Goodhart’s Law and the runner

Keep in mind what the goal really is

“When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to become a good measure.” – Goodhart’s Law

This concept, largely discussed in the world of economics, applies quite well to running and fitness in general.

Most of us probably have “indicator” workouts. These are workouts we do that give us some indication of how we can do in an upcoming race.

These workouts can be very helpful if you train for the race and then use the workout as an indicator of fitness. However, what if you train for the workout?

Probably the most famous of these indicator workouts would be Yasso 800s. This workout worked very well for Bart Yasso. However, how well should we expect 800 meter repeats to really work as a predictor of marathon fitness?

Well, if you convince yourself that you want to run a certain time in the marathon, then focus on getting your times for 800 meter repeats down to the level that suggests that’s possible, I hope you can see the issue. You’ll be well trained for a 5K but, if you slack on your long runs and tempo runs to get these workouts in, how do you think your marathon is going to go?

This may be an extreme example but it’s true of any kind of indicator workout. Train for the workout and you’ll do the workout very well but how much will that help you run a better race? Focus on training for the race because that’s what matters most.

2 Replies to “Goodhart’s Law and the runner”

  1. I think that public education often falls into this trap by training students to pass assessment tests rather than teaching the subject. Fortunately, my daughter got into a high school that did not do this, but prior to 10th grade, her education focused too much on assessments.

    1. This is a big problem in education (I don’t think it’s just public education but any education that relies on tests to track “progress”). Teaching to the test instead of teaching students how to learn or how to think through problems.

      It makes sense that schools need to be held accountable but this is why I don’t like standardized tests as a measure of that accountability. This is exactly the Goodhart’s Law problem. When schools and teachers are essentially forced to teach to the test or face the consequences, they can not do a good job teaching students the skills that are necessary to succeed in the real world.

      Of course, seeing a problem and solving it are two very different things. Many people see the problem. How we solve teaching to the test and still hold schools accountable, I have no idea.

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