Part of being a runner is setting goals. Whether you’re a self-proclaimed jogger or a budding elite, using objective benchmarks to measure your success can provide motivation, incentive, and eventually, a sense of accomplishment.
But setting goals can also be scary. The fear of failure drives many athletes to participate without a pre-set standard. While this strategy can protect your ego in the short term, in the long term, the flexibility can lead to diminished performance and a depressed sense of purpose.
Here are some tips for setting goals that will help you reach your potential as a runner:
1. Be Specific
You want your goals to be specific and measureable. That way, you will know without a doubt if you have accomplished them or if you still have more work to do. It is also important to set clear deadlines for each benchmark to give yourself some sense of immediacy that will, in turn, give you the motivation you need to head out the door each day.
Some examples of specific, deadline oriented running goals are:
- I will run a personal best by 15 seconds in the 10k before the end of this year.
- I will run the Turkey Trot 5k without walking.
- I will run, on average, 10 more miles per week by the end of this year.
2. Set Multiple Goals
No matter how good your intentions or how well you prepare, certain circumstances—weather, travel, or illness, for example—will be out of your control during any given training cycle or race. If you just set a single, ultimate standard of success, there is a good chance you will be disappointed due to factors beyond your control.
For this reason it can be helpful to use a multi-faceted, multi-tiered approach when you set goals. In fact, many elite runners have been known to set A, B, and C goals when preparing for a big race:
The A-goal is the ultimate, pie-in-the-sky standard of success. It should be challenging, a bit idealistic, and a little out of reach. This doesn’t mean unrealistic or fantastical—it means setting a goal that you could accomplish if everything were to go right and then some on race day.
The A-goal is still based on your training cycle and current fitness, but it leaves the door open for a performance that may have, at one time, been slightly improbable.
An example of this goal would be to set a personal best by a significant amount or breaking a time barrier previously thought to be too difficult to attain.
The B-goal is a realistic marker that is still challenging, but should be within reach baring unusually difficult circumstances. It should be set according to recent results and past seasons, plus the evidence detailed in your training log.
This is the goal that gets you out the door each day. You know it’s possible if you just put in the work, take care of yourself, and show up in one piece on competition day, but checking it off the list would still be a significant accomplishment and measure of your increasing abilities as a runner.
An example of a B-goal would be to run your next race at a pace-per-mile (for example, six minutes/mile for a half-marathon) that is challenging and difficult, but also supported by your training plan.
949: The most marathons ever completed by one person during their lifetime, by Horst Preisler of Germany. He reach his goal of setting the world record by running, on average, 37 marathons a year between 1974 and March 2000.
The C-goal is the baseline standard of success—you would be happy if you met this goal, but understand you still have work to do. These might come into play during an off-day, when, though you have prepared well, you just don’t feel great. Instead of throwing in the towel, you can think back to your C-goal, knowing that it is still within reach if you just gut it out to the finish.
An example of a C-goal might be to not get out-kicked in the last 100 meters or to negative split by more than 10 seconds.
3. Readjust Your Goals As You Improve
As you improve as a runner, you will not only need to set new goals, you will also need to adjust the ruler you use to measure success.
New runners see huge gains in performance as their fitness improves. It is not out of the ordinary to see developing athletes drop five minutes from their 5k time or move up 30 places in the same race from the year before. Unfortunately, as your fitness and your personal-best times improve, the amount you will continue to get better by will become smaller. Elite runners are elated when they take 10 seconds off their 10,000-meter time or even a half-second in shorter races like the mile or 800-meters.
As you get better, you are simply getting closer to your ultimate potential and will see less overtly dramatic shifts in your performance. Adjust your perception of success and goals according to your new fitness level.
4. Set Goals Based On You
Too many runners get caught in the trap of setting goals that are based on how others do, rather than their personal performance. This means attempting to run a time or at a level at which you can actually train, rather than a placement or outcome determined by the races of those around you. You can’t control the race of the runner next to you—so if your goal of winning the race is belayed by their good day, you will probably end up frustrated and angry.
Don’t set goals that depend on others not making theirs.
5. Stay Accountable
All runners have different ways of staying accountable. Some tell everyone they know about their goals, because it makes them feel more able to rise to the occasion; some write them on a post-it and stick it on the mirror where only they can see it; and some need no reminder at all.
Find what works for you.
Goals are meant to be positive measures of success. If they are dragging you down or becoming more of a frustration than a source of satisfaction, revaluate the process by which you make the goals in the first place. Ask a coach or friend for guidance and take a step back to make sure that your training and fitness level coincide with your ambition.
With a little bit of thought, some planning, and a lot of hard work, you’ll be checking off those goals in no time!