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How You Can Set A Realistic Time Goal For Your Next Race

You want a race goal that is challenging, yet realistic. Here is how to choose a time goal that is based on your current fitness.

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time goal
Photo is from 2014 NJ Marathon, when I ran with a more realistic time goal and finished smiling.

I’m nine weeks away from my target race this fall—The Wineglass Marathon—and I’ve started receiving the normal questions about goals for the race. While I have a general range in mind, I haven’t decided upon a specific time. There are countless tempos, intervals and long runs, as well as a couple of tune-up races that need to be run before my coach and I decide on what time I will be chasing on race day.

To put it simply, my training will dictate my race day goals.

But this wasn’t always the way I approached time targets. After taking a number of years off from racing and running long distances, I signed up for the 2013 New Jersey Marathon with the goal of running a sub-3:10. I had signed up for the 2012 marathon, but deferred due to pregnancy. That number sounded great. I was proud to share it with friends, family and on social media. But, where did it come from?

The sub-3:10 goal loosely took into account my previous PR but didn’t factor in my training cycle, nor how long I had been away from the distance. Basically I kind of pulled it out of thin air. I felt it was challenging enough without being impossible. My personal record was 3:21. I felt that 3:15 would be too easy of a goal and so I dropped it down another 5 minutes to the nice, round number of 3:10. Dream big, right?

Well in my case, it was wrong. The 2013 New Jersey Marathon was my first “Did Not Finish” (DNF). I got burned out during training. Then I started the race too fast for my ability and hit the wall hard at mile 21. All of this can be tied back to having an inaccurate time goal.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t have big, scary goals. There is something magical about having dreams that you chase. I still have the goal of one day running sub-3:10. But I no longer let a time goal drive my training.

So how do you determine a realistic goal time for an upcoming race? Here are a few ideas:

Have a long term goal but create a series of short-term goals.

Want to take 10, 20, 30+ min off your PR? It doesn’t have to happen all at once. Aim to take a few minutes off your previous PR for a few consecutive marathons. It’s easier on your body while also allowing you to reach and pass goals as you go along. If you repeatedly accomplish your smaller goals, your motivation will remain high.

Use a pace calculator.

While these aren’t 100 percent effective, they can point you in the right direction based on recent race results and training paces. Keep in mind that these calculators assume that you are putting in the appropriate training. Just because you can run a 5K in 25 minutes today doesn’t mean you can run a marathon in 4:03 tomorrow if you haven’t been doing long runs.

Schedule a few tune-up races.

This is a great way to gauge your current fitness and determine if your goal is feasible. But be sure to select an appropriate race distance for your goals. A half marathon tune-up is perfect during marathon training. Tune-up races be great predictors, but they are not always completely effective. I’m much stronger at longer distances than short distances – so if I plug my 5k time into the calculator, it could limit my training.

Train for where you are, not where you want to be.

This was my biggest issue. The running calculators give paces for different training runs. I made the mistake of beginning the cycle with paces for where I wanted to be in 16 weeks—not where my current fitness was. My workout paces were too fast for me. I ended up overtraining and getting burned out.

Once you have a goal, it’s important to remain flexible. A marathon training cycle is long—often 16 weeks or more. There are plenty of things that can sidetrack you for a week or more (injury, life). You may need to adjust your time goal accordingly.