How to Choose a Running Goal That is Right For You (and Achieve It)
For experienced runners of mid- or short-distances, the task of setting a pace for marathon training can be a daunting one. And if you are a beginner preparing for your first race, it can feel as arbitrary as choosing numbers for the lottery. At worst, it can even intensify self-doubt. After all, the stakes are high: goals are what determines success or failure.
When done right, however, the process of setting goals draws upon your own physiology rather than your psychology. A wise goal is one that fuses your physiological and psychological strengths to boost performance to your true potential.
What are the benefits of setting goals?
A well-established goal transforms your training regimen into a yardstick to gauge your progress. Seeing your incremental improvements through the weeks affords you a tangible reward. And, if you find yourself regressing, your goal can serve as a baseline for understand what is going wrong in your training — whether it’s diet, enthusiasm, or other variables.
As far as race performance goes, goals are an essential building block to success, as you define it. Without a definite goal as part of your training regimen, you are more likely to run out of steam midway through the race. But if you have pinpointed the best goal, and have trained towards that goal effectively, you are much likelier to locate and stick with the proper pace throughout the race.
How do I come up with a goal?
Early in my running life, I set goals that I knew I could achieve with little to no improvement. I did this mainly to avoid another, equally problematic effect of unwise goal-setting: failure. I never bothered to ratchet up to another, more challenging gear. As a result, I plateaued. A good goal is a delicate balance between challenge and attainability. This is the best way to avoid plateauing, injury, or burnout.
What if my goal is running long distance?
The ideal pace for a long run is determined by your aerobic threshold, which is the fastest pace you can run without going into oxygen debt. For long-distance runs, you want to settle into a notch at about 80-85% of that threshold. So, if you are a 40-year old woman with a max heart rate of 185 BPM, you would look for the running pace that would allow you 148-158 BPM. When you are starting your training, it may be tempting to push yourself harder, but as you pack on the miles later on in training, the effects of burning through your oxygen and relying on lactic acid can be disastrous.
Once you have identified your target, it is helpful to remember that you have many chances, spread over a long period, to hit the bullseye. And, equally important, is the fact that your aerobic threshold will almost certainly rise as you become more fit. This, in turn, may make it possible for you to raise your expectations without being unrealistic.
But if all this sounds somewhat technical, your first step in goal-setting should be to run a race. The competition is the only thing that can give you a sense of your own potential. If you want to train for a half marathon, sign up for a 10K a few weeks or months before the 13.1 mile race. Identifying your race splits for a shorter distance can give you a target for the later, longer race.
What should I do to test my ability to meet the goal?
So, you’ve identified your aerobic threshold and feel like you are capable of maintaining the appropriate pace. But your work has only just begun. Far more important than determining a goal is what you do to reach it. Or, as is often the case, once you’ve reached your goal, can you continue to push yourself to new goals. Use training as a way to experiment with new strategies.
Below are some guidelines that will help you reach your goal and your potential on race day.
- Experiment with speed workouts. During marathon training, I set aside one day per week to run fast. Or, should I say “faster.” Speed workouts are a good addition regardless of what race you are training for.
- Tempo runs: This type of run, which is usually paced 10% faster than your “comfort” speed, is a valuable way of raising your aerobic threshold, and therefore improving your aerobic pace. The easiest way to identify your tempo run pace is the “talk test.” If you can have a conversation, you are not running fast enough; if you are gasping for air, you are running too fast. You should be able to spit out a short sentence, though. If I am training for a 10K, I do a four- or five-mile tempo run twice a week.
- Aim for consistency. The most important goal of any training program is to be consistent, a true marker of endurance. You may have run your fastest pace ever a week before the race. But can you perform that way again and again? Run your goal pace at a variety of distances, in a variety of conditions. When I am training for a marathon, I run my marathon goal pace 3 times a week, starting at seven miles and working towards the 18- or 20 miles at which my training tops out. Even though I can run faster than my marathon pace for shorter distances, I spend a lot of time getting comfortable with that pace. I liken it to cruise control in a car, with the bulk of my mental energy expended not on going faster, but on running smarter and hydrating effectively.
- Track your progress. The absolutely most important item for stable progression towards your race goal is a tracking it. You can use a GPS watch, an app on your phone, or just a training journal. The benefit of GPS watches are that they will give you second-by-second feedback on many aspects of your performance, including heart rate, splits, and distance.
- Adapt. I feel bad when I don’t meet my goal. But I seldom finish a run feeling like my goal is unattainable. Failure pushes me to try new training methods and techniques. It should teach you how to overcome your limitations. But what if you have the opposite problem? What if you are halfway through training and you think you are going to easily meet your goal? Reset it. Goals are only meaningful if they help you tap into the true knowledge of success that lies beyond the simple meeting of a goal.
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