If you want to improve in anything, you have to have an idea of where you’re going. Hence, the importance of setting goals. This is especially true with running. Without goals, it can be easy to avoid workouts, miles, and progress. Set a clear idea of what you want to accomplish, and you’re much more likely to get there.
In this article, we’ll cover everything that you need to know about goal setting as it relates to running, including why you should set goals, how to do it, and ways to achieve your running goals.
Why You Should Set Running Goals
What do you want out of running? For some, just getting out and running is enough. And that’s a 100% acceptable approach to running. For others, though, progress is a key motivator. If you are clear with yourself about what you want from running, it will be easier to stay on that path. Undertaking running mindlessly, without intention, is a recipe for finding yourself in a motivation-killing rut. This is why you should make goals.
First, goals give you something to achieve. Goals don’t have to be outlandish or newspaper-worthy. Set small, achievable goals. It could be as simple as you want to get outside and run at least a mile every day. It could be that you want to run three times a week. These are not ambitious, long-term goals like running a sub-3-hour marathon. But they still express why you run.
Second, goals will guide your training. If you want to run a mile every day, that’s a pretty clear training plan. However, you’ll have a completely different training plan if you want to run a sub-3-hour marathon.
Finally, goals can help motivate you to get out of your comfort zone. If you want to do something big, you have to change things up. Goals can help you do that because you now have an end in mind, and you just have to figure out the means to do it.
Types of Running Goals
The most typical running goal is a race. So many people have decided that they want to get off the couch and run a 5k. Or they decide to hunt bigger game and commit to something that seems impossible at the time, like a marathon.
Sometimes it happens that people set a goal, sign up for a race, and then don’t follow through. But if you have support from friends and family, you’ll end up running the race like you planned.
The problem with this type of goal, though, is what about after the race is done? Now that you’ve run a marathon, are you going to keep running? That is something that you have to figure out for yourself.
I set a goal of running a half marathon. And I was successful! Afterwards, one of my friends encouraged me to not stop running there. He guided me to set new running goals as a new part of my lifestyle. His advice was sound.
If you don’t want to build goals around completing races, focus on something else that makes sense to your fitness journey. Set an ambitious pace goal. Try running for a longer distance, improving your running form, getting stronger running up hills. Goals can be as diverse as runner are. Even just being an overall more healthy person is an admirable goal to set.
Many experts suggest that process goals are better than outcome goals. In other words, running at least a mile every day is better than trying to run a 5:00 mile, for example.
The reason why is that you subconsciously tell yourself that you won’t be happy until you reach your outcome. Process goals are easy to reach as a matter of habit. Pretty much anyone can run a mile every day for a month, so success is very likely. Running a 5:00 mile on the other hand, while admirable, is very difficult to achieve. You might get all your workouts in, run everyday, and create a new habit in the process, while never actually reaching that performance mark.
But try running a mile every day and within several weeks, you’ll likely drop your mile time significantly. Plus, you’ll be putting less pressure on yourself to perform, and it will be more enjoyable. Win-win.
How to Make Successful Goals
If you want to be successful with your goals, you need to set SMART goals—SMART meaning specific, measurable, achievable, realistic/relevant, and time-bound. Many companies use this paradigm, and it works for running too.
Numbers are always a good way to be specific. For example, you could aim for running a 5k in under 30 minutes or running 10 miles in four weeks. If you want to do a process goal, you could say that you’ll run outside three times a week for at least 20 minutes each time.
You don’t have to use numbers, but you do want to make sure that you know when you have achieved your goal. For example, saying that you’ll run up a steep hill without walking is specific because you know when you have achieved it.
Just like being specific, a measurable goal helps you understand your goal, how to get there, and when you’ve achieved it. This means your goal should be linked to something tangible you can measure: a race, a distance, a time, a pace, a certain number of days, etc. Less effective are goals like “Get faster” or “Get healthier.” It’s hard to say when these goals have been achieved.
You should also come up with metrics to evaluate your goal because you need to be able to track your progress. If you want to run three days a week, are you running three days a week?
If you want to reach a certain pace, are you getting faster during your runs? It doesn’t have to be huge differences, but you need to know that you’re making progress. If you want to reach a certain distance, are you able to run farther?
This is probably the hardest aspect of goal-setting for runners. Make sure that you can reach your goal. It can be a stretch goal, but you don’t want to set the bar too high. If it’s too hard, you won’t achieve it. You might get frustrated and quit. If you can only run one mile right now, setting a goal to run 20 miles is likely to be frustrating. If you are running 12:00 miles, setting a goal to run a 5:00 mile is not the best next step. You may very well get to these points down the road. But you need some easier signposts along the way. Start with goals for running three miles, or a 10:00 mile, and then go from there.
This is the idea of breaking a longer-term goal down into smaller, less intimidating steps. If you’re a new runner and eventually want to run a marathon, start with other benchmarks that will set you on your way to the larger goal. For example:
Two-month goal: I want to run a sub-30 minute 5k. Four month goal: I want to run a sub-one hour 10k. Six month goal: I want to be able to run 10 miles. Eight month goal: I want to run a sub-2:30 half marathon. In ten months, I want to be able to run 20 miles. And in one year, I will run a marathon!
Your running goals need to be specific to you. Make sure that they match where you honestly are or could get. Aiming to join the U.S. Olympic team to run the marathon when your fastest pace is a 10:00-minute-mile is likely not realistic for you.
On the other hand, you don’t want to make it something too easy either. If you’ve already run a sub-2 hour half marathon, set a different goal this time like beating your previous record by PRing or feeling stronger at the end of the race.
It’s so easy to see race results, or statistics on social media and Strava that make you believe your goals should be set by other people’s performances. But ignore the noise. Run your own race, set your own goals, achieve your own results.
You need to set a deadline. You could say that you want to run a 5k in less than 30 minutes, which you plan to achieve in two months. This gives you an end date—eight weeks—to know if you’ve met your goal.
Without a time frame, you may get distracted, lose motivation, or set new records for procrastination. Definitely give yourself the time you need to achieve your goals, especially reach ones, but don’t drag it out too long either.
How to Achieve Your Goals
While having clear goals is extremely helpful in knowing the way forward, you do also have to take the next step. You won’t be able to reach your goals without work. Make sure that you’re willing to put in the work for your goal.
If you don’t really want to, then maybe consider setting a different goal that is better-suited to you. Just because other people want to run a marathon doesn’t mean that has to be your goal.
The best thing you can do to meet your goals is to stay consistent. Write your runs into your calendar and keep them like you would a business meeting. They are important! Taking the time to write down what you’re going to do does make people more likely to achieve their goals.
Getting better at running is about doing it on a regular basis. This is why training plans are good. They lay out exactly what to do and when.
If you don’t have a training plan now, take the time to come up with one. Easier yet, find one. Garmin, Stava, MapMyRun, and other services all offer basic training plans for athletes of all levels. There’s a wide range of books on training out there as well. A plan will save you from doing it on the fly and being more likely to skip.
Focus on the Process, Not the Goal
Although this sounds counter-intuitive, it works like we hinted at above. If you focus on the steps to achieve your goal, meaning how you get to your goal, instead of the goal itself, you are more likely to reach it.
It’s about enjoying the journey and being grateful that you get to run and meet whatever goal you ultimately set for yourself. Whenever you do well at a race, it’s the race itself and the training leading up to it that makes crossing the finish line so exciting!
How to Deal with Injuries
While it’s important not to slack off in working toward your goals, injuries are a different story. You need to be in tune with your body and pay attention to its needs. Cut back on training if you feel too fatigued or are experiencing unusual body pains—anything that may lead to injury.
It’s always a bummer to take a day or two off to rest, but you’re much better off doing it now as opposed to overexerting yourself and making the injury even worse, requiring you to take a week or more off of your training.
Don’t Be Afraid to Fail
Finally, it’s important to get started. Even partially completing a big goal is doing more than just sitting on the couch. While setting a realistic goal is key, it’s also okay to set a goal that will be hard to achieve and come up slightly shy of meeting it.
If you fail, you can always try again. But at least you hit the ground running. Failure is how you can get better, because you can learn from your mistakes. Many new runners start off too quickly in the first mile of their races until they learn not to.
There’s a lot to be said for trying and failing. At least you were brave enough to try. You might want to set two goals. One that is your reach goal and one that is your still-hard-to-achieve-but-possible goal.
That’s what I did for running my first half marathon. I wanted a super-fast time for a beginner, but I gave myself a range of 15 minutes for a finish time. I got closer to the slower time than the faster time, but by pushing myself to the faster time, I was faster than I would have been otherwise.
Running is an amazing sport, and when you combine it with goal-setting, you can truly change your life. By setting realistic, but big goals, you’ll be able to give yourself a sense of accomplishment when you meet these goals and even exceed them!
I’d encourage you to get a pen and paper and write down some running goals as well as a training plan of how to get there, and then start. As they say, there is no better day than today! Good luck!