Running Goals: How to Set, Approach, and Achieve Your Dreams

I’ve never been one to set goals with any sort of specificity. Sure, I have ideas of things I’d like to achieve in my mind, but I’m not the type to write them down for my own reference. And I definitely would never share my running goals with strangers on the internet. 

But let me try something here. 

“Goals are the first line of building blocks to performance,” says Eva Monsma, Ph.D., a sports psychologist and professor at the University of South Carolina. “They direct motivation. If set properly, they can distract from anxiety, pressure from outside, whether it’s on the macro or micro level.”

The key to setting goals that are actually helpful? Break it all down (and I mean all of it). The magic, it seems, comes from the details. “The challenge comes when people can’t break down the components of what performance is,” says Monsma. 

I’ve trained for races before, but never anything longer than a half marathon. And I’ve never set specific goals for the race other than finishing and having fun. But now that I’m about to embark on training for my first full marathon–a distance that seems so daunting–I’m considering the benefits of setting some real goals. 

So what does the process look like? 

Tips for Setting Running Goals

1. Write It Down. Goals, I’ve learned, should be very detailed, breaking down the process of getting there (more than just the training plan). Not only is writing it down a good memory technique–this has been called the “generation effect” by neuroscientists who have found that generating the material yourself, versus just reading or thinking about something like a goal, helps you remember it better–but it’s going to help you keep all those details straight. 

I’ve also found that re-writing a training plan into my calendar helps me to arrange it in a way that works best for my schedule and I’m less likely to have to skip a training session because life got in the way. 

2. Consider Your Motivation. Are you motivated by competition with yourself or competition with others? You probably don’t have to think too hard to get to this answer. This is the starting point in choosing running goals that would best motivate you. 

Setting goals that are motivated by self-improvement are easier to control than those set in comparison to others. If you are motivated by external factors, there are best practices on setting goals that motivate you. If winning a half marathon isn’t in the cards, then maybe your goal is just to pass a certain number of people in the race,  move into the top 100  places among your age group, or own a specific segment on Strava.

3. Respect Your Baseline. Look at your past experiences to draw on your goals for this next year. If you’re a beginner, your lack of experience is just as important to consider. 

I am a middle-of-the-pack racer. I am not selling myself short when I say that a podium finish is not in my future, nor one of my desires as I’ve never been motivated by external competition. Based on some struggles with hip strength that showed up in my last half marathon, a reasonable goal would be to make it to the starting line of the marathon in May, healthy and injury-free. 

4. Set Progress and Performance Goals.

Even elite athletes struggle when it comes to goal-setting. A study of 125 elite athletes published in the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology found that performance goals were associated with higher levels of burnout while process goals were not. 

Performance goals are an easy default for runners to make when setting goals. Not to discount them–having a time or distance goal is valid and important–but don’t overlook how you plan to get there. 

Not paying attention to the process is the biggest pitfall people make when setting goals, says Monsma.

This is where you’ll want to break down the components that will get you to your goal. Even less specific goals like “make exercise a habit”, can benefit from a commitment to specifying the inputs. (Studies show that even non-specific goals can be beneficial when it comes to exercise adoption.) Are you going to start by going for a short run in the mornings before work? Or commit to running the track while your kid is at their sports practice? 

For me, making it to the start line healthy means my running goals are to get consistent sleep (going to sleep at the same time every night), follow my training plan (especially strength training, set specific goals for those sessions), fuel myself well, and make sure to include a warm up and cool down on every run. 

You’ve Written Your Goals Down, Now What?

After you’ve thoroughly thought through your goals, make a plan to check back in. Whether it’s journaling at the end of a training session or reflecting at the end of each month, it’s important to make sure you are following up and tracking your progress, updating your goals and processes  as necessary. 

When executing against your goals, Monsma also recommends practicing mental strategies that can help you plan for potential setbacks. 

“[Imagery is] very powerful because it can also help us formulate images of what we want to accomplish and how and by when.”

The technique can help you prepare for the inevitable positive and negative emotions that arise when going after a goal. For example, what would you realistically do if running starts to hurt? “One of the things that imagery helps with is putting yourself in the most difficult situation possible. And [then] imagining yourself fighting through the situation.” 

The process of visualization gives you the opportunity to prepare for adversity. 

“A lot of goal-setting can be physical, but you can’t always physically train. So there are a lot of benefits of improving your physical performance by anticipating some of these other things that you can imagine yourself going through,” Monsma says. She recommends coming up with a plan for those unexpected speed-bumps.

Goals Beyond Racing

Even if you don’t enjoy racing and you choose to run for other reasons, setting specific running goals can be beneficial. Maybe your goal is to make your health a priority this year and running is one part of that process. Or maybe you want to run more than you did last year or improve your endurance. Your goal could be to have more fun while running – with the plan to spend more miles with friends or to run your favorite trail at least once a week. 

Whatever the goal is, don’t be afraid to write it down and really think about what it takes to get there. 

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