So I’m on week 3 of 18 of training for the California International Marathon, and I have no idea what my marathon goal time will be.
That’s a good thing.
Last year I set the goal of a 3:30-3:34 marathon time for my first marathon, the Portland Marathon, in a hope that I would BQ. This goal was established and declared before I even began marathon training. While I don’t regret setting a lofty goal that I later missed – I’m glad that I tried – this time around, I’m waiting a bit until I set my goal for this marathon and placing less pressure on myself around my marathon goal time.
Letting Go of Self-Imposed Expectations
I will never be the type of personality to not set a goal and work hard to achieve it. I thrive on that process. But I used to be the type to set hard expectations on myself to achieve a specific goal on a specific timeline. When I missed those goals (which happens!) I would not be very kind to myself.
Over the past year, I’ve found that letting go of goals – not stressing about achieving them on a certain timeline – has helped me reach them. Running a sub-1:40 half marathon was one of my goals for 2016, but I didn’t set it for the Lake Sammamish Half Marathon until my training indicated that it was a realistic goal. Letting go of goals helped me enjoy a training cycle and pushing myself in my running- without any self-imposed pressure early on in training.
I want to give my marathon training and the marathon itself the best effort I possibly can. I don’t want to begin training with an expectation – whether it’s realistic or not – of where I will physically be 16 weeks from now.
That’s the beautiful, humbling experience of the marathon: you can’t control it. You can’t predict it. You can only train hard and give your best with the circumstances presented to you on race day.
Desi Linden said regarding her seventh place finish at the 2016 Olympic Women’s Marathon: “I put everything out there. I’m not upset at all…we went all in. And that’s as good as I am.”
That’s what I want to say at the end of each race. Not I suck because I didn’t achieve my goal or I achieved my goal but I could have done better… but rather, That’s as good as I am because I gave it my best.
Training with the Appropriate Physiological Parameters
Now, let’s get sciencey, because you know I can’t resist delving into the science behind training.
Jeff Gaudette, the head coach over at Runners Connect, explains the importance of setting the right marathon goal time. Your marathon pace is approximately the same as your aerobic threshold, so you want to set a goal marathon pace that is near your aerobic threshold.
Coach Jeff posits, “Aerobic threshold is defined as the fastest pace you can run while using the aerobic system as the primary energy pathway. Aerobic threshold is important because it’s the pace that is the perfect balance between fat and carbohydrate utilization…To target aerobic threshold you need to run at aerobic threshold pace, which is roughly current marathon pace. If you run too fast you’ll actually be running a lactate or anaerobic threshold run – a workout that targets a different energy system.” (Source)
If you were to set 3:20 as your marathon goal time (7:37/mile average pace) but your aerobic threshold is actually an 8:00 min/mile (3:30 marathon), 7:37 would be closer to your current half marathon pace.
That means you’ll be training closer to your lactate threshold during all of your aerobic threshold/marathon pace workouts – and thus not training effectively. You may get faster, but you may also overtrain and you certainly won’t be improving your marathon specific fitness.
Of course, you will improve over the course of a training cycle, usually about 2-6% depending on a variety of factors. However, you can’t quite predict how exactly training will go over 16-20 weeks (because a lot can happen in that time!). The best approach is to begin training from where your fitness currently is and see how you improve over the weeks of training before setting a marathon goal time.
How and When Should You Set Your Marathon Goal Time?
Just because you don’t set time goals early on in marathon training doesn’t mean you should avoid marathon effort workouts during those early weeks of training.
Your aerobic threshold is roughly your marathon pace, so you want to train at your aerobic threshold in order to train your specific endurance fitness for the marathon. Additionally, doing marathon effort/aerobic threshold runs will give you a strong idea of what pace correlates with your aerobic threshold. From these workouts, you will know what pace you can realistically set as a marathon goal time when your race approaches.
Marathon pace won’t feel super easy in training – nor should it – but it also should not feel hard. In terms of perceived effort, your aerobic threshold should feel like a moderate effort – only a slight aerobic strain (about a 4 out of 10 RPE).
If you’re running by perceived effort, your breathing will be slightly elevated but not labored. Aim for a breathing rhythm of about 3 counts on the inhale and 2-3 counts exhale.
As of now, just half of a month (a fraction of a training cycle) into marathon training, I don’t have a time goal in mind. Maybe on race day I’ll run a 3:28, maybe I’ll run a 3:48. My focus for now instead is to train hard, give my best effort each day, and enjoy the journey that is marathon training.
How do you set your goals for races?
Have you ever missed a big time goal? How did you react?