Bad Goals Runners Love to Set & What to Focus on Instead

Runners love to set goals, and for good reason. They can help us get out the door for a tempo run when it’s cold and rainy, others help us decide how many miles we need to log each week and some aid us in determining what cross-training workouts we should be doing before a big race.

Although you probably know better than to set ones that are too easy or impossibly difficult, not all goals are good goals. But even if what you have in mind falls well within the bold but realistic realm, there are still few common ones runners love to set that don’t better their running experience. Here are two bad goals athletes set for themselves and how to tweak them for better results.

Bad Goal: Wanting To Win, Place or Grab a Personal Best

Don’t get me wrong—these are fantastic things to strive for, and imperative in the case of elite or professional runners racing to secure sponsorships and win prize money. However, if your only goal for a race relies heavily on external factors, you run a very serious risk of setting yourself up for failure.

Why it Fails:

Winning a race, or even placing in your age group, isn’t just about your performance—it’s also about who else shows up. Even if you are literally the fastest runner in town and you sign up for a local 5K, an outsider may show up—a faster one. And if you’re laser focused on coming in ahead of the others, and suddenly find yourself behind, what does that do to your mental game during the race? That can quickly lead to a sub-par performance.

Even getting in the “PR or bust” mindset can be tricky, and we need only look at Boston 2018 to understand why. Weather alone can drastically change a course from year to year, and, as mentioned above, if you’ve gone into your race with your heart set on specific splits and the weather (or any other factors) throws you for a loop, it can be difficult (or impossible) to come back and give that race the effort it deserves.

What to do Instead:

Focus on the parts of them you alone can control. If your sights are set on winning or placing, do your research and see what the finish times have looked like over several years. Then work on a training plan designed to get you to what should be a winning pace. Come race day, remain focused on your plan, your performance and what you can do. And hopefully, that’ll lead to victory. But even if you’re not in the lead, you’ll be able to keep your head in the game until you cross that finish line.

Want a PR? Same thing goes—focus on what you can do to make sure your body is ready to hit that pace on race day given the anticipated conditions, and think about the things you can control. For example, hitting negative splits, following your nutrition and hydration plan, holding your form together as you become fatigued, and giving your all on your final kick. On race day, be aware that things don’t always go as planned, but know that if you stick to your plan, you’re going to find success along the course (and, therefore, the mental fortitude to keep pushing yourself).

Bad Goal: Not Being Specific About Your Pace and Distance Goals

It’s probably safe to say that basically every runner in history has wanted to run faster or go farther. And while a new runner can probably get faster or go farther by simply logging a few more miles each week, once you’re at a more competitive level, they require some tweaking to truly make them achievable.

Why it Fails:

These goals lack specificity; and, if you don’t have a precise goal in mind, how do you know if you’ve met it? For example: How much faster is “faster,” really? Would you be happy with a single second per mile shaved off your time, or do you have something more in mind? If going farther is your jam, would running 6.5 miles instead of your usual 10K satisfy you, or are you hoping to run a marathon? And is this something you want to do someday, or would you like to check off your list by the end of this season? Because, let me tell you – somehow, “someday” isn’t much of a motivator.

What to do Instead:

Take that ambiguous goal and get detailed with it. Let’s say you want to get faster, and you determine that means you’d like to take a minute off your 5K—and based on your current abilities and willingness to put in the work, that seems reasonable. Now, pick a 5K that’s far enough in the future that you can put in a solid training block with that goal in mind, because having a deadline is an important part of the goal-setting process. Having a date on which you hope to achieve it will help you (or a coach) fine tune your training.

If your goal is to run farther, that’s even easier to nail down. Whether you want to run with a friend on their weekly Saturday morning 10 miler or have an ultra in mind, take the above advice into consideration. Select a race or a date by which you want to meet that goal, and then look at what you need to accomplish week by week to make it happen. If in doubt, give yourself more time to build your mileage rather than less in order to minimize the risk of injury. Here’s a good guide to follow.

That’s going to mean adding miles throughout the week, and it might also require adjusting your nutrition, and your social calendar, because bigger miles require a bigger time commitment. Be sure to also diligently plan out cross-training and recovery days as mileage is built, because once you’re in the groove of getting out the door, it becomes easier to keep doing that mentally.

Training Tweaks

There are a number of small goals many runners can set throughout their training to help them stay on the path to success. To figure out what you can switch up to improve your performance, look at what you’ve done in training before or, more specifically, what you haven’t done.

An runner who’s avoided hill repeats or track workouts can see some incredible changes by committing to making those key workouts each week. An athlete who consistently pushes the pace on their recovery runs might want to make a point to stick to lower heart rate zones for those workouts, noting how that easier run affects their harder workouts feel. And other non-workout factors like nutrition, hydration, sleep and stress also play a huge part in the improvement of performance, so take an honest assessment of your lifestyle outside of your workouts, too.

Once you’re clear about the areas where you can improve, set some weekly mini goals to hit them, whether that means you no longer skip the track, drink three liters of water each day, or get to bed 20 minutes earlier than usual. The small steps really do add up to big improvements, and you’ll be knocking out those goals before you know it.