How to Set Running Goals for 2021

Around this time of year, we are looking at making resolutions and setting goals. But how to set running goals is an art form. Set them too low and you lose motivation. Set them too high and you also lose motivation and risk burnout, disappointment, and an imbalanced life. 

That happened to me last year when I set a very lofty running goal to shave 15 minutes off my marathon time and qualify for the Olympic Marathon Trials–in just 6 months. I had just started running seriously and there was one last chance to try to qualify (with an OTQ), so I went for it….and I missed (thanks in part to a hamstring tear). I trained really REALLY hard, doubling my mileage, and doing all the “little things.” Running became my life and felt like work. The goal sucked the fun out of it. I started to wonder, is it possible to choose challenging goals and have fun chasing them?

Related: Lessons learned from my running injury

Yes…if you know how to set running goals right. And, I know just the person to teach us. 

Meet Anne of @margsandmarathons

Anne M., also known as @margsandmarathons on Instagram, has amazed me with her ability to chase down big goals while keeping running in its rightful place: a fun hobby. I mean, even her Instagram handle is balanced: margaritas and marathons.

Anne M. of @margsandmarathons
Anne M. of @margsandmarathons knows how to set challenging goals & have balance chasing them.

While many of us have struggled with running motivation during the pandemic, Anne has ticked off massive PR after PR in pretty much every distance including a blistering 16:52 5k, a 1:19 half-marathon, and a 2:53 marathon PR. Anne says she set those goals as a way to feel a sense of control during the pandemic.”

“Continuing to train hard and go after goals kept a small sense of normalcy for me in a weird time.  Setting goals and going after them also kept me running.  I knew without races that I could easily lose motivation unless I put something on the calendar and had a clear sense of purpose for my training,” she shared.  

Meanwhile, Anne, a mom of two boys ages 9 and 4 living outside of Fresno, Calif., has been working part-time outside of the home and is homeschooling her oldest son. 

From non-runner to elite

Anne is relatively new to running. She grew up as a swimmer and got hooked on running after she started running to lose weight for her wedding. When her first son was young, she ran to stay in shape with most runs in the stroller. She didn’t know much about training or how to get faster. After her second son was born, more information was available about running and she used that to get faster and qualify for the Boston Marathon in 2018.   

Anne started to wonder if she could go even faster. “I was inspired by seeing other adult runners in the online running community who were going after big running goals like breaking 3 hours in the marathon or OTQ’s.  I started to wonder how fast I could get and I wanted to train hard to find out,” she said. 

Anne M. of @margsandmarathons
Anne set multiple PRs in the pandemic including a 2:53 marathon.

That curiosity has set her on the path of achieving goal after goal. Anne would reach a goal but instead of being satisfied, she’d take a little downtime, and start building fitness again. She began thinking of her running goals as long-term goals for improvement rather than just training for a singular goal or race. That mindset is key.

Read on to find out how to set running goals, having fun chasing them, and how to achieve them. 

Tips for How to Set Running Goals

How to set running goals. 

First and foremost, I always pick goals that excite me.  I am a firm believer that if a goal does not excite you, it will become a drag.  There are so many endless running goals that you can set for yourself; pick whichever you are passionate about.  If you hate the marathon distance, don’t go after a Boston Qualifier just because a lot of other runners do.  The training will not be enjoyable and you will most likely get burnt out. 

Instead pick a shorter distance, like the 5k, and set a time goal for that distance.  Or just pick a mileage goal for the month or year to try to hit.  Whatever keeps you motivated and works well with your life, I think is a good goal.  You want a goal to be challenging but you want it to be feasible enough that it is not taking away all your time and attention.  

Related: How to get your running motivation back

The importance of setting process goals. 

I have big “reach goals”: a 10-year goal and a 5-year goal.  So, I am always looking at each training or each race build as a building block toward that bigger goal.  I find it is helpful to always have a focus and a plan for your training even when you are not building up for a specific race. 

Without a focus or a goal, it is easy to get sidetracked and start skipping days or workouts.  The goal does not have to be a time; it can be to increase your weekly mileage or to add in strength sessions 2 times a week.  Whatever your goal is, it does help for it to be measurable in some way to keep you accountable to yourself.  

How to balance working towards a goal with life. 

Balancing training hard with family and work is hard and I don’t always get it right.  I think I get the “balance” right when I keep my priorities in order of importance. For me personally that is God, family, work, then other extra fun things like running.  I try to start my mornings off by spending a short time reading the Bible and in prayer so that I am starting my day with that first priority.  I also make a quick list, sometimes just a mental list, of the 5 most important things I need to do that day. 

10 TIPS FOR SETTING RUNNING GOALSI put these to-do items in order of importance, keeping in mind my personal priorities.  This helps me throughout the day when I don’t know what to do next or when I am feeling overwhelmed to have a game plan to refer back to.  

View sacrifices as positives.

I thrive on scheduling and planning ahead.  I schedule my runs and workouts within our family’s schedule. During this phase of life, that means I am usually doing my runs in the early morning hours even on the weekends.  I have decided to embrace the early mornings as an almost guaranteed uninterrupted time to run and have some alone time.  Mindset is everything.  Instead of “hating” that I have to get up early, I have just embraced it as my cherished alone time in the day.  I also plan races and training blocks around our family’s schedule.  I try not to set a big goal or a build-up for a race if our family is in a really busy season or if we have a vacation planned.

How to keep setting goals fun.

Anytime that I start to feel too much pressure on my running goals, I remind myself that I am doing this for fun and my time goals are just for myself.  Sometimes when I find myself getting too serious or not having fun, I tell myself, “Just run slow and don’t try to improve anymore if the pressure is too much.”  Thinking about doing that sounds boring to me and I am able to “snap” myself out of it. 

How to keep going after disappointment.

I can be very hard on myself, so I am not perfect in this, but I have to say that being a mom has really helped me in this area.  When I get back from a race or time trial, my kids don’t care if I got the result I wanted or not.  They are happy that I am with them and want me to play with them and make them breakfast.  It helps me immediately remember the place running has in life.  Running is an activity I enjoy doing; it does not define my self-worth. 

Anne M. of @margsandmarathons
Anne advises taking a break after disappointment to revisit goals and avoid burnout.

If I am continuing to go after a goal and falling short, I will take some “time off” from going after it.  Sometimes we need to take a step back from certain goals because we are burned out mentally from going after them.  We may have the physical fitness to achieve the goal, but for whatever reason, we have a mental block that won’t let us get there.  Sometimes all it takes is a break from pursuing that goal for a season, then coming back to it.  

Related: 10 reasons to get a running coach

Write your goals down.

Writing down my goals has been really helpful to keep myself accountable to my goals.  Writing goals down helps clarify and define your goal, it makes it easier to track the progress toward your goal, and you are statistically more likely to reach your goal simply by writing it down.  I also like to share my goal with at least one other person, but make sure that person is someone that you don’t want to let down and will truly hold you accountable.       

10 Tips for Setting Running Goals

  1. Pick a goal that is exciting yet feasible. 
  2. Set mini-goals that act as steppingstones to the long-term goal. 
  3. Keep a list of your priorities in life to maintain balance. 
  4. Change your mindset to embrace the “sacrifices” you make for working toward your goal. 
  5. Remind yourself that you’re doing this for fun. 
  6. Remind yourself that running does not define your self-worth. 
  7. Take a down-time between achieving mini (process) goals and/or big disappointments. 
  8. Write down your goals. 
  9. Share your goals with at least one person. 
  10. Celebrate your hard work and achievements along the way!

Thanks, Anne! Follow her on Instagram and on her blog, www.margaritasandmarathons.com/blog.

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