Beyond the Stopwatch: How to Set New Running Goals

Sometimes racing isn’t an option and PRs aren’t possible. So what can we shoot for?


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Injuries. Illness. Career responsibilities. Family matters. A pandemic. A lot can unexpectedly take us away from our hopes and dreams.

Sometimes setting sights on new personal records or winning our age divisions in the local 5K or big city marathon is no longer realistic. But if we’re not working toward something in our running, what’s the point?

Most of us have had at least a momentary lapse in motivation in 2020. The racing schedule has been thrown out the window and training seems loose. Some professional runners, like 2018 Boston Marathon champion Desiree Linden, suggest it’s a good time to remember why we started running in the first place—and then get back to basics.

COVID-19 has forced us to rethink everything this year, including our relationship with running. Abby Paglia, a 24-year-old marathoner living in Boston, grieved a little when she realized that defending her title at the Providence Half Marathon wasn’t going to happen. She had run her fastest 26.2 miles by 15 minutes at the 2019 New York City Marathon (3:11), even off imperfect training with the flu, so she knew she had more talent to explore. After the initial disappointment that competition mostly wasn’t an option in 2020, Paglia regrouped.

“I don’t know why it felt so revolutionary, but it occurred to me that with no races, I didn’t really need to do speed workouts right now,” she says. “So now I can focus on increasing my weekly mileage in a more sustainable way.”

In the past, with targeted races on the calendar, Paglia stuck to a training schedule that included two fast sessions per week. Her body broke down when she tried to maintain the workouts on top of adding more miles to her routine. So she decided to spend the spring running all easy-paced mileage to see if she can work her way up to 70–75 miles per week.

“I am trying to add five miles a week and if I feel exhausted, I’ll plateau for a week,” Paglia says.

Whatever the new target is, most experts agree that it behooves runners—whether there’s a global health crisis or not—to figure out additional objectives to shoot for in our running, outside of times and race results. As NCAA sports came to a screeching halt in the early spring, Rhonda Riley, the head women’s cross-country coach at Duke University, has seen how critical it is for her athletes to find other ways to measure success after the initial grief of losing their seasons to COVID-19.

“Everybody deals with situations in such different ways—everything from sadness to frustration to it being out of your control,” Riley says.

“I just tried to let them experience it whatever way they were dealing with it. There’s no handbook. I wanted to make sure each of them had a path that made sense for them.”

Life is always unpredictable, but perhaps even more so now. Here are some ways to tackle running goals despite the circumstances.

Choose a Path

What else could you improve if you had the time? That’s the question runners should ask themselves. Riley posed that to her athletes and they all picked a few weaknesses that they could change.

“We talk about the little one percent all the time, like being in a routine, getting nine hours of sleep, making sure you’re fueling before and after runs, stretching, doing drills properly,” she says. “All of these little things are things they want to work on during the season but sometimes get neglected.”

One of the teammates consistently fails at hydrating regularly, but is using the unexpected off-season to hold herself accountable.

“She writes in her log, ‘I’m going to accomplish this by having my water bottle set out in the morning and refilling it at specific times during the day,’” Riley says. “Doing some of these things now, over and over and over, hopefully they become ingrained in you.”

Erin Haugen, a clinical and sport psychologist located in Grand Forks, North Dakota, applauds this approach. She encourages her clients to take the opportunity to outline and practice the process.

“The process goals are more intangible in some ways, but now is a time to think about, ‘What helps me run the best?’ and training some of those things,” Haugen says. “That can be powerful when you’re back racing.”

Identify Your Values and Pay Attention

One thing that should remain constant, no matter what is going on in your world, is your values. They drive what you do every day, regardless of the circumstances.

“One question to ask is, ‘What do I want to stand for during this time, and how do I know things are meaningful to me?’” Haugen says. “The second part is paying attention to where our minds are wandering and where we’re putting in our effort. Is it consistent with our values and are these behaviors we’re engaging in moving us toward our values?’”

For example, if your goal is focusing on strength training one day, but you find yourself watching a few hours of Netflix instead, what is that telling you? Perhaps that you need to focus on rest and recovery or maybe you need a different goal.

“Is there something else you need right now to be OK?” Haugen says. “Be curious about your behavior and ask yourself what you need right now, then set goals from there.”

Photo: Getty Images

Don’t Get Hung Up on Schedules

It’s best to start with the short term. What can you accomplish within the next month or two? To start, Riley gave her team an eight-week plan.

“The first goal for everybody was to fall back in love with running without being concerned about times,” she says. “I kept the structure, but the workouts were shorter tempos and fartleks that simulated track intervals, but didn’t force them to be tied to their watches.” About a month after Paglia decided to gradually increase her mileage, she had made it to about 60 miles per week. But she doesn’t want the goal to cause any additional anxiety, so she’s taking it as it comes, rather than holding herself to a timeline.

“If I feel good this week, I’ll up the mileage next week,” she says. “I feel like putting myself on a schedule would increase the stress of it unnecessarily.”

Take a Break

If running—and all the ancillary tasks surrounding it—feels too emotionally burdensome at any point, it’s OK to step away until you want to try again. Sometimes setting other goals won’t help move you forward or inspire you. Training will always be there when you come back, and sometimes the lack of motivation is really just a need for recovery.

“Physical activity is about emotional well-being, and for those who view running more competitively, that might not necessarily be how they think about it,” Haugen says. “In a lot of ways, sometimes you just need more rest. It’s not harmful to take a break from running.” Riley has encouraged her runners to acknowledge when a situation “just sucks.”

“I got on Zoom one day with the team, and I’m not a crier, but I cried,” she says. “I was very vulnerable with them. I told them to not put on happy faces and to acknowledge that this is difficult right now.”

The result? A flood of texts with confessions that running felt awful for some, others were just generally struggling, and some directly asked for help. “It just opened the door for them to be real,” Riley says.

When it’s time to return to what we call “normal”—chasing times and awards—don’t forget those moments. Carry with you the lessons learned during the time away. You got through it. “We can have a lot of resilience and build a lot of skills we didn’t even realize,” Haugen says. “And we can handle a lot of adversity—remember that when you’re training and racing again.”