Setting Smart Running Goals

Tips for setting long-term and short-term running goals.

It’s ironic that I procrastinated the most on the post about goal setting. I can blame it on the holiday travel, the dark and gloomy weather, and the holiday stress. But isn’t the whole point of setting a goal to help you stick to it even when things get hard? It is intimidating to tackle a topic when I am personally struggling with it. You see, we are on this journey of learning together. And at the very least, I am still here. And I am glad that you are here. 

The holiday season is officially here. I can smell the gingerbread cookies, pumpkin spice, and pinewood in the grocery stores. It’s the time of the year when people start to wrap up this year, and set goals for the new year ahead. I was one of those people who would write down shiny new year’s resolutions, but never stick to them for more than 2 months. After a couple of years, I decided to take a moment to pause and ask myself about the “why” – why I never follow through, and more importantly, why I set those specific goals. I actually did the exact same exercise today hoping to get back on my running and writing schedule. Understanding the “why” helped me to reevaluate some of the fancy grand goals, and adjust them to smart goals that are tangible, actionable, and motivational. And when I say motivational, I am not talking about things like those “inspirational” posts that you see on social media. I meant things that get YOU going. Everyone finds motivation in different things. I will go into this more later. 

When it comes to setting goals for running, it is twofold. The long-term goals, and the short-term goals. Coming up with these two sets of goals will require you to take some time to think and even write down your thoughts, so you can properly process and understand your goals, and set your mind to filter out any distractions or obstacles that may come in the way of you chasing after your goals. 


Long-term goals can be anywhere between a year to a decade. These goals do not need to tie to a race distance or a goal time. This is where you get to dream a little bigger and figure out what kind of role you would like running to play in your life. Here are a couple of questions to get you started:

  • What’s your “why”? 

Everyone gets into running at different times in their lives, and everyone runs for different reasons. It could be for mental health, physical health, social interaction with running friends, getting to places, the ability to eat another donut guilt-free, the love for type 2 fun…etc. Your “why” could change during different periods of your life, therefore reassessing your goals every once in a while is necessary. Understanding why you chose this sport, what you get out of this sport, and what this sport means to you would allow you to see what kind of role you would like running to play in your life.

For me, mental health is the main reason I run, especially in the winters. Everyone knows that winters in the midwest are brutal. They are dark, gloomy, windy, and snowy. Every year I can feel my mood change along with the seasonal change. And I have come to realize that if I stop running during this time of the year, I would soon find myself curled up in a ball on my couch for days. Running helps. It helps lift the cloud in my head and makes me feel alive. As much as I dislike the idea of running in the cold, I know I will feel better if I just get myself out of the door and start moving. Therefore, although I am competitive and I love racing, the top priority of my long-term running goals is to avoid burnout so that I can enjoy running as a sport and keep my mental health in check. 

  • What keeps you motivated?

Everyone is motivated by different things. It could be a time goal for a specific distance, a distance goal (like running a marathon), a race goal for the number of races you run (one of my friend’s mom had a goal of running one marathon in each state in the U.S! So inspirational.), a social goal to stay connected with running friends or make new friends…etc. Whatever it is, use it to put together your long-term goals. 

  • How to have a long and enjoyable running career/hobby?

If you are here thinking about long-term goals, you probably want to be able to enjoy the sports for as long as you can! Although long-term goals are where you can dream big, it’s important to be realistic about it so you can (hopefully!) avoid injury. For example, if you are about 30 mins away from BQ/NYQ, and you want to get that qualifying time, maybe give yourself 1-3 years to get there. We are here for the long haul. To avoid injury, increase your pace by a small percentage at a time, and slowly increase the distance of the peak week of your marathon training (like moving from 38miles/week to 42miles/week, that’s a little over 10% increase).


This is for the next few months, next season, or your next training cycle. If you have specific time goals or distance goals, make sure that they are not overly aggressive for this short amount of time. And although the timeframe is much shorter, you can still go back to evaluate and adjust the goals in the process. Here are some questions to get you started:

  • Again, what’s your “why”?

This is the key that would keep you motivated. Your “why” could change from race to race, and from season to season. So always start with the “why” when you are getting into a new training cycle or stepping into the off-season. Yes, it is helpful to have a goal for your off-season as well. I learned that the hard way by going into a high-mileage marathon training with only 10 mile/week running, and my joints were in pain for weeks (I am still shocked that I didn’t get injured!). 

To give some examples, my “why” for the winter half marathon training in 2019 was to keep hanging out with my running group. Therefore, I didn’t have a time goal. During the whole training, my goal was to have fun! Did I still try hard on race day? You bet I did! It’s actually my standing half marathon PR. And I also PR’d running friends, who are now some of my closest friends. 

Had so much fun that we became the poster kids for our training group! If you are in the Chicagoland area, highly recommend checking out Chicago Endurance Sports (CES) Winter Warriors and Summer training programs
  • What keeps you accountable?

Knowing what keeps you accountable could help you figure out how to structure your goals. This is where you need to be very honest with yourself. Make sure that the goals are framed in a way that works for YOU. For example, I need to have very specific goals to keep myself accountable. Keeping myself in shape in the off-season is a goal that may work for some, but it’s not specific enough for me. I need to tie it to a specific weekly mileage and a specific number of active days/week. 

  • How does this fit with your long-term goals?

Short-term goals are generally the stepping stones for long-term goals. However, it’s not necessary. You can totally set goals that are for fun (like doing a beer mile! I did it once. And I am very proud that I didn’t puke until I crossed the finish line!). But understanding the relationship between them would help you prioritize your short-term goals. Are they tied to a long-term performance goal? If yes, those goals may need to be moved to the top of the list.

If anyone needs some examples to brainstorm ideas, I am going to share my goals here. I want to preface this by saying, as I mentioned in the beginning, I am not great at setting goals. This is also a learning process for me. I don’t necessarily have an order of setting long-term and short-term goals. Since the marathon is my distance, and I am motivated by my competitiveness with myself, I tend to always have a moving target for my short-term race goal time. And to be very honest, this is the first time I am putting my long-term goals in words. I always have a general idea of what I want out of this sport, but I never actually attempted to write them down. 

Short-term goals:

  • Strength training twice a week 
  • Running 4-5 times per week with at least 25 weekly miles before Boston training starts
  • Run one 8-10 mile long run per week before Boston training starts
  • Aiming for the higher mileage in the marathon training plan
  • Run easy days easy (1:30-2 mins off my marathon pace)
  • Qualify for the NYC marathon (I am currently 2 minutes 38 seconds away from the marathon qualifying time)
  • Break my own half marathon PR (I am planning on doing a half during my next marathon training cycle)

Long-term goals:

  • Break 3:00 marathon (in the next 3-5 years)
  • Run a 5k under 20 minutes
  • Run all six major marathons
  • Have fun! (If it ever gets to the point that’s adding stress in my life, I will re-evaluate my short-term goals.)

Let me know if you try these tips and how do you like them! Yeah Running.

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