How and When Should You Set Your Marathon Goal Time?

How & When to Set Marathon Goal Time

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.


How & When to Set 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.

[Tweet “Are you setting the right #goal time for your marathon? #runchat #marathon #training via @thisrunrecipes”]

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28 Responses

  1. So after I typed my comment before, I clicked submit and then got a message that your website was down! So weird!
    I think it makes sense to wait to decide on a goal. We often decide on our goals before we even start training and so much can happen along the way. Im excited to see what goal you do end up setting!

  2. As usual, I totally agree. I think that you can set general time goal zones earlier on, but it isn’t until you get closer and see how your training is progressing that it is really fair to select a particular time.

    1. General zones are good to have – like I know I’m probably somewhere in a 3:30-3:50 range -but that’s a huge range of paces! It’s also fun to also see where training takes you.

  3. This approach makes so much sense and yet, so few of us do it this way. Why? It’s so much more natural – not to mention fun – to just train at the level you’re at, let improvements happen organically and then see where you are when it’s almost race time. It’s hard not to want certain times, but trying to train at a level you’re not at yet is a bad idea for so many reasons. I get marathoners wanting a goal time to help them know what paces they should run on race day but there’s really no need to make those decisions in week 3 of training either. I’m a big advocate of this method you’ve laid out, as you can tell, because for me personally running and training became so much more fun and enjoyable when I let improvements happen naturally instead of trying to force a square peg into a round hole.

    1. I agree – both more natural and more fun – and I would argue more successful since there’s not the mental stress weighing down on each workout. I get having a goal time on race day – and that’s good because that way you’re not running the first few miles way too fast – but that’s a goal to set in the last month.

  4. Yep. When I started training for Seattle (about 6 weeks out?) I aimed for marathon tempo paces of 6:40 to get a 2:55 marathon. But I couldn’t do it! Those tempo runs were more like strength workouts and I knew it. I pushed my body wayyyyy too hard during those weeks especially because I was also doing strength workouts (2×3 miles at 6:30 min/mile pace) AND long runs (23 miles) totaling 80, 90 miles per week. HOW DID I EVEN DO THAT?!?!?! Too much. I simply asked my body to do what it couldn’t do, and boy did it teach me a lesson.

    I haven’t done any tempo runs this training cycle (for Skagit) but if I did it would be in the 7 min/mile range. Okay, long comment. Sorry. 🙂

    1. No apologies – I love long comments! Goodness knows I leave novels on your blog. 🙂 I have a feeling you’re going to do great at Skagit since you’re not pushing your body too hard.

  5. I think I understand the science behind aerobic vs anaerobic training…but I do not really understand how to do it… :/

    1. Your breathing is a good indication: aerobic threshold is when your breathing shifts to slightly elevated but you can still speak in sentences (just not long conversations) and anaerobic occurs when your breathing is harder and you can’t quite speak in full sentences, just short phrases. If you have a recently half marathon race time, that pace is pretty close to your anaerobic threshold and you can plug that race time into a calculator such as Jack Daniels VDOT to get your anaerobic threshold (threshold pace) and aerobic threshold (marathon pace).
      So pretty much: if you’re running at your half marathon pace, you’re running slightly slower than anaerobic threshold and faster than your aerobic threshold.

  6. I agree it can be tough to set a realistic goal for the marathon. I would say to base it as realistically as you can off of your training, but I’ve also found that it can be freeing to do a marathon for fun with a friend and to just finish as fast as you can without looking at a watch throughout. Jack Daniels’ calculator is also good.

    1. Thank you! Running with fun can be freeing, although honestly for me it’s the racing and running a smart and fast race that is fun! But we’re all different on what defines a fun marathon.
      I do like Daniel’s VDOT calculator, although it assumes rather high mileage for marathon training – based on my half it said a 3:25 marathon, which I know isn’t realistic! But overall it is a wonderful tool that I use all the time in coaching, so thanks for the suggestion!

    1. You can use a recent race time from another distance (ideally a half marathon) – usually these are more indicative of your various threshold paces than a recent marathon time since so many factors can alter your marathon finish time (weather, hydration, fueling, etc) and it’s easier to race them more frequently. You can also use HR monitors, time trials in training, or your breathing (there’s a shift in breathing when you reach your aerobic threshold) to determine your aerobic threshold. The difference is between aerobic threshold and goal marathon pace – some people set their goal marathon paces far above their actual aerobic threshold.

  7. This is such a great read. I am also the type to set a goal and work my butt off to achieve it but do always try to keep it realistic so I don’t set myself up for too much disappointment.

  8. Wow, this was such helpful information! My running coach already has a time goal for me for my first marathon, but I’m not thinking about it all – I’m just trying to do well with every training run. I have no idea what to expect 13 weeks from now, and I’m okay with that!

    And I appreciate all of the science in your explanations 🙂

    1. Thank you! It sounds like you’re doing it well – training well in each run is the best way to go, and then the goal will emerge in the later weeks. Good luck with your training!

  9. When I’m making plans for clients, I usually ask them their ideal goal time, I notate what I think the actual goal time should be (if it’s different), and then go from there. Since the base phase is so long, I use it to judge if our pre-discussed goals align with how things are shaking out in training runs and then make adjustments if needed. I never recommend setting a goal time for a first marathon because you’re right — anything can and does happen! I don’t like to set my people up for failure if it’s their first go at it.

  10. I always have a time range I think is realistic before I start race training, but I don’t set a concrete time goal until probably…2 or 3 weeks out? I guess I like to feel REALLY confident about my race fitness.

  11. Love this post. I’m just like that…I rarely set goals early on. This hurt me one time though when I missed qualifying for Boston by 2 minutes because I never imagined I would be so close! I live the strategy of setting three levels of goals with time ranges, like 1- mediocre day (3:45-3:50), 2- just what I expected day (3:35-3:45) and 3- best day ever! (3:30-3:35)

    1. Thank you! I truly think it’s the smart way to train – it both prevents overtraining and lets you surprise yourself sometimes. That would be rough to miss a BQ by such narrow a margin! I like your idea of setting ranges for three levels of goals – I’m borrowing that if you don’t mind!

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