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This is the ultimate guide to setting running goals.

  • Do you want to start running?
  • Do you want to set a personal record?
  • Do you want to improve your health?

Reaching the destination is impossible unless you know where you want to go.

How To Set Running Goals

The importance of goal setting

Goal setting is a process that begins with careful consideration of what we want to achieve, and it ends with a lot of hard work put towards achieving what we wanted.

Lack of motivation is one of the most common reasons for quitting a training plan. Every person has different motives, but goal setting is well-known as a universal key to success when it comes to maintaining motivation.

Why is it important to set goals?

Goal setting helps us with:

  • Staying focused and motivated
  • Time management
  • Tracking progress
  • Building self-confidence

Once you set your goal you should stay focused on what you want to achieve and avoid comparing yourself with others.

From time to time you should re-examine your goals to make sure you are on the right track, and to remind yourself what matters to you.

Achieving goals will not only help you develop as a runner but it will also provide great satisfaction while motivating you to set further goals.

How To Set Running Goals

Setting running goals (SMART/SMARTER)

Before you start running you should think of what you want to achieve.

When you think about your running goals it is important to be aware of your strengths but also your weaknesses. Consider your successes so far, former failures, and consult a coach or another runner. We all have something we are good at and something we need to improve in, or at least something we are currently trying to deal with.

Tip

Half marathon race – You are maintaining your goal pace up to the 10th mile when you suddenly slow down and don’t have the strength to go on. If you have been in similar situations often you should analyze your training plan (carefully examine long runs you’ve run and how many times).

Once you define your running goals you should use the SMART/SMARTER methods to help you set your goals.

Here are some examples to show you how to use the methods.

SMART goal setting

SMART is an acronym which describes our clear and achievable goal:

  • S – SPECIFIC
  • M – MEASURABLE
  • A – ACHIEVABLE
  • R – RELEVANT
  • T– TIMED

Specific goals

Define your goals precisely and clearly while avoiding generalizations. The more specific the goal the easier it is to achieve it.

You have decided to run your first marathon – you have the necessary equipment, training plan, and training locations. It doesn’t seem so complicated, but why is it that a lot of runners never finish their first marathon? Because they started without a clear goal.

If your goal is not specific how will you know how to achieve it?

Examples of general/specific goals:

I want to run a marathon. -> I want to run the next Boston marathon.
I want to run faster. -> I want to improve my personal half marathon record by 2 minutes.
I want to run more. -> I want to run 4 times a week.
I want to lose weight. -> I want to lose 10 pounds in 2 months by running 3-4 times a week.

A specific goal helps you to stay motivated because you know exactly what you have to do to achieve it.

Measurable goals

All your goals have to be measurable. Whenever possible you should use numbers and statistics to track your progress.

You can measure your progress in time, distance, BPM (beats per minute), repetitions, weight…

Examples of immeasurable/measurable goals:

I want to run a marathon. -> I want to run a marathon in under four hours.
I want to run faster. -> I want to improve my result in the 10K race by 1 minute.
I want to run more. -> I want to run 20 miles a week.
I want to lose weight. -> I want to check my weight once a week so that I can track my progress.

More measurable steps allow for “small victories” which improve motivation to the final goal.

Achievable goals

Set a goal that is challenging but achievable. Even though more challenging goals outside your comfort zone are recommended, you should be careful. Make sure your goals are realistic and achievable in the timeframe you have given yourself.

I started running and I want to run my first marathon in four months. – If you are a beginner without many miles in your legs that goal is unrealistic. I would recommend gradually increasing miles and picking a shorter race so that your body gets used to the exhaustion of marathons, and also so that you can enjoy running without injuries.

The main goal should be divided into smaller steps so that you are not overburdened. By setting daily, weekly, and monthly goals it will be easier to keep your motivation as high as it was in the beginning.

Unachievable goals can discourage you, leading to a lack of motivation and even to injuries. On the other hand, goals that are too easy to achieve will not help you develop and make progress.

Example of unachievable/achievable goals:

Currently my pace during training is 9:40 min/mi, and my goal is to run a 10K race at a pace of 6:30 min/mi. -> Currently my pace during training is 9:40 min/mi, and my goal is to run a 10K race at an average pace of 9:00 min/mi.

To determine whether your goal is achievable or not you should compare it with your previous races while using a Race Time Predictor.

Race Time Predictor

Relevant goals

You need to understand why the goal is important to you. The goal has to be something you consider important so that you will be willing to work on it. Your goals should be tied to your training plan and your ambitions as a runner.

Short-term goals need to contribute to your long-term goal.

Examples of relevant goals:

Many runners set a marathon as their goal. Personally, I don’t consider long runs interesting so I don’t consider that goal important and have set a 10K race as my goal instead.
I have to run for health reasons, specifically, I need to lower my body mass index (BMI) and blood pressure.
I would like to run and meet other runners so my goal is to run with a group of runners three times a week.

Being a runner does not mean that you have to have goals that are commonly popular among other runners. Take your own desires into account and set goals that are important to you.

Time-Based goals

Set a time frame in which you will achieve your goal. Without the pressure of a deadline it will be more difficult to focus on your goal.

Examples of undetermined/time-based goals:

I want to improve my 10K race result by 1 minute. -> In the next two months I would like to improve my 10K race result by 1 minute.
I want to lose 7 pounds. -> I want to lose 7 pounds in 2 months.

Set a deadline or goal time and work towards it.

How To Set Running Goals

SMARTER goal setting

SMART goal setting is useful, but it may not be enough to help you achieve all your goals. Part of the problem lies in the lack of a plan to achieve your goals, or in not taking the right steps to achieve them. The SMARTER method will help you with this.

SMARTER goal setting adds two more steps:

  • E – EVALUATE
  • R – REVISABLE

Evaluate goals

Evaluating your goals from time to time to see whether you are on the right track is just as important as setting them.

Even if you are making progress you should ask yourself:

Have I managed to finish my entire training routine?
At which part of the training routine did I fail?
Is my training routine too difficult?
Which part of the training routine can be improved?

By evaluating your goals every day, you make success more likely. It is also one of the reasons why it would be a good idea to keep a running log. With the help of a running log it will be easier to track your progress and re-evaluate your goals to see whether you are on the right track.

Revisable goals

After you evaluate your goals you may need to adapt them, which does not mean you have to throw them away completely and start over. You should keep trying different approaches until you get closer to your goals.

Example

You are training for your first marathon and due to an illness, you had to miss a week of training. This does not mean you should give up on your goal, but you should adapt your training plan and slowly get back into shape.

On the way to your goal you will cross many hurdles. To reach your goal successfully you need to adapt your training plan and keep moving forward.

Achieving your goal

Now that you have your SMART/SMARTER goals, what’s next?

To achieve them you need a plan.

Write them down!

No matter what your goal is you should write it down and put it in a place you will see often. This will serve as a reminder and it will help you stay focused when you face the inevitable difficulties on the road to success.

Make a plan

You have set your goal, you know where you want to go, but now it’s time to make a plan on how to get there. To stay determined and to be successful in your long-term goal you should set a number of smaller goals. They will keep you motivated and will lead you to your final goal.

Example

In April I decided to prepare for a marathon in September. In my 6 months of preparation I have to determine smaller goals so that I can maintain my focus and motivation until the end. Your two smaller goals could be a 10K race in July and a half marathon in August. Find races and make them part of your training plan.

Smaller goals are useful indicators of your current shape, and as a result they are indicators of the effectiveness of your training plan.

Tip

If you have decided to set a personal record in a half marathon, look for a training plan that fits you and stick to it, or enroll in a running club and seek advice from a coach. It is important that you do all that you can to achieve your goal.

If you wish to keep running it has to become part of your schedule. Think about it and be realistic in your estimation of how often and when you can run. Next, you should put those dates in your calendar and consider it an obligation you cannot miss. Members of your family and your friends should know how important it is because it will help them honor your obligations and support you in achieving your goals.

How To Set Running Goals

Motivation and tracking progress

Stick to your training routine!

Remember, goal setting is a process. Keep track of your accomplishments and results. Take time to evaluate whether your plan works and adapt it if necessary.

This is one of the reasons why a running log is a good idea. Besides being able to track your progress it also helps you stay motivated. If your training plan becomes too difficult you will be able to read your previous notes and remember how much you have progressed since you started training.

Don’t forget your health!

No matter how much you want to win neither training nor races are more important than your health.

Listen to your body, gradually increase the workload, and enjoy the road to achieving your goal!

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Matea Matošević
Matea Matošević
Article by:
Matea Matošević

Hi, I’m Matea! I’m Olympic Marathon Runner, founder, and writer behind OLYRUN.com. On this site, I provide help in the form of my knowledge and experience to all who love running and active living. Read more…