Last Updated on December 15, 2019 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP, CSCS
For runners, setting new goals can be wildly exciting…or awfully intimidating. We all want to set huge goals in hopes of one day achieving them. But constantly setting big goals, only to seemingly always fall short, can put a huge damper on your motivation and self esteem as an athlete. Now personally, I think everyone should have that crazy “shoot for the moon”, outlandish running goal at some point in their life. Life is short, do big, crazy, epic things! But for the most part, goal races, or goal paces, should be based on achievable, attainable goals that come with a solid plan. That’s where SMART goal setting for runners comes in.
Resolutions, Goals, & Race Calendars
As I write this post, we’re just a few weeks away from another New Year’s day. That’s absolutely insane if you ask me, and you can count me in as one of those people who stumbles through life mumbling “where has the time GONE?” As we approach a new year, it’s time for people to start reflecting on what they’ve accomplished this past year, and declaring their resolutions and goals for the upcoming 365 days.
If you are a long time runner that enjoys racing, chances are your calendar for the next year has been booked for months now. High five to you my friends, way to take advantage of early registration prices! But if you’re a newer runner, maybe you aren’t quite sure what your goals should be for the new year. Or, maybe you’re a long time runner who has burnt out on filling your calendar with back to back races, and now you’re struggling to come up with a solid goal to strive for.
As a runner myself I go through periods where I just want to run simply because I love it. I don’t want to track my mileage, I don’t want to constantly stress about my pace, I don’t even care about races. If you are also one of those runners, I understand you, believe me I do. Keep doing what you are doing! But for others, there are periods in our lives when we want to better our fitness and running, and we need something specific to strive for. So how do we do that?
SMART Goal Setting for Runners
Personally, I am a big fan of the “SMART” goal setting approach. I was first exposed to this method during a personal training course in college, and it simply made so much sense. “SMART” is an acronym for steps you can take to not only set a solid goal, but outline exactly how you plan to achieve that goal. Because as the saying goes: “A goal without a plan is just a wish.”
Let’s break it down:
S – Your goal should be SPECIFIC, citing *exactly* what you want to accomplish.
Don’t tiptoe around your goals. For example, instead of saying “I want to run a half marathon someday”, say “I want to run the Covered Bridges Half Marathon in Woodstock Vermont on June 3rd” (I never have, but I hear it’s an awesome course). Narrow your running goal down to an exact race on an exact date. Think of those “who, what, why, when, where” questions we were taught in elementary school to nail this one down.
Further, don’t just pick the race – register for it. Make that financial commitment, mark it on your calendar in pen instead of pencil. COMMIT. (That’s my stern mom/coach voice font…)
M – Your goal should be MEASURABLE.
How will you reach the aforementioned running goal? You could just say “I did it! I registered! I’ll be running a half marathon 4 months from now” then show up and do it. But trust me when I tell you, it won’t be very fun if you don’t have an actual plan. Instead, have some sort of measurable way to achieve your goal.
Find a training plan that is tailored towards your goal and your current fitness level, to let you safely build up to your race distance.
Further, how will you track your goal as you go? Miles ran? Hours logged? Pace or heart rate averages? Where and how will you log your progress? Finding measurable parameters to help you track your progress towards your goal will help break that goal down into tiny, manageable steps instead of an overwhelming and looming “big picture”.
If this feels overwhelming (and that’s understandable): you can always enlist the help of a local training group or a running coach to help you figure out these specifics.
A- Your goal should be ACHIEVABLE or ATTAINABLE.
If you are a brand new runner, saying that you want to qualify for the Boston Marathon or run your first 100 miler might not be the best goals to start with. Or, if your current marathon PR is a 4:30, trying to break 3 hours might be a bit of a stretch – for now. I’m all for dreaming big, believe me. But when goal setting, pick something you are physically and mentally capable of achieving in the near future (or the set, specific parameters).
Also ask yourself, is this goal achievable with current time, family, work, and or financial constraints? Sometimes it’s not just a matter of if you are physically capable of achieving the goal, but rather whether or not your current “life” situation makes this goal realistic.
R – Your goal should be RELEVANT.
Is this a goal that YOU want to achieve? Is it something that speaks to you, that you feel compelled to achieve? Or have you fallen to the evil FOMO monster (Fear of Missing Out – doing things because everyone else is).
For example: so many runners use a Boston Qualifying time as a benchmark in their running career. And while certainly admirable, it might not be the right for everyone. Or, some people assume that since they’ve finished a handful of half marathons, they SHOULD move on to the full marathon distance. But the truth is, neither of those ever have to happen to make you a happy, successful runner. Make sure the goal you set is something that YOU want for YOU, and not something you think you should do because everyone else is doing it.
T – Your goal should be TIME BOUND.
We’e already discussed this in the “Specific” section, where I recommend finding a goal race and committing to it. But to reiterate: give yourself a start date. Give yourself an end date. Set deadlines for your goal. Leaving a big, open time frame, such as “I want to run a 50K someday” leaves endless room for avoiding your goal. Specific time frames force you to focus and get to work.
In short: nail your goals down to every specific you can imagine, to increase the likelihood that you actually achieve said goal, instead of letting it slip away once again. Further, make sure those goals are achievable based on your current fitness and “life” This post was obviously written geared towards running goals, but the SMART goal setting approach can be applied to any goal in life. Big goals can be scary sometimes, but breaking it down into smaller steps can help you successfully outline an achievable goal.
Do you struggle with goal setting? Are you wildly ambitious or painfully cautious when it comes to goals? Anyone up for sharing their 2018 goals with us?
Heather Hart is an ACSM certified Exercise Physiologist, NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), UESCA certified Ultrarunning Coach, RRCA certified Running Coach, co-founder of Hart Strength and Endurance Coaching, and creator of this site, Relentless Forward Commotion. She is a mom of two teen boys, and has been running and racing distances of 5K to 100+ miles for over a decade. Heather has been writing and encouraging others to find a love for fitness and movement since 2009.