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Lifelong Pursuit: The Value of Physical Goals for Aging Athletes

As a latecomer to the competitive running scene, Cathy Utzschneider knocked out top results as a masters athlete while also coaching 75 USATF age group champions. She shares her experience on how best to remain engaged and open to what’s next.

A masters athlete puts on her googles as she gets ready to swim in the ocean

For many athletes, particularly those who are young or new to sport, goals are largely a quest for faster times. As we age, an athlete’s best performance goes well beyond achieving a given time, pace, or power. So what does this mean for masters athletes?  

Achieving physical goals over a lifespan is fundamental to aging well. This topic has been a focus of my teaching and research at Boston University, as well as my own experience as a masters athlete and coach.  

Throughout my 30-year career as an athlete, coach, and educator, physical goals have anchored me to a sense of progress at every age if I approach them with a healthy mindset. 

Make every goal meaningful  

Be able to answer the question of why this goal matters. By taking time to define not just the goal, but its meaning—one that is unique to you—you’ll be more motivated and engaged. And often the meaning of physical goals has much more to do with the athlete’s values and perspective on life. Well-defined physical goals encourage us to work harder, which often coincides with performing better. They also rally others’ enthusiasm and support. People are intrigued by that level of engagement.  

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Good goals are grounding 

Physical goals are typically more concrete than personal or professional goals, which are complicated by nuance and uncontrollables. Physical goals, including routine training and competitive performance goals, deliver a feeling of calm and fulfillment. They ground us—providing a structure that helps organize the rest of life.  

Give it time 

Achieving physical goals and becoming our best takes time. The expert on experts, Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, found that it takes 10 years or 10,000 hours to achieve excellence in any field. My own research with masters runners established that in five to seven years an athlete can develop to the point where they are achieving their best times. Time is precious, and it’s up to us to make the most of what we’ve got. Don’t rule out the chance to try something new.  

No matter the age of the athlete, defining the meaning of physical goals to understand why they matter facilitates a best performance. It’s work that engages athletes on a deeper level than simply shooting for times, and it opens the door for athletes to continue to evolve as they age.