How and Why to Set a Time Goal for Your Next Race

Summer is almost here, which means that many of us runners will soon begin training for fall races within the next few weeks. I’ve been reading the Hansons Marathon Method in preparation for my training for the Portland (Oregon) Marathon, which begins on June 1.

The Hansons Marathon Method offered an interesting piece of advice for all runners training for a marathon. While many runners, especially first-time marathoners, just focus on making it across the finish line, the Hansons program encourage you to set more specific goals for better training and a more enjoyable marathon experience. Want to know how and why to set a time goal for your next race? Here’s the advice of the Hansons program:

“Some runners simply hope to finish the marathon, some want to cross it off their ‘bucket list,’ and some are looking to run as a means of raising money for charity. While goals of this ilk are great in terms of attracting people to the sport, the truth is that they often don’t lead to a satisfying overall marathon experience. The problem with marathon training plans that merely help a run finish a race is that they don’t adequately ease runners into marathon mileage, making training and racing unpleasant and often painful.” (117)

How and Why to Set a Time Goal for Your Next Race | This Runner's Recipes

A goal will help you train better for your race, and better training will give you the fitness to have a positive race experience. If you finish your half marathon or marathon feeling good, then you are more likely to continue running and sign up for future races. “Rather than training you to run, walk, or drag yourself across that line, we want to give you the tools to execute the marathon distance successfully, leaving your love for running and hunger for competition intact,” they explain (118).

Whether your goal is to finish in 3 hours or 5 hours, the Hansons Marathon Method advises that you set a specific time goal for your race. First, a specific time goal provides guidance and structure to your training. You will know what paces to run each run at, which will both help you confidently reach your goal on race day while preventing overtraining from running too fast too frequently. Secondly, a time goal is a measurable goal, which means you will know if you are on track to achieve it and will easily know on race day whether you reached it or not. Finally, time goals are often simple to establish, especially if you have raced before.


Now that you know why it’s beneficial to set a time goal for your fall race, how do you go about setting a time goal that strikes the balance between attainable and challenging?

  1. Consider your recent race times.
    Unless something went genuinely wrong in your last race or it’s been years since you raced, your most recent race time is the best indication of how you can expect to perform in your next race. There are many race equivalency calculators out there (my favorites are the McMillan and Jack Daniels calculators) that will help you determine what an appropriate half marathon or marathon goal is based on your times in other distances. So, for example, I ran a 1:43:12 in my spring half marathon; based on these calculators, my equivalent marathon time is for a 3:34:xx-3:37:xx.
  2. Consider your training plan.
    The longer and smarter you train, the more of an improvement you will see. If you are running five or six days a week with regular speedwork, tempo runs, and long runs, you will improve your speed and endurance more significantly than someone who will be running less mileage with no speedwork or specific race pace training. With the right training plan, you can expect to improve by about 3-5%, which gives you room to set a more ambitious goal.
  3. Consider your schedule and how hard you are willing to work.
    Determination and hard work can matter as much as fitness and natural talent in running. If your schedule permits you to train intensely for a big goal, then go for it! Oftentimes it’s our minds, not our bodies, that limit our goals, so if you believe you can reach a lofty time goal and are willing to put in the hard work, you should pursue it!

How and Why to Set a Time Goal for Your Next Race | This Runner's Recipes

As I’ve stated many times before, I’m training for my first marathon with a specific time goal. I want to qualify for Boston (a 3:35 for my age group) and have enough extra time to actually register for Boston (since last year people with qualifying times less than 1 minute 2 seconds from their age standard did not make it in), so I am setting the goal for running a 3:30:xx at the Portland Marathon.

[Tweet “Running a fall marathon or half marathon? Learn how and why to set a time goal for you next race from @thisrunrecipes #fitfluential #fitfam “]

Questions of the Day:
What races do you have coming up?
Do you train for a specific time goal?
How do you set your time goals?

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9 Responses

  1. Congrats on becoming an ambassador- I have never heard of BurnThis so will need to look into it!
    Great tips on picking a goal! I always like to have a few different goals and also adjust them as I progress through my training.

  2. Great post! I’m in the process of setting my first marathon goal time. I’m thinking I’m just going to make it 4:00, but part of me knows I can push it a little bit faster than that.

  3. Great tips! My next race is not until November – the NYC Marathon, but I am running a few “races” between now and then. I usually use these as tune-ups, and check in to see how I’m feeling, my leg turn over, where I’m at aerobically, and to practice fueling. I train with a goal time in mind, and then base my paces off that time.

    1. Thank you! How exciting that you get to run the NYC Marathon! That’s a good idea to use tune-up races to reassess goals – I’ve been debating doing that before Portland since it seems to work so well for many people.

  4. I liked how you pointed out that your training plan along with your work ethic will greatly determine what type of race time goal to set. I’ve also read that the difficulty level of the race you’re wanting to participate in plays a big part as well. If that is the case, then I think it would be important for race sponsors to set up a race with a realistic difficulty so that the athletes in the race can accurately determine a realistic time goal to finish it in.

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