Setting Running Goals: The Audacious and The Realistic

Setting Realistic Running Goals

This is the first post in a series about goal setting for runners. You can also check out: Non-Time Based Running Goals: What Inspires You? & Are Your Goals Under Your Control? 

I love goals. I love setting them, and I love creating the plans that will help me achieve them. Those plans usually involve multiple to-do lists and different colored highlighters, but maybe that’s just me.

Setting challenging, but realistic, goals can lead to accomplishments greater than you think possible.

However, setting the wrong goal can be super disheartening. Unrealistic goals can lead to disappointment and disillusionment. If it’s not the right goal for where you are right now, no matter how hard you work, you will keep falling short.

Audacious Running Goals and Realistic Running Goals

All goals are NOT created equal.

First, there are the big, audacious goals. The 30,000 feet goals. These goals keep you inspired by the novel and the unknown.

Then there are the real goals, the ground-level, make-a-specific-action-plan type goals. These goals are just out of your reach, but doable if you work harder (or work smarter, or rearrange your priorities).

Fuzzy, Audacious Goals

Fuzzy, audacious goals are big picture, lifelong, bucket list goals. They don’t need to be tied to your current reality or budget. These are the goals that you daydream about. They are big achievements that can be aspired to and provide inspiration for years.

Every runner should have a few audacious goals. When starting out, many might say that simply finishing a half or full marathon is audacious. Some runners consider qualifying for the Boston Marathon to be audacious. I’ve written about my bucket list races before (I’m coming for you Death Valley Marathon, it will happen).

Progress and improvement in running can be slow, it should be slow. These long-term goals can help keep you inspired.

Setting Realistic Goals

But real goals, specific race goals, are a different thing altogether.

Realistic goals can be a small stepping stone on your way to accomplishing an audacious goal, or they can be free-standing. In either case, a realistic running goal needs to be based on where you are today. They need to be based in reality. They must be in line with your current fitness level.

For example, my personal best marathon time is 4:29. If I make my goal time for my next marathon, which is in 5 months, my age-group Boston Qualifying time (3:45), I am setting myself up for failure. Chopping that much time off a personal best in that short of time just isn’t realistic.

It would be a recipe for injury and burnout.

So what is realistic?

There is no shortage of race calculators and finish time predictors to be found online. Runners World Magazine just updated the math behind their race time predictor, and its results are pretty good. These calculators work in basically the same way: you enter the times(s) of races you have recently completed. Based on recent finish times, they calculate out your pace to other distances.

Remember that goals are not set in stone. If you are firing on all cylinders during training, and you are improving your race times, it is an easy thing to re-calculate and re-calibrate your goals.

How Are You Going To Achieve Your Goal

Setting a goal is the easy part.

Now you need to figure out how you are going to achieve your goal.

Shaving 5 minutes off a marathon personal best may be realistic, but if you don’t train any differently than you have in the past, chances are you won’t achieve different results.

To get somewhere you've never been


How will this improvement come? What will you do differently to achieve new results?

You need to take specific and intentional steps toward your goal every day.

What are you going to change? What are you going to add to (or remove from) your current training? If you want to get faster, how will that happen? Additional speed work? Running hill repeats until you can’t repeat another hill?

You also need to be ready for the inevitable obstacles that will arise on your path to total goal domination. I guarantee something will happen, an unexpected business trip, the kids will all get sick, the storm of the century will hit and leave you unable to run outdoors for a week.

You may not be able to plan for the specific obstacles, but you can ponder the types of interruptions that tend to occur in your life. Could those types of obstacles interfere with your running goal? What steps can you take to minimize their impact? Planning ahead will allow you to face those obstacles like a pro.


What about you? How do you know if your goals are realistic?

Setting Realistic Race Goals


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