one. And personally meaningful goals that help you meet your psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness (in other words, that help you grow as a person) create well-being and give you direction. “They’re literally how we focus ourselves,” says Ken Sheldon, a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri who has studied the link between goal-setting and happiness. That goes for goals across the board — in work, in personal relationships, and in our hobbies or passions.

Yet there comes a time when once-reasonable goals become less so. At 18, medical school may seem within reach; after flunking organic chemistry three semesters straight, not so much. Life events like unemployment, injury, or illness — involving you or your family members — can also intrude at any time.

For me, that’s what has happened with running. I got older, and a pace that once felt easy now feels draining. I also have a husband and kid I’d like to spend more time with, which cuts into my available exercise hours. So beating that half-marathon personal record from 2006 is not likely going to happen. (The knowledge that at 44 I won’t likely beat a time set when I was a decade younger should have been obvious, but it didn’t really hit me until I saw a New York Times article about Yale economist Ray Fair’s calculator that predicts times in various running events at different ages, depending on your previous PR and how old you were when you set it. The message was pretty clear: I’m only getting slower from here on out.)

So it’s time to retire this goal — and that’s okay, says Carsten Wrosch, a professor of psychology at Concordia University in Montreal. “Persistence is important for success and for quality of life … But sometimes a goal becomes so unlikely, it’s really unattainable.” Some people recognize pretty easily that they’re not going to get where they wanted to be, and they can disengage from that goal and move on. But others “can’t let it go,” he says. “They bang their head against the wall again and again and again.”

That can be a problem, because pursuing an unattainable goal can be an exercise in unnecessary frustration at best; at worst, it can trigger psychological distress. One study co-authored by Wrosch, for example, looked at caregivers of a family member with a mental illness. It found that caregivers who had a high burden at the start of the study saw large increases in depressive symptoms over time, but only if they had a tough time letting go of unattainable goals. Other research has found a possible link to physical health problems, including a study co-authored by Wrosch that tracked 90 adolescents over a year and found more systemic inflammation among those who had difficulty disengaging from unattainable goals. And for all the praise the notion of “grit” has gotten lately, one recent study showed that the trait can sometimes backfire: Students with more grit were less likely to give up on solving anagrams given to them by researchers — even when those anagrams were unsolvable.

So, fine. There’s a time and a place for perseverance. But now what am I supposed to do? After all, the aim of getting faster in half-marathons, unrealistic as it has become, fuels my running habit, and it was beating those goals in the past that brought me a sense of accomplishment and well-being. I have a few choices, says Kevin J. Williams, a professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Albany. One is to shift the type of goal. In sports, you can set goals based on your own achievements, like time improvements I’ve been aiming for. Or you can set goals based on your standing compared to others, like placing in the top five or winning an event. Sometimes the latter type of goal is considered inferior, since it can create pressure to do well that can sap enjoyment, says Williams.

But in the case of the aging athlete, there’s an infrastructure that may make it rewarding to switch to the outcome-oriented goals: the age-group system, in which race organizers hand out awards based on where you place compared to your peers. So if I was in the top 11 percent of my 30-to-39 age group when I set my PR, I could aim to beat that by making the top 10 percent of my new, presumably slower age group.

Or I could shift the arena. That’s what Williams did when age started to impact his own running. “I long ago gave up marathons,” says Williams. “Why would I want to run two minutes per mile slower?” Instead he switched to cycling, which gave him a whole new area in which to progress: process goals like learning to ride a bike in a pack and then to master the technique of a road race, and finally, to perform better, but without the initial burden of a PR history.

So that’s my plan. I decided to do something new on the running front by signing up for a mile race, which I’ve never done before and which involves a different training strategy than the longer-distance races I did in my youth. And I found a totally new arena in CrossFit. My new goal: to complete a terrifying workout called the Murph by next Memorial Day. In a way, this pivot is a kind of dress rehearsal for all of the other life-goal revisions I’ll be making as I march through middle age. A new stage of life deserves a new set of goals.