This is an interesting question, because the process for setting goals actually doesn’t change based on where your training is relative to where you’d planned for it to be. Your goal should always be to take maximum advantage of the fitness you’ve built in training. So what’s changed is not how you set your goal, but where your fitness is relative to where you wanted it to be.
There are any number of great reasons, especially this year, that your training may have played out differently than you expected. It’s important to remember that this isn’t a permanent verdict about your fitness or your racing potential, it’s just where you are today. And where you are today is the best place to start when setting race goals: Take a look at what you’ve actually accomplished in training and use that as a basis to evaluate your potential. Based on your potential, you can set effort-level goals for each discipline within the race and based on those effort-level goals you can create some expectations for race times.
The first step in evaluating the potential you’ve built so far in training is to understand your endurance base. In other words: Have you built the fitness to cover the race distance, regardless of pace? Your endurance base comes from a combination of consistent, shorter weekly training sessions and longer once-weekly sessions that build toward or beyond race-distance. If either the weekly consistency or the longer sessions aren’t where they should be, you may be best sticking with your endurance effort on race day. If your endurance base is solid, however, then you can start to evaluate the speed you’ve developed so far in training.
Typically, a well-trained and experienced athlete can complete sprint- and Olympic-distance races at threshold and sub-threshold (also called sweet spot) effort levels and half- and full-distance races at tempo and endurance effort levels. If you have been dialing in those effort levels in training—particularly through interval work for sprint- and Olympic-distance race efforts and through long training sessions for half- and full-distance race efforts—then you can stick with these guidelines. If you haven’t, however, you’ll be better served with more conservative effort-level goals.
The final piece of the puzzle is to extrapolate the appropriate race day effort levels, chosen given the guidelines above, to provide expectations about race times. Find recent training sessions that include intervals or long tempo segments executed at those effort levels and see what your corresponding pace was. Those are your targets, and that’s how you calculate your race time expectations. Not what you did three years ago, not what you dreamt your time would be when you signed up for the race who knows how long ago, but what you have tested and proven recently in training to be your potential on race day.
Alison Freeman is a co-founder of and triathlon coach with NYX Endurance in Boulder, Colorado. She works with a wide range of age-group athletes, but athletes new to long-course triathlon are her favorites because there is no such thing as too many questions.