Even a year can make a difference when it comes to running. Back in 2015, I was obsessed with time goals. I wanted that sub-1:40, I wanted that BQ (3:35:00 or faster) – other than those two times on the clock, I did not have any substantial goals for my races.
I missed both of those time goals. Even though I PR’ed in the half marathon by 3 minutes – on much hilly course nonetheless – and ran a 3:49 for my first marathon, I was still a bit upset that I missed my goals.
I don’t regret setting those goals, training hard for them, and then not achieving them. You should dream big enough that you miss your goals sometimes. I am never going to not have time goals for my racing.
Fast forward to 2016. While I went into the Lake Sammamish Half Marathon with a time goal in mind – a 1:40 or faster – I also set other goals for the race. I focused on pacing well, especially not starting out too fast, and nailing a well thought out nutrition plan. In addition to achieving those race goals, I beat my time goal and ran a 1:38. This race represented not just a PR – this was a breakthrough race for me.
For the Leaf Peeper Half Marathon, I didn’t set any time goals. The elevation profile was challenging enough (that 17% hill!), I was in the midst of marathon training, and I didn’t know how flying would affect my running. I did consider having a time goal range, but I ultimately didn’t want that to detract from my race experience. Instead, as I did with Lake Sammamish, I focused on goals other than time goals for the race. Again, this race was a breakthrough: I ran a negative split race on a difficult course – and enjoyed every mile of it.
What were these goals that lead to breakthrough races? They were goals that my friend and fellow running coach Susie calls qualitative racing goals: goals that can be achieved regardless of what paces you can clock on race day. For both half marathons, I aimed to negative split (start slow and finish strong), nail my fueling and hydration, avoid stomach problems, support other runners, and thank the volunteers and spectators.
Setting qualitative racing goals does not mean that you have to neglect a time goal. In fact, I believe from my own experience that having these goals not related to finish time will increase your chances of achieving your time goal, because you will focus on something other than what your Garmin reads.
Why Should Set Goals Other than Finish Time
Have you heard of the phenomenon known as choking during a race? If you’ve focused solely on time goals at any point in your running, you may have experienced it. Matt Fitzgerald describes choking as a form of unintentional self-sabotage in his book on mastering sports psychology, How Bad Do You Want It?:
“The desire to maximize performance and achieve a particular outcome creates a feeling of pressure. This feeling of pressure compromises performance and assures that the wanted outcome is not achieved. Some people are more susceptible to choking than others, but everyone is susceptible to some degree.”
Choking can occur when you place so much pressure around a time goal that, for some reason or another, you fail to achieve the time goal. Maybe you push yourself too hard in training, panic when you miss a single mile split, or overanalyze every possible scenario of your race to the point that you are a basket of nerves before your even line up at the starting line. Or, if you’re like me, the stress of putting too much pressure on yourself can wreck your stomach and therefore your race.
What does Fitzgerald offer as the solution of choking? Without giving too much away (you should read the book!), it’s exactly what I talked about in my post for Jesica’s authentic voices series: the art of letting go of goals.
Letting go doesn’t mean never setting goals or never pursuing excellence in your running. Quite on the contrary – it means having those big goals but releasing yourself from the pressure of time goals by focusing on your training and the race and enjoying the journey regardless of the finish time. Letting go of goals is part of the journey to experiencing a breakthrough race.
At least in my experience, I found that setting qualitative race goals helped me let go of my goals and run strong and enjoyable races.
Beyond pressure and self-sabotage, you will ultimately run a race (or several) where factors beyond your control affect your running. The weather is the most uncontrollable factor: heat, humidity, wind, rain, or freezing cold can all slow down your pace.
What Goals Can You Set Other than Finish Time?
Social media and GPS watches are fantastic, but they have contributed to our obsession with pace. Finish times are a popular goal for a race because they are the most concrete goal – races record and publish them for everyone to see.
Think beyond the finish time and consider the experience of the overall race: how you want to feel, what mini-goals you want to achieve, and what type of runner you desire to be. In order to experience a breakthrough race, you must focus on the entire race – not just the end result.
- Run a smart race strategy: What defines a smart race strategy will vary from race to race. Negative splits work best in distances such as the 10K and half marathon, while statistics demonstrate that even splits lead to the most success in the marathon. For almost every distance, a smart race strategy involves not starting out too fast.
- Fuel and hydrate successfully: Just as most runners can share stories of starting out too fast in a race, many can commiserate about bad races due to poor fueling and hydration. Rather than just obsessing over a time goal, you should focus on developing a race day nutrition plan that will help you run a strong race. Set a goal to take your gel at consistent intervals and a drink of water or electrolyte beverage at every aid station. Chances are, focusing on this goal will improve your chances of achieving your goal finish time and enjoying the race!
- Be a friendly and kind participant: Smile at spectators, thank the volunteers, and encourage other runners. It doesn’t cost you anything or detract from your goals to be supportive and gracious during a race – but it will improve your experience and the experience of others.
- Listen to your body: No race is ever worth an injury and there’s no special award at the end for running through pain (you should expect and endure discomfort in a race, but not pain!). Set the goal to assess your body’s signals reguarly throughout the race and be prudent enough to slow down or DNF (drop out) if need be.
- Finish strong: While not necessary for a good race, finishing at a fast for you pace and feeling good as you cross the finish line builds your confidence for future races and enhances your race experience. Finishing strong comes as a result of executing a smart race strategy, nailing your fueling plan, and listening to your body.
As you can deduce, this is sort of where my mind is as I begin to consider goals for the California International Marathon. If everything goes well, I may be capable of a 3:35/BQ on race day; at the very least, I hope to PR and run a 3:48 or faster. But that’s only one of my goals. I want to master my nutrition for that race, pace a smart race, finish free of injury or burnout, and most of all enjoy the race – in a sense, run a breakthrough race compared to my previous marathon.
What goals do you set for a race (other than time goals)?
Have you ever experienced a breakthrough race? Share all about it!
Receive Weekly Running Tips & Motivation
Subscribe for my weekly newsletter and receive a free download of injury prevention exercises for runners.