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Mandy Williams  •  Running Training •  22.12.2020 •  6 min read

How to set effective running goals

A goal without a plan is just a wish!” said Antoine De Saint-Exupéry.

As runners, we’re always trying to set goals that motivate or excite us. However, setting actual effective running goals isn’t as easy as you might think. If you just wish something and don’t do the work, chances are that you won’t achieve what you’ve set yourself.

Goal setting requires a great deal of thinking and planning if you want to maximise your chances of success. In this article, I propose a guide to help you set effective running goals and will use my own personal goal for 2021 as an example.

Before we get into the detail of how to set goals, it's important to understand what 'goals' actually are.

The different types of goals

“A goal is something you are trying to accomplish” is a great definition.

Sport psychologists split goals into 3 types:

  • Outcome goals: to win a medal, beat a competitor, etc.
  • Performance goals: to beat your own 5k time, to run longer than you have before, etc.
  • Process goals: to shorten your stride when running, eat a better diet, etc.

Outcome goals are extrinsic, that is they require validation from others.

Performance and process goals are intrinsic and relate to yourself; they are not dependent on how others perceive you.

According to a theory called ‘self determination’, intrinsic motivation is the better type of motivation for achieving success. So the first question we need to ask ourselves, before even putting a plan together is, why we are setting this goal in the first place. Without a clear reason, the plan is more likely to fail from the start.

Intrinsic motivation is the key to success and the medals might even follow as a result!

My running goal

Like a lot of runners this year I experienced weeks when I felt demotivated, with races being cancelled. I badly needed something to give me a personal focus to train for and help me to enjoy running again (intrinsic motivation). I have completed marathons before with a PB of 03:14:00 but I have always wanted to get under the 3 hours mark. Recently, I had been running in the hills and mountains and road running was a thing of the past but if I wanted a challenge maybe it was time to mix things up again.

At the age of 45 I am in the 'Masters category' of running races so I googled 'Women Vet 45 marathon times' and found that if I achieved a marathon time under 3hours I would be in the top 1% of my 40-50 year women age group in the world! Well, that's kinda cool! This would be tough and would mean a whole new training plan, diet and a whole new mindset.

But how can I be sure this is an effective running goal?

How to set effective running goals

I believe there are 4 key factors to setting effective running goals.

Is my goal achievable?

My 2.59 marathon target (my family now call it 2.59@45) is a tough goal for sure. It will mean training 70+ miles a week over the winter. I would need to start including speed work (something I like to avoid) and even strength work (which I really don't enjoy).

So, is it really achievable?

To answer that question I had to test how comfortable I was running at 06:50min/mile (the pace I will need to hold for 26.2 miles). Can I even run a 06:50min/mile pace anymore?

Thus, I trained for a few weeks on the road and did a 5k time trial. Result: I could hold 06:15min/mile pace quite comfortably, so I concluded I still had the necessary leg speed to achieve my 2.59@45 project.

My second test was to run for over 4 hours to test my endurance. I ran at 1min per mile slower than my target marathon pace. Again, I felt great so my endurance was still there.

I passed my first test for effective goal setting - it was a HARD goal but achievable with HARD work. I wouldn’t have set out to beat Kipchoge and get under 2 hours, that would have been unachievable and totally unrealistic and doomed to failure from the start.

Is the goal specific enough?

This one was easy, the marathon was booked and I had set a target time of 2.59. It was a clear and specific goal. If your goal is to 'improve your running' or 'run faster', then it's too vague to be an effective goal. Goals don’t work if they are not clear.

Is it time constrained?

Do I give myself 10 years to complete my goal? Or 3 weeks?

Both, I hope you agree, are not realistic timescales.

I chose a marathon in May, which gives me 8 months – 2 months mileage build-up on the roads, 6 months training plan.

Goals can be more short term than this (for example a 5k in a month), but again it ties in with the above point of being realistic. Do you have a background of running? Or are you starting from scratch? Are you injured?

Realistic time frames are important to set an effective goal.

Mandy image

Time also allows you to break down your goal preparation. Olympians have 4 years to plan ahead of the Olympics and they break down those years in smaller goals to achieve along the way. For example an Olympian track runner may look to compete at a National level, beat their PBs. These are all examples of 'micro goals' that allow motivation to remain high whilst training towards the bigger goal. It allows the athlete to monitor the effectiveness of their training along the way.

Do you have a plan to help you reach your goal?

You can write down that goal, set a timeline, book the race but do you know how you are going to get there? Do you need a coach, or do you need a new routine? Do you need to change your diet? I spent at least a week putting together a plan and finding a coach that could help me. I printed out a training and nutritional plan and stuck it on my kitchen wall. After all, as I started by saying a goal without a plan is just a wish!

So to conclude when setting an effective goal make sure it is:

  1. Realistic but HARD!
  2. Specific
  3. Time constrained
  4. Have a plan for how to achieve it

Enjoy the climb

With this in mind I would like to finish on one important point...I’m going to quote Miley Cyrus which is something I never thought I would do but here goes:

“There's always gonna be another mountain
I'm always gonna wanna make it move
Always gonna be an uphill battle
Sometimes I'm gonna have to lose
Ain't about how fast I get there
Ain't about what's waiting on the other side
It's the climb”

Now go set some goals!

Trail runner wearing Salomon gear
Photo by Salomon
Intrinsic motivation is the key to success.

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