Training Tips: Setting Realistic Goals

by Karl Gruber

Now that you’ve made the decision to sign-up for your first full or half-marathon, it’s time to set some realistic goals as you train to get ready for the race. Even if you are an experienced runner, I want you to realize that all runners need to set realistic goals for their training and racing. As a runner for close to 40 years, I still occasionally allow my competitiveness to overtake my common sense when I am coming out of a down cycle of running and end up pushing my body too hard. This almost always results in being overly sore, experiencing excessive fatigue or potentially causing injury.

With this thought in mind, I’d like to refer you to an excellent self-assessment checklist for any runner. The checklist comes from Run Faster: From the 5k to the Marathon by coaches Brad Hudson and Matt Fitzgerald. Let’s take a brief look at each of these factors that are important in helping you set realistic runners goals.

Recent Training
If you are a brand new runner, it is very important that you do a long, slow build-up of mileage. As I have previously pointed out, your body will accomplish far more than you think if you train and take care of it properly. So if you have only just started running and are already salivating over running your first half-marathon in three or four months, you are not doing your body any good by pushing it to accomplish something it’s not ready for. If you are an experienced runner, on the other hand, you understand by now that if you just raced a 10K or half-marathon a month or two ago, your body is probably ready for a longer distance race, as long as you have been slowly and intelligently increasing your training.

Running Experience
In many ways, this should be a “no-brainer.” If you haven’t been running very much lately or you’re brand new to the sport, then don’t put the pedal-to-the-medal with your training. Doing so will more than likely result in a crash and burn scenario on the race course. As an experienced runner, however, you often understand what you need to do to get ready for a full or half-marathon. Your body has been there and done that, so it shouldn’t be as big of a step-up for you as it may be for a beginning runner.

Age is a necessary factor that you need to account for in your training and racing. Younger runners tend to recover much quicker than older runners. While there are always those few exceptions, most older runners usually need more rest and recovery time. I know when I am out running, my brain thinks it is 19 years old, but after my run, my body reminds me I’m a tad older than that. Also, keep in mind that your running pace will generally decline over the years.

Past Race Performances
If you are a first time full or half-marathoner, then this factor is unknown. I always get a kick out of asking a new half-marathoner what their goal is for their first race, and they usually respond with, “To set a personal record!” With a laugh, I usually respond, “But of course!” Experienced runners can look to their past race performances to predict what their next race might look like, but this one goes hand-in-hand with appropriate training if improvement is the goal.

Short-Term Goal
This should always be your next upcoming race. What time do you want to run? How do you want to feel during the race? Do you have a particular pace you desire to hold for the entire race? Again referring to Hudson and Fitzgerald’s book, their suggestion is setting a short-term goal at least 12 weeks ahead of time. Three months of solid training will help create a strong foundation for your body to achieve the goal.

Injury History
This should be a key consideration for any runner, no matter what your experience level. Did you have MCL knee surgery just two years ago while playing soccer? Are you just now overcoming plantar fasciitis? As stated earlier, your body can do absolutely amazing things for you. When it has been injured, however, you must give it its due of rest, recuperation and healing, and hopefully it will come back stronger than ever.

Event-Specific Strength and Weakness
As a runner, are you stronger at speed or distance? This too is a very important consideration, especially if you are shooting for a longer race such as a full or half-marathon. You may be naturally gifted with speed and always run a 5K well but usually crash and burn in longer races. And of course, the opposite is also true; some may not have much speed but lots of endurance. A good short-term (and long-term) goal is to create a synthesis between the two, if possible.

Recovery Profile
If you are a new runner, this is something that you will come to appreciate the more you run. After all my years of running, I now gauge how well I ran a race by how good I feel right after and much later. If I recover well, it usually means I trained well and had an intelligent race strategy. Your recovery profile is, however, an individual thing. Some runners recover well within 24 hours of a hard run, while others may take three or four days. Pay attention to this factor in your training and racing, and use it to fine tune how well you run and race.

Long-Term Goal
Long-term running goals take patience. It took two years of consistent running and mileage build-up before I decided to run my first marathon. In hindsight, I realize it helped me to build a great foundation for longer distance racing. Whether you are a new or experienced runner, consider a long-term goal like running the 2019 DICK’S Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon and then set your sights on patiently building your training to successfully accomplish that goal.

Motivational Profile
Motivation factors vary in intensity and focus for every runner. If your goal is to run as fast as possible because you badly want to beat a rival, then that could be a real problem during workouts that call for a long, slow distance. The key here is to wisely use your motivation to keep you focused on what it is you want to achieve in your training and racing. Let it be your proverbial carrot-on-a-stick, and enjoy the reward when you finally get to eat that carrot! 

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