How to Set Running Goals: Follow These 7 Steps to Achieve Success


Female Runner Wearing BQ shirt with thumbs up

Runners are some of the most driven, self-motivated, and goal-oriented athletes out there. But what exactly is the best way to go about setting running goals (and achieving them)?

Keep reading, because we have 7 simple steps that will help you determine your next running goal, and find success in achieving that goal.

Why is it important to set goals for your running?

Setting goals for your running is important because by doing so, you are setting yourself up for success. Research has shown that goal-setting is one of the easiest ways to increase motivation and productivity. Having running goals can help with your focus, motivation and purpose as a runner. With goals in place, you can plan and prepare for how you’re going to achieve them. Finally, there is an immense amount of personal satisfaction that comes from accomplishing goals.

7 Steps to Set and Achieve Your Running Goals

Here are the 7 steps you need to take in order to set and achieve your running goals. Each step is crucial to your success, and should not be skipped.

1.) Think About What is Important to You

Your running goals should be important and meaningful to you. You are more likely to stick with your goals and find success in achieving them if they matter to YOU and get you excited.

“Let your running be about your own hopes and dreams,” retired Olympian and Boston Marathon champion, Meb Keflezighi, shared with Runner’s World. He states in his book, Meb for Mortals, that running goals should be things you want to achieve for yourself, and are not about meeting someone else’s expectations of you.

Running goals do not necessarily need to be based around races or hitting certain times during races.

There are a lot of different goals, unrelated to race times, that you could strive for with respect to running, such as:

  • increasing your mileage to a new base level
  • running a certain number of miles per month, or per year
  • running a certain number of days per week
  • avoiding injury by making adjustments to how you train

And that’s just to name a few. Really, the sky is the limit when it comes to your running goals! Choose goals that resonate with you and you’ll be much more likely to achieve them and enjoy the process.

2.) Set Specific Goals Outside of Your Comfort Zone

Specific, ambitious goals consistently lead to higher performance as opposed to just “doing your best”, conclude two of the most preeminent behavioral scientists who study goal-setting.

Your running goal should be specific. In other words, it should be a highly detailed statement, according to this article from Eastern Washington University, on what you want to accomplish.

Don’t be Vague: “I want to improve in my 10k.” (That’s too subjective.)
Do Be Very Specific: “My goal is to PR my 10k by running it in under 55 minutes at the Denver 10k race in June.” (That’s measurable and time-bound!)

Your running goal should be moderately difficult, according to the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. Moderately difficult goals are better than easy goals or very difficult goals, because you will be pushed to extend yourself as you work toward the challenge. Moderately difficult goals will also give you better satisfaction when you achieve them.

Figuring out what is “moderately difficult” for you can be tricky. It can be tempting to choose a relatively easy goal. On the other end of the spectrum, choosing a goal that is unrealistic for where you are as a runner right now is problematic, too. If you’re having a hard time deciding, Meb suggests that runners chose goals that are “challenging but realistic.

So how do you know what’s challenging but realistic? In our article, The Running Time Trial: Purpose, How, and Interpreting Results, we discuss how helpful running a time trial can be to set time goals for yourself in certain races. An example of a challenging but realistic goal could be shooting for the half-marathon time that your 2-mile time trial shows you have the ability to achieve with the proper training.

3.) Determine Your Performance Goal

A performance goal is a performance standard that you are trying to achieve. It is a personal goal that is mostly in your control and independent of others.

Here are a few examples of performance goals in running:

  • Run a sub-4 hour marathon (here’s how we recommend you do that by the way!)
  • Run 1,000 miles in one year
  • Hit the Boston Marathon qualifying time standard for your age group
  • Run a mile in under 8 minutes
  • Run a 5k without walking

In Coach Jane’s YouTube video on running goals, she reminds runners that performance goals might take longer to achieve than you want or expect. That’s just due to the nature of running itself. Running is not a sport of instant gratification. It can take a long time to chip away at smaller performance goals on your way to reaching a big performance or outcome goal.

Don’t confuse a performance goal with an outcome goal, which is based on competition and winning, and something you mostly can’t control due to outside influences. Examples of outcome goals for runners would be placing in the Top 5 of a race or winning your age group (most of the time you don’t even know who will show up that day!)

4.) Set Process Goals

A process goal is a small thing to focus on while you work toward your performance goal. Process goals are specific actions or processes that over time, build upon one another and lead you to accomplish your performance goal. In other words, process goals are about the day-to-day work you will need to put in.

You should think about and decide upon your process goals while you’re formulating your performance goal.

Examples of process goals for runners can be things like:

  • run 5 days per week
  • get at least 7 hours of sleep each night
  • run 1 quality session per week
  • complete PT exercises exactly as prescribed
  • always include a proper warm-up
  • run 80% of your mileage at an easy pace

Process goals are highly individual, and vary from runner to runner, so it’s important to not compare your process goals with those of other runners.

In the end, sticking to your process goals are what’s going to allow you to achieve your performance goal. Though they may seem small, they are the building blocks to your success. If you are consistent with each of them, achieving the performance goal is sure to follow.

RELATED: A Guide to How Much Mileage Marathon Runners Run

5.) Track and Celebrate Your Progress

Staying consistent over time is one of the best things you can do as a runner, but Sport Psychology Today reminds us that process goals can be a grind, and doing the same things over and over again can get boring over time.

It could potentially take months or even years to see the result of process goals.

That is why it’s so important to track your progress. Use a running app connected to your phone, a running watch, a spreadsheet, or a handwritten training log, to follow your progress closely. You might track your progress by miles, minutes, or personal best times. By tracking and measuring your progress, you will start to see the fruits of your labor over time, which will help keep you going on the tough days when your motivation might not be as high.

Along your running journey, take time to celebrate your hard work! Rewarding or incentivizing your process goals will help keep you motivated even when you don’t hit your performance goal. You’ll stay excited about continuing to work toward it and less likely to give up before you’ve reached it.

6.) Have a Time Constraint, But Be Flexible

A well-stated goal should be time-bound. Your performance goal should have a specific date or event to work toward. Scientific research has found that deadlines improve the effectiveness of goals.

Meb recommends having a time constraint in order to create a plan for how you’re going to tackle your goal. A time constraint also provides a sense of urgency to help drive and motivate you to reach your goal. He suggests runners set a timeframe of around 3-6 months to meet a goal. That way, you have enough time to put in the necessary work, but it’s not so far off into the future that you burn out in the process.

Your goals don’t necessarily have to be short-term, however. The Association for Applied Sport Psychology recommends that athletes use short-range goals to help them achieve long-range goals. You can tick off short-term goals on your way to accomplishing your bigger, long-term goal. Short-term goals can be likened to climbing a mountain: step by step, one small goal after another, you will eventually reach the top – your long-term goal.

Keep in mind however, as mentioned before, that running is a sport that requires patience! One of Coach Jane’s favorite sayings for her running clients is, “Be stubborn about your goals, but flexible about your methods.” Have a flexible mindset about your timeframe, because sometimes unexpected issues can come up that might affect your ability to obtain your goal the first try, such as injury, illness, and other life events.

In some cases, your goal might end up being more difficult than you thought it would be, and it will take more time to achieve than originally planned. If you don’t achieve your performance goal on the first try, don’t give up! Stay positive, celebrate the progress you have made toward it, and keep trying until you reach it!

7.) Share Your Goals with People Who Care About You

Once you’ve decided on a goal for yourself, an important step is to share it with close friends, family and/or training partners who care about you and can support your success.

While it seems easier to keep goals to yourself (and potentially less embarrassing in the event you don’t quite reach your goal on the first try), there is a positive effect when runners are accountable to others for their goals. In one recent study, participants who updated friends on their weekly progress toward their goals were able to accomplish significantly more than participants who had unwritten goals, wrote their goals down, formulated plans, or shared their plans with a friend.

Human brains internalize and mimic the movements and mental states of others, according to this article from Scientific American. For runners, this means that being around those with similar goals helps us to reach our own goals. This helps explain why meeting up with friends for runs or strength training can help you accomplish your running goals more easily than if you were to simply run or train alone.

Finally, Meb explains that when your loved ones know about your goal, you will have extra support in making good choices that benefit your training. Meb shares that his wife supported him during his training cycles by gently reminding him not to stay up too late at night, ensuring that he was getting enough sleep to recover from his training.

The truth of the matter is that not every goal will be achieved on the first try provided that you are setting lofty enough goals to push you out of your comfort zone. But don’t forget that running is a long game and the great part is that there will be a next time to try again! If you stick with it and continuously follow these 7 steps for your next running goal, you are sure to find success in accomplishing it!

Jaclyn Evans

Hey, I’m Jaclyn, a busy mom of three! As a ballet dancer growing up, I dreaded running the mile every week in P.E. I never really ran again until a fitness class in my mid-30s, where I discovered that distance running is actually fun. I recently completed my first half marathon and hope to do more soon! I love learning everything I can about this sport in order to become the best runner I can be.

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