A New Approach to Goal-Setting for Runners in 2022

It’s time to throw out the traditional SMART goal setting approach. I have a new science-backed goal-setting for runners strategy for 2022.

Instead of being Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-based (SMART), I challenge runners’ goal-setting to be vague and open-ended. (However, VMARO isn’t as catchy of an acronym).

How to set the right goals

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I’ve been giving a ton of thought to running goals for 2022. A ton. That’s because I want to make sure I set the right ones.  

I use goals to guide my running. I have a difficult time running just to run. I love a challenge and I love pushing my limits.

However, when I set out in 2019 to qualify for the Olympic Trials marathon, the running goal became a beast that almost took over my life. I tried to stay as balanced as possible, but failed and eventually got injured….Even a hamstring tear wouldn’t keep me from going for my running time goal. I ran my marathon injured and have since suffered setbacks for the past two years.

I am close to returning to running again and while I dream about running time goals, I don’t want them to hurt me mentally and physically:

When you have a goal and hold it so tightly, it can steal your joy when things don’t go as planned. And you can become blind to signs that the goal or the timeline isn’t right for you right now.

To set the right running goal, you need to zoom out and get vague. Most runners’ ultimate running goal is to have longevity in the sport—to enjoy running for the rest of their lives. We aren’t done once we get that BQ, OTQ, or PR.

In this article, I’m going to review 4 goal-setting for runners strategies to set running goals that will help you do that—oh, and along the way, you might just very likely achieve those tangible goals.

Set intangible goals.

Being specific in your goals may be limiting and set you up for injury, burnout, and a sense of failure.

A 2020 study found that those who set more general goals tend to have an overall greater sense of happiness.

General or “intangible goals” is what Ben Rosario, head coach and founder of the HOKA NAZ Elite team, has his pro athletes do. Rosario says, the more tangible the goal, the more limiting.

So, instead of shooting for the top 3 in a major marathon, he will have his athletes focus on running the best race they can. If an athlete is injured, they focus on staying healthy.

Related: 6 Steps to Return to Running After Injury

For me, while I still want the OTQ and a sub-5 mile, my daily focus will be on staying healthy. The magic in this approach is that along the way, I may achieve tangible goals but not at the cost of my health and happiness.

For example, if I feel a running injury coming on, I will take time off to rest, instead of ignoring it and being sidelined. Taking time off immediately satisfies my daily goal of staying healthy and gets me closer to my tangible goals in the long run.

With this approach, you don’t let variables outside your control make you feel like a failure. You don’t feel boxed in. Many athletes know the devastation of becoming injured in a training cycle and having to change their A goal or cancel their race. You don’t feel the major disappointment with this approach because you’re more flexible.

View tangible goals as stepping stones.

Anne Maher
Anne focuses on short-term goals to keep her on track with her long-term goals.

Since I launched my Instagram account, I’ve watched in awe as Anne of @margsandmarathons has excelled in her running, and now triathlons. Anne was a non-runner and now she’s a 2:53 marathoner and a qualifier for the Ironman 70.3 World Championship. She’s also a working mom of two young kids.

What’s intrigued me about Anne is how balanced she seems with her training and her other roles in life. I interviewed her last year about goal-setting for runners and she shared her secrets to success (in spite of a pandemic). And she continues to thrive.

One of her secrets for this past year is not only setting race goals. Race goals (or tangible goals) can be used as stepping stones towards your ultimate intangible goal.

Anne’s intangible goal is “to train in a way that I feel fully recovered and energized by the next day.”

Thus, she hasn’t been afraid to scale back training and as a result, she’s continued to accomplish tangible goals and set PRs.

Related: How to Set Running Goals in 2021

Set process goals.

Anne also has process goals, also known as short-term or mini-goals, to help her achieve her long-term intangible goal of training in the green zone.

I first heard about process goals in my interview with mother runner and pro runner Neely Gracey. These goals can be ensuring you sleep enough per night, eat well, and do the little things like strength, stretch, mobility, warming-up, etc.

LiftRunPro founder Mary Johnson wrote about short-term goals for Tracksmith. And lo and behold, with her focus on mini-goals, she started setting major running PRs.

Research supports this: it’s been found that a focus on short-term goals, like getting 8 hours of sleep a night or strength training 3 days a week, can help you better reach your long-term goals.

A WHOOP can help you accomplish this by telling you what your recovery status is and how much sleep you need to be ready for your next run. You can save $30 on your WHOOP order here.

Here are examples of short-term running goals, or process running goals.

Process Running Goal List

  1. Running a certain number of days per week
  2. Running a certain monthly mileage
  3. Getting 7-8 hours of sleep
  4. Fueling your runs well
  5. Training in a way that you are fully recovered and energetic each day.
  6. Training in a way that keeps you excited about running.
  7. Strength-training 3 days a week
  8. Yoga 1 day a week
  9. Drills 2 times a week
  10. Strides 2 times a week
  11. Mobility 3 times a week
  12. Workouts like speed or hills 1 time per week
  13. Proper warm-up and cool-down always
  14. Meet with friends to run 1 time per week
  15. Cross-training in addition to running 1 time per week
  16. Journaling about your running accomplishments one time per week
  17. Seeing the sunrise once a run per week
  18. Having one to two rest days per week

Tell people about your intangible running goals.

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Pin these goal-setting for runners tips for later!

Telling people about your intangible running goals is a great way to hold yourself accountable.

For me, when people ask me if I will be running any races in 2022, I tell them I don’t know. My ultimate running goal is to stay healthy, be happy, and run for the rest of my life.

If my body allows me to race and achieve tangible running goals in 2022, that’s wonderful and exciting!  But, if it’s not ready yet, that’s okay!

Telling people about your goals makes them real.

At first, Anne didn’t share her running goals with loved ones. But now, her kids are there to hand her water or watch her run on the track.

“Whatever your goal, sharing them with those closest to you and allowing them to help you reach them will make achieving that goal feel like a win for everyone involved,” she says.

What helps Anne stay true to her intangible goal is also remembering that her family doesn’t love her because she can run a marathon in under 3 hours. Her accomplishments do not define her.

But what they will NOT love is if she is in a bad mood because she didn’t reach her tangible running time goal on her timeline.

“We often cannot control what happens to us, but we can control how we respond to it,” she shares.  

Retain balance and remove the boundaries.

Setting intangible goals or vague goals can be less exciting or sexy. But the magic is that when you do it this way, you will very likely find yourself achieving those tangible goals but in a more fulfilling manner. They will not rule you or define you. They will not throw you off balance. They will become fringe benefits of your focus on the intangible goals.

  • Intangible goals are the big picture goals like having longevity in the sport.
  • Tangible goals are stepping stones to the intangible goals like having race time goals.
  • Process goals help you stay true to your intangible goals like having one rest day per week.

Running is a beautiful metaphor for life.

And with it comes lots of unpredictable variables. Don’t allow your love of the sport be tainted by running goals that limit you.

You may find that by removing restricting numbers like times of clocks or places in races, you may far exceed what you ever thought you could accomplish.

I would love to help you with your vague running goals! Please check out my run coaching services if you’re interested in working together!

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