Jason Fitzgerald is a USATF certified coach, 2:39 marathoner, and Head Coach of Strength Running.
Most runners are familiar with goals, like “Run my first marathon” or “Get past this pesky injury.” But after working with thousands of runners, it’s clear to me that most runners don’t set both types of goals that are critical for success: short- and long-term goals.
No matter what you hope to accomplish with your running, goal setting is the most efficient way to achieve what you want. “Break that long-term goal down into smaller, short-term goals that help get you there,” Doug Hay, an ultramarathoner and founder of Rock Creek Runner, says. “All the while, your big goal lingers in the back of your mind, motivating you to keep pushing forward.”
Whether you’re a complete beginner or a seasoned competitor, setting goals is a fantastic way to ensure that your runs feel productive and successful. But choosing the right target is key. Ultimately, goals are only worthwhile if they help you get where you want to go, and allow you to enjoy the process. Not every moment of training will be full of sunshine and rainbows, but any objective you set should move you forward.
Short-Term Goals for Big Gains
“Think big! Set a goal that makes your heart skip a beat and ties your stomach up in knots.”
Small changes, done regularly, can add up to serious gains down the line. These can include any number of things, from adding new challenges to your routine to changing up where you run to improving your diet. Keep the goals manageable so that you can see results as soon as possible. These small improvements will help amplify your fitness, speed recovery and prevent injury — without a huge investment of time and energy. In other words, the little things add up. “Short-term goals give you something tangible and approachable to tackle right away,” Hay says. “They give your training a focus for the short-term that will have a lasting effect on the long-term.”
Try working these small challenges into your runs to improve your long-term success:
- Negative-split your run. Most simply, this means you finish faster than you started. Head out at an easy, controlled pace, and then push the pace a bit on the way back home. This is most easily done on an out-and-back route where you can time yourself and see your progress. The benefits to this type of run are twofold: First, running faster on tired legs boosts the aerobic stimulus of the run, helping you get in better shape while running the same mileage. Second, it’s relatively easy! You will improve your fitness without hampering recovery or risking injury.
- Try a short tempo run. Start with just 10 minutes of “comfortably hard” running sandwiched between some easy warm-up and cool-down miles. Tempo runs such as these can help increase your lactate threshold. (Nerd alert! This is simply the pace at which you can run before your muscles work anaerobically, or without oxygen.)
- Add strides (short accelerations) at the end of a run. Over approximately 100 meters, start at a jog and build to about 95 percent of your max speed. Then, gradually slow to a stop. Each stride should take about 30 seconds. Start with four and increase to six after several weeks. Strides improve your running form, help make faster workouts feel easier, and increase overall athleticism since most of us rarely run really fast very often.
If you start to feel a little stale and you’re less excited to get out the door, you can also aim to add more training variety to your routine. If you’re a treadmill runner, aim to get outside for at least one of your weekly runs or explore some local trails. Switch up the time of day you run, or find a running buddy to join you if you usually head out solo. “You can [also] take action immediately by improving on consistency, incorporating a weekly long run, or adding in an extra run each week,” Hay says.
Try incorporating non-running exercises into your usual workout, too. Adding a dynamic warm-up routine (like this one) can help increase your running efficiency. These are all excellent short-term goals — but don’t overdo it. Introduce one small change at a time and implement it regularly before adding something new.
Make Long-Term Goals Doable
This is your opportunity to be both a dreamer and a realist all at once. Think big! Set a goal that makes your heart skip a beat and ties your stomach up in knots. Maybe you want to finish a marathon or try an ultra or qualify for Boston. “Long-term goals provide the motivation and a purpose for your day-to-day training,” Hay says. “A long-term goal should be something that excites you, and inspires you to lace up the shoes even when it doesn’t sound appealing.”
Just remember that you need to be realistic in the time frame you set for your goal. If you just completed your first 5K and now you’re ready to sign up for a marathon, that’s fantastic. But don’t try to run 26.2 miles two months from now. Give yourself ample time to train properly so that your dream has the opportunity to become a reality. If you just finished your first 5K, you can either focus on running a faster 5K or increasing the distance you’re racing to 10k. Both of these goals can be accomplished within a relatively short one to three months.
Here are a few inspiring long-term goals that new runners should consider:
- After you run your first 5K, try your hand at a 10K within one to three months.
- After your first 10K, race your first half-marathon within two to four months.
- After your first half-marathon, run your first marathon within three to five months.
- Once you’re done with distance goals, you can focus on speed goals in any event by trying to record a new personal best.
Properly structured workouts and appropriate increases in mileage will help you mount a successful attack on your dream race, and a qualified running coach can also be an invaluable contributor to your success. Have fun with it, be a little creative, and set lofty goals. Then get out there and enjoy the process of improving your running one day at a time.