When you laced up your shoes for the first time, you probably had a short term goal in mind: Finish this run. Do it again soon. Maybe work up to a short race. But if you like running, you'll need a road map that takes you farther into the future. Here's how to figure out what that goal is — and then get there.
Illustration: Tara Jacoby
Look at the Big Picture
Since you'll (hopefully) be running for years, goal setting isn't about a single endpoint. It's more like a series of goals over time. Maybe you can see far into the future — you've always dreamed of a marathon, perhaps — but it's also ok to let the goals evolve as you go. Still, take a moment to think about what you really want to work towards.
As an example, here's my progression of goals over the past 15 years or so:
- Become the kind of person who can go out for a run and not have to walk most of it
- Enter and finish a race that gives me a T-shirt
- Run 5 miles (8km)
- Beat 30 minutes in a 5K
- Beat my last 5K time
- Run 10 miles (16km)
- Train for a marathon
- Finish a marathon
Run a marathon every yearRun a half marathon every year
- Run a really fast one-mile (1.6km) race
There's another goal that popped up so often I didn't bother putting it in the list: "Get back into running." I got out of the habit after having babies, after getting injured, and after taking breaks to focus on another sport or hobby or just to be lazy for a while.
It's normal to stop and start, to have to recover your lost fitness, or to chase a PR (a personal record time) that you accomplished before a break. Be realistic, though: as we get older, we typically get slower, so 40-year-old you should not be trying to beat a time you haven't seen since high school.
Choose a Focus
Your goal can be a marathon, but doesn't have to be a marathon. Here are a few directions your goal setting can take:
- Consistency. This is a great stepping stone for beginners and people coming back from a break. Aim to work up to four times a week (or whatever works for you) before committing to the next goal. Or you can try to run every day, "don't break the chain" style. Have a plan for how to recover gracefully if you miss a day, or else you'll end up like this guy who kept up a streak for 50 years, even after breaking bones in a car accident.
- Race events. Once you can run around your neighbourhood, you'll probably set your sights on a 5K — it's the most common distance for local races. From there, a 10K, a half marathon (21km) and a full marathon (42km) give you a natural progression of goals that will take you at least a few years to solidly accomplish. Some runners love to pick a half or a marathon in a faraway city as a sort of masochistic vacation.
- Distance. You can focus on increasing distances of races, as above, but even if you aren't interested in organised races you can still focus on distance: 8km, then 16km, perhaps, working up to marathon length or more if that's your kind of thing.
- Speed. After you've finished a race (or a given distance) you can try to run it faster. Plenty of runners who never intend to run the Boston Marathon still aspire to a "BQ", or Boston qualifying time. You can also try to beat your previous PR at a certain distance, or to place well in your age group at a local race. (Casual runners may not notice, but results are typically posted after the race with rankings by age and gender.)
Once you've picked a goal, you need a plan to get you there. If you're going for consistency, we have plenty of advice on building habits. For those other goals, a running-focused training plan is what you need.
Choose a Training Plan
There are tons of training plans out there for common race distances. Typically, if a plan is labelled as "for beginners", it will give you just enough fitness to show up healthy at the start line, and get yourself to the finish. Plans labelled as "intermediate" or "advanced" usually assume that you've done the distance before, and want to run it faster this time. They will have you run more miles each week than a beginner plan, and will usually include more speed and strength workouts like sprints and hill repeats.
Some good sources of training plans include Hal Higdon, who is popular among intermediate and advanced runners; Jeff Galloway, who focuses on running with frequent walking breaks (popular among beginners, but some experienced runners like his approach too); and running websites or magazines like Cool Running, Women's Running or Competitor. Runner's World offers programs that are a little pricey on their web site, but cost no more than the magazine if you pick up the right issue.
Some running apps, like C25K, RunKeeper and Endomondo, have their own training plans. You can also find a coach or a training group to run with. They may follow a published plan, or have their own. (The best way to find a coach or group? Ask at your local running store.)
Here are the things to consider when choosing a training plan:
- Where does it start? An eight-week plan will only get you to your goal in eight weeks if it's designed to start at your current fitness level. Most plans (unless they're meant for people who do not currently run) assume you're running at least 20-30 minutes at a time, several times a week. Take a look at the first week of the plan: does it comfortably fit into your current schedule? If it seems like a stretch (too many runs, or too long), find a plan that starts out more gently. Or, give yourself a few extra weeks to ramp up your mileage before starting.
- How long is it? You should plan out your goal race well in advance, so you have your choice of plans — not forcing yourself into a 12-week marathon plan because that's all the time you have. Longer plans are better than shorter ones if you're working toward a long distance race: you'll ramp up to the goal more gently, and a long plan is more forgiving if you have to skip a run. Skipping a 32km on your way to marathon training, for example, is disastrous if it's the only one in the plan, but not as big a deal if it's one of two or three.
- Does it include workouts you like and that fit into your schedule? All long-distance training plans will include a long run on the weekend, and most will include a medium run sometime in the middle of the week. (The rest of the runs are all fairly short.) But if you hate long runs and love speedwork, you may want to go with a plan that replaces the medium run with a strength or speed session. Likewise, if you play another sport, you may find that a plan that calls for fewer runs and more cross-training (that is, non-running exercise days) fits into your schedule best.
If you have trouble finding just the right plan, ask a coach or experienced running buddy to help you modify one for your needs.
Integrate the Training Plan Into Your Life
Post your plan someplace you'll see it every day — I like a paper copy on the wall and Google Calendar reminders for key runs.
Schedule your runs, or at least the key ones, and protect them like your most important appointments. Don't miss a run without a really good reason, because if you missed Week 6, that doesn't stop Week 7 from rolling around the next week — and you want to be prepared.
Missed runs are a bigger deal when you're following a plan than when you're just running as a routine. At the start of your training plan, work out where each week will fall on a calendar. Move days around if you need to: maybe you have Saturday plans some weeks so you'll move the Saturday runs to Sundays. Allow time for holidays by doubling up weeks: for example, if you won't be able to run much in Week 6, set it up so you do Week 6 twice in a row before moving on to Week 7. That way you'll be sure to make up the missed runs without having to skip something later on.
As you head out for each day's workout, know how it contributes to your long-term goal, and what will make it a successful run in your mind. If the plan has you run four 800m repeats on the track, your goal is to do all four, not to do one really fast or to run for half an hour with only slight variations in speed. If today's run is an "easy" 5km, you aren't following the plan if you run three miles as fast as you can. Those directions exist for a reason.
Have an Exit Strategy
After you've met your goal and run the race (or the distance), what happens next? It's easy to fall out of the running habit again, only to re-start later, wondering why you ever quit. As you finish up your training, make a plan for what happens after the race.
In the case of a long race like a marathon or a half, you can do the last few weeks of training (the "taper") in reverse. Since those weeks have you gradually cutting down on your running, reversing them afterward gives you a gentle ramp-up that lets you recover and get back into a regular habit again.
For a short race, sometimes the best sequel is to plan another race: maybe follow a 5K with a second 5K two months later, and aim to improve your time. Or think about your big-picture road map: What would you like to work up to, eventually? What's the next intermediate goal that will take you down that road?