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How to

How to set running goals for the first time

Two runners run across a city street.
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For many people, the start of the new year brings the opportunity to start fresh and set new running goals, especially if it was hard to stick to your usual routine during the holiday season.

Setting goals helps you maintain a positive outlook in general, and tracking success can help you stay motivated and feel good about your progress — whatever that means for you personally. Here's how you can set forth on a new running journey by celebrating smaller wins on your way toward bigger running accomplishments.

What's a good running goal?

Even if you're a seasoned runner, it was easy to fall out of your routine recently thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and the uncertainty it brought, along with the cancellation of many races. If you're a newer runner, it can be both exciting and daunting to set forth with a new running routine. But as long as you set realistic goals and get appropriate guidance, you can set yourself up for running success.

Running goals don't have to be all about mileage. You can seek specific improvements like pacing or a 5K time, but you might simply aim to be more consistent about exercising in general. You may want to follow your doctor's orders to be more active, or you may want to run more to improve your stress levels and mental health. The most important thing to consider when setting new goals is meeting yourself where you're at.

Woman running on sidewalk next to brick building

Be SMART about setting goals

To write out a goal you can stick to, you can try the SMART system, which stands for:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Timely

That means, if you're a newer runner, don't go from zero to 60 and immediately sign up for your first marathon. If you've never raced before and haven't run more than 30 minutes at a time, a 5K is a good place to start. It's a specific distance and an achievable milestone for someone who is starting out with runs of 1–2 miles. What about timely? Even a beginner can start going on regular runs in as little as two months. There are various training plans out there that can help you build your endurance and distance while staying injury-free.

I hit my first goal, now what?

Once you've checked off your first short race, you can evaluate if you want to continue to increase your distance or work on hitting a faster time for the same distance. Whether you decide to work on your speed in the 5K or 10K or embark upon your first half-marathon (and maybe a full marathon in the future), consult with a coach or seek out an online training plan. Following expert advice helps you continue increasing your distance without risking injury.

Mix it up and stay motivated by trying a new route when you can. Keep a training log to track how you're feeling after each workout. Make sure you don't increase your weekly running volume by more than 10% each week to avoid issues like shin splints, pulled muscles, or overtraining syndrome.

If signing up for another race doesn't interest you just yet, or you feel like you still need more experience, you can set mini-goals for yourself. Try working up to a mile or 30 minutes nonstop without walking, or maybe time-trial a few efforts on your own before doing an official race. Or, simply work toward building up to running three or more days a week if you're not there yet.

Pay attention to any physical changes in your body. Are you feeling more energized? Appreciating those stronger calves on the stairs at work? Take note of how running makes you feel mentally, too. If the answers are positive, like feeling less fatigued or stressed, that's a worthwhile goal to check off right there.

Man on a sunny run in park

Get your community involved

Another fun way to make goal-setting interesting is to plan a vacation surrounding a goal race. Most major cities have tons of events to choose from all throughout the year, across all distances from 5Ks to marathons. Talk to your training partner or family about a place you've been dying to visit. If you're able to sign up for your goal race there, make a fun weekend trip out of it.

Finally, stay on track by sharing your running journey with family and friends. They're likely to support and encourage you and may even commit to joining you for a race or training day. If you run at a similar level, you can hold each other accountable by setting run dates to get your training done together, signing up for the same race, and keeping each other updated on your overall progress. Loved ones that can't join you for workouts are likely to still be invested in your progress and excited to cheer you on when the big day arrives.

Setting new running goals doesn't have to be an intimidating process, even if you're still new to the sport. Everyone starts somewhere, and there are no hard-and-fast rules about what constitutes a solid running goal. By setting small and realistic goals for yourself before embarking on a big race, you can start the year on a positive note to set the stage for gains to come.

Our writer's advice is intended for informational or general educational purposes only. We always encourage you to speak with your physician or healthcare provider before making any adjustments to your running, nutrition, or fitness routines.

Written By
Emilia Benton

Contributing Writer

Emilia Benton Running

I'm a Houston, Texas, native who's run 11 marathons and 30-something half marathons, with 3:30 and 1:39 personal bests. I'm also a freelance health and fitness journalist, a USATF Level 1-certified running coach, and a lover of country music, baking, and world travel.