How to Set Goals to Run a Breakthrough Race

How to Set Goals to Run a Breakthrough Race

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. 

Lake Sammamish Half Marathon Race

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. 

How to Set Goals to Run a Breakthrough Race

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. 

Leaf Peeper Half Marathon Race Recap (Rise.Run.Retreat 2016)
Photo Courtesy of Jesica
  • 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. 

[Tweet “Set these non-time goals for your breakthrough race! #marathon #halfmarathon #running via @thisrunrecipes”]

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! 



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14 Responses

  1. I definitely agree- I like to set time goals but also qualitative goals. Sometimes those goals are easier to control, whereas so many things can go wrong that are out of of control on race day that can impact our chances to reach a time goal. They also help to support us in reaching our time goals, so it makes sense to have these other goals in place!

  2. A) Thanks for the mention!
    B) all of my best races are the ones that I’ve gone into afraid of choking, and thus taking all the pressure off of myself and just running and racing and seeing what happens. I have seen far too many incredible runners do have spectacular trainings only to fall apart (I was actually discussing that with someone yesterday) because of the self imposed pressure that they are not mentally ready for. We all know how important mental game is to physical success!

    1. Thank you for the great post! I have shared that one with my athletes before. I think knowing about choking and being a bit afraid of it is good – you take the steps to prevent it! That definitely helped me in my last PR race.

  3. If you’re a success-oriented person, it can be hard to redefine what that means and it takes time to develop the maturity to be able to be genuinely happy no matter what the numbers on the clock say. How many of us are honestly truly happy to “just finish” a distance we already can and have completed?

    I think part of the problem is that we’re told to have qualitative goals and not focus on finish time but no one has ever adequately explained what that really means and how we can actually do that. That’s why I like this post so much – I really feel like I have a better grasp on what it takes to be happy with qualitative success after reading your examples!

    Now I remember that it really is so important to me that I just race and run well – feel good at the start, don’t blow up and have paces all over the place, and finish stronger than I started. Sure I may still be a little disappointed in my time, but I can at least have a better attitude about it and not walk away feeling grumpy the rest of the day. I think that neglecting to prioritize these things is what leads to the type of races you describe, where even if we ran a personal best we still walk away disappointed with the results. If you ran a crummy race overall not only is it hard to be happy with a PR, it’s hard to even get one in the first place.

    1. I agree – just finish is not a good quantitative goal unless you are new to the distance or coming back for injury (although it can be a good goal for a marathon because a lot of stuff can happen over 26.2 miles). I think aiming for negative or even splits is a good goal no matter what your level of running is – because that in itself can be hard to achieve! I know my experience is different than anyone else’s, but focusing on not blowing up on the hills and negative splitting at Leaf Peeper made it one of the races I am most proud of – even though it was 9 minutes slower than my PR.

  4. I really like this post. I ran a 10K last weekend, and although it was not a PR and I did not meet my time goals, I ran it when I did not feel very well (I was sick) and stayed positive. I still came 11 seconds from my PR and considered the race a success because I know I won’t feel great in the last 10K of a marathon, but will need to stay strong and positive. Not every race can be a PR and not every race is going to give us the time goal we want, but you CAN learn from every race.

    1. Thank you! I think staying positive throughout the race is another worthwhile non-time goal – and as we all know, it can be seriously challenging. Well done on your race – 11 seconds is pretty darn close to a PR!

  5. You know, I never even ran with a Garmin until last year! So that’s what, like 17 years of marathoning, a Boston, a PR of 3:06, all without a watch. Monitoring pace isn’t all what it’s cracked up to be.

    1. So at Rise Run Retreat, Sheri Piers was there and told us how she trained most of her competitive running career with a stopwatch – not a GPS. If it works for her and works for you, I think more runners should try it! Monitoring pace can have its benefits, but it is a good way to stress a bunch of type A runners out when they need to just enter that flow state that is key for a strong race.

  6. Great post and so important. I’m a huge fan of setting qualitative race goals, primarily being most focused on feeling good and finishing strong. When it’s not fun, well, it’s not fun. We have to keep the joy in the journey even when we’re training to do big and hard things. Love seeing your continued growth and speed! You will own CIM! xo

  7. Thank you for posting! I’m 14 weeks away from my first half in two years and am keenly aware of the mistakes I’ve made that have lead to injuries in the past.. How do you keep your stomach happy in longer races? I always seem to end up pretty wobbly afterwards.

    1. Good luck on training for your first half! While everyone is different, I’ve found two things have helped in keeping my stomach happy: one, I hydrate very well and get electrolytes during the race; two, I train my stomach to handle whatever fuel I plan on taking by race day by gradually increasing how much I take during long runs. I also find eating whatever sounds good to me after the race – no matter how “healthy” or exciting it is – helps.

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