Running goes pretty hand-in-hand with goal-setting—whether you just want to cross a finish line or you want to do so in a specific time, training revolves around getting you to that start line in the best possible position to achieve your goal.
As a runner, it’s up to you to decide what your goals are. Is it about that time on the clock, or does something more internal fuel you? “As the years go by, I’m trying to be less and less tangible about goals, because the more tangible the goal, the more limiting it is,” says Ben Rosario, head coach and founder of the HOKA NAZ Elite team. Think about it this way: If an athlete’s sole focus is making the Olympic team, but three people outrun her on the day of the race, does coming in fourth make her a failure? Absolutely not.
“Stephanie [Bruce], who came in sixth at the Olympic Trials for the marathon this year and only missed the team by 19 seconds, is a perfect example of this,” says Rosario. “I wouldn’t have changed one thing about her training, and I wouldn’t have changed one thing about how she ran that race. It was the best marathon she’s ever run in her life, but five people beat her. That doesn’t make it any less of a successful day for her, and wouldn’t it be a shame to walk away from that feeling like a failure?”
An intangible goal is one that’s based on something outside obvious accolades, like a specific race pace, title, or podium spot. Distance runner Alice Wright, for example, has her heart set on racing the marathon—but after having three training cycles derailed by foot and back issues, her short-term goal is staying injury-free. “I’ve battled with a lot of injuries this last year, so I wake up every morning and think ‘stay healthy, don’t get injured,’” she says. Without focusing on that short-term goal, her long-term goal will stay out of reach.
Having specific, short-term goals like that—whether that’s running a specific number of miles per day or prioritizing a certain number of strength training workouts per week—can better help you reach your long-term goals, according to older research published in the journal Motivation and Emotion.
The reality is, though, so much of running is about what the numbers on the clock say. But runners need to flip the way they think about goal-setting when it comes to race times. “Sometimes, you’re setting a time goal six months or 12 months out from a given race,” says Rosario. “How can you possibly know what kind of fitness you’re going to be in?” Instead of setting a goal—say, a Boston Marathon qualifying time—and chasing the fitness required to achieve that goal, you should set a goal to be as fit as you can be at the end of a given training block, then decide what time goal that fitness can support.
It’s about starting where you are. If you can currently run a four-hour marathon but need to run a 3:30 to qualify for Boston and only have four months to train, shaving over a minute off of every mile (for 26.2 miles!) might be a stretch. And that can set you up for disappointment. “When we do talk about the tangible goals, I’m trying to have those goals be optimistically realistic, so that you can hit them, but it’s going to take a lot of work,” says Rosario. “If you make goals outside of that realm, that really aren’t possible physically, you’re not going to have a lot of fun—and you need to be having fun to accomplish what you want to accomplish.”
Science backs up that idea of optimistic realism: The most motivating long-term goals are those that straddle the line between being realistic enough not to discourage you or stress you out, and big enough to get you excited, according to 2019 research published in the European Journal of Psychology.
Goals should be hard to attain—and maybe even a little scary, says Bruce. “A bold yet realistic goal is one that’s going to be really hard to attain and require immensely difficult training and really solid mental fortitude, plus doing all the little things: sleep, prehab, weight lighting, good nutrition,” she explains. “The fact that I have not reached my goals yet just tells me they’re appropriately difficult to attain. If you keep reaching every goal you set, maybe that means you have to start setting them a little higher.”
And when you don’t reach your goals, it’s OK to be disappointed or frustrated—but let that fuel you going forward. “Look at the years of training and racing you’ve done and realize this isn’t the first time you’ve had a setback, and realize something better is always around the corner,” says Bruce. “Even though you think ‘I’m in the worst possible position, there’s no way to get better,’ it does get better. As long as you don’t give up, there’s a chance to find a resolution to the struggle that you’re going through.”