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Planning to Run a Race Soon? Here are 3 Things You Should Do to Set Realistic Race Goals

Goals are great, but here’s how to set objectives based on your real-life training.

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At the 2016 Olympic Track & Field Trials, Alysia Montaño took her position out front in the 800 meters, while Kate Grace tucked into the pack. But with 200 meters to go, the group aggressively jockeyed for those top three positions to make the team. Montaño lost her footing and fell to the track. Grace surged her way to the front and finished first, earning her way to her first Olympics. It was a breakthrough for her and devastation for Montaño, a seven-time national champion in the event. Elation and grief all at once.

The sport offers no promises to any of us, whether you’re looking for a personal best or competing for a gold medal. We all experience similar threads of hope, joy, and heartbreak in pursuits of greatness. Every athlete I coach has big, scary goals, and my job is to set realistic expectations as we train for them. The other part of my job? Recognizing that heightened motivation can be fleeting, but grabbing hold of those moments and creating a well-laid plan is critical.

The key element for achieving success involves proper goal-setting and race pacing. I have developed a three-part process to create plans for realistic running goals, based on your own personal training.

1. Start Where You Are, Not Where You Want to Be

Maybe you want to qualify for the Boston Marathon. If your current weekly mileage is zero, it might be hard to say it out loud. But if it’s in your heart, start by writing it down.

Next, consider your fitness. If you haven’t been running much, build your base. After a few weeks of getting your legs back, aim to run one mile at race pace effort, which will determine the paces you’ll use for easy runs and harder efforts (I recommend the Jack Daniels VDOT pace chart for determining specific targets for easy running, as well as threshold, marathon, interval, and repetition paces).

RELATED: Here’s Exactly How to Start Running Again After Some Time Off

Sticking to these paces within your current fitness level is key to steady growth and achieving realistic running goals. If you push too hard, too often, you’ll run the risk of burning out or getting injured.

2. Work Backward

Determine how long you’ll need to train before putting your training to the test. Maybe it’s as short as three months, but it could be as long as three years. You need to build strength and fitness to toe the line with confidence.

Map out benchmark races or workouts to test your progress, practice your race routine, and experiment with race plan execution. If an in-person race isn’t possible, find a virtual option. And if your ultimate goal is the marathon, look for some 5K, 10K, and half marathon distances along the way. They’re good for playing with pacing and building confidence.

I also recommend planting benchmark workouts into your training plan. Every four weeks, revisit the same workout to see your progress, making sure the location and conditions are similar each time. Run the workout by effort, log your distance and time to note your improvement. A sample:

  • Warm-up: 15 minutes easy jog
  • Strides: 4 x 20 seconds hard strides with full recovery between
  • Workout: 20-minute tempo pace at 80 percent of an all-out effort
  • Cool-down: 15 minutes easy jog

You’ll notice a spike in your fitness early in training if you’re starting from scratch. Those spikes will taper off over time, as your body adapts and absorbs the higher training volume.

3. Log Your Journey

Every day, make a note of what you did, how it felt, what pace you ran, and your perceived effort. Whether you’re a newbie to running or a seasoned pro, don’t expect every day to be perfect as you work toward your goal. Some days you’ll crush your workout; other days you’ll struggle to hit your paces.

Write down one seedling of success from every hard effort. You can flip through your log the night before the big race and channel the confidence you need to bring your best self to the starting line. Your accumulated training will tell you exactly what goals are realistic.

And remember, even pros like Grace and Montaño have days when they knock their goals out of the park and days when they miss entirely. If you’re going to commit to big, scary goals, also commit to the journey. You’ll find joy in the pursuit of any meaningful endeavor, every step along the way.


Heather Stephens competed for Syracuse University and began her coaching career at Georgetown University. She’s now a private coach for Rad Running, based in Seattle.