Setting Goals in Running

Setting Goals for Runners

One of the most powerful aspects of running is the ability to set and achieve goals. There is something special about how in running you can always push yourself through discipline, training, and perseverance to go faster, longer, and stronger. Achieving goals in running endows you with a confidence and motivation that carries over into all aspects of your life. If you run a marathon or set a new PR, what can’t you do?

I previously advised new runners to run their first race without a specific time goal in mind. Once you have a strong grasp of where your running fitness is, you can start setting specific goals based on where you are and what you want to achieve.

The characteristics of a strong goal in running are the same as those in career, education, and family life. A common paradigm for setting goals is SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely. In terms of running, you can set specific goals based on time, distance, or volume. You want these to be measurable – that is, rather than say “I want to finish my marathon feeling strong” say “I want to finish my marathon in just under 4 hours.” This goal should be attainable, realistic, but also challenging: if you recently ran a 4:10 or 4:05 marathon, a sub-4:00 is a realistic goal compared to if you ran a 5:00 hour marathon previously. For someone who has already run a sub-4:00, another sub-4:00 is not necessarily a challenging goal: perhaps aim for a 3:55 or even a 3:50 marathon. Goals should be timely also, especially because you have to allow yourself the 12-20 weeks needed to train for a big race.

The manner in which you state your goals can affect your achievements, also. As this article in Running Times discusses, you should state your goals in the positive, not the negative. Avoid saying, “I don’t want to run over 2 hours in my half marathon”; rather, say “I want to run a sub-2 hour half marathon.” Articulating your goals in the positive creates a positive state of mind with an emphasis on “can” instead of “can’t.”


Setting Goals for Runners


When it comes to setting goals, you should create a variety of goals based on short-term, annual, and long-term. Dividing your goals in such a way helps you create specific and measurable goals. Short-term goals, especially daily goals, will help you reach your annual and long-term goals and provide you with a confidence boost and sense of achievement along the way.

Short-term goals can be both daily or over the course of a few months (one training cycle). They are stepping stones of achievement on your way to a bigger goal, such as a goal race. For example, your short-term goals may include running five days a week, running 30-35 miles per week, adding one session of yoga a week, or eating a salad everyday. A training plan for a race is essentially a series of short-term goals on the way to a long-term goal.

Long-term goals can be anywhere from a few months to a few years away. To keep yourself motivated, it’s best to set your long-term goals over at least a year’s time. Reassess your long-term goals regularly; for example, if you had the long-term goal of running a marathon in the next calendar year but you are sidelined with an injury, consider building back up to a half marathon and saving the marathon for 18-24 months later. Your long-term goals can expand beyond race distances and finishing times; you can set long-term goals for weight loss, better nutrition, gaining strength, or recovering better after races.

Annual goals are a particular type of long-term goal—a long-term goal that you hope to repeat every year. For example, you may decide to run one marathon every year – that is an annual goal. Keeping a strong running schedule throughout the whole year and only taking breaks after races or due to sickness is another excellent annual goal.

Finally, you can have lifetime goals. These are achievements you want to check off your bucket list, so to speak. For many marathoners, a lifetime goal is qualifying for the Boston Marathon. For other athletes, it is training for a completing a half or whole Ironman (the full Ironman is a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and a full 26.2 marathon). Other long-term goals slowly lead up to these goals.


So far, we’ve discussed short-term, long-term, annual, and lifetime goals in the abstract. For better clarity, let’s look at some specific examples of these types of goals for runners (my own goals).

Short-Term Running Goals:

  • Run 40 miles during my peak week of half marathon training
  • Do yoga weekly to facilitate muscle recovery and joint mobility
  • Sleep 7-9 hours a night
  • Do strength training twice a week to improve core and leg strength
  • Finish my peak run at the correct pace (13 miles with the last 5 at goal pace)

Long-Term Running Goals:

  • Run a sub-1:50 race at the Valpo Half Marathon
  • Take a week off/easy to recover from the race
  • Run a sub-24 minute 5K at the Turkey Trot
  • Run two major races in 2015 (either two half marathons or one half and one full)
  • Run about 30 miles a week during off-season

Annual Running Goals:

  • Race at least one half-marathon a year
  • Race at least one 5K or 10K a year
  • Keep consistently training even during the snowy, cold, and dark winter months
  • Take time to fully recover after a big race before training again

Lifetime Running Goals:

  • Run a sub-1:40 half-marathon
  • Run a race in Portland, Seattle, or another scenic city in the Pacific Northwest
  • Prevent injuries through regular rest, proper nutrition, weekly mobility work, and  weekly strength training
  • Win for my age group at a local race
  • Qualify for the Boston Marathon (a girl can dream, right?)
  • Get a coaching certification and work with beginner runners and age-group racers


Questions of the Day:
What are your goals for running? 
Did you recently achieve a goal in running or another sport? What was your goal and how did you achieve it? 

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2 Responses

  1. It may seem like just baby steps but my short-term goals are:
    (1) Buy better exercise shoes! My current ones only work fine if I’m doing biking/elliptical exercise – my feet hurt if I try to actually do any real running in them.
    (2) Do a full practice of yoga for an hour once a week.
    (3) Sleep a minimum of 7 hrs 5 times a week
    (4) Run 30 min three times a week – I usually feel like quitting after 20 min!
    (5) Improve my pace – I can sustain a 5 min/mile pace on my bike but I don’t do so swell with that pace in running b/c of my dumb foot pain!

    By the way – I grew up in Massachusetts and the Boston Marathon would always start in my hometown! It was always cool to see our town on the news 😉

    1. Great goals, Erin! Every “baby step” leads to success so never discount their importance.
      That’s so cool that you grew up near the start of the Boston Marathon! I watch it on TV and think that the parts of Boston and MA it goes through are so pretty! I would love to run it someday but qualifying for it is a far-reaching goal.

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