Setting Realistic Goals

I love this time of year.  Besides the fact that the leaves are finally on the trees, you can smell the freshly mowed grass everywhere, and shorts are back in my running wardrobe, this is also the start of racing season.  Spring and summer get us all in the mood to run more and races can be found on just about every weekend.  Right now I am in NYC for a few weeks and you can even find weekday evening races too!

This is also the start of marathon season.  I have started hearing from a lot of athletes who are looking to run a summer or fall half or full marathon.  Nothing gets me more excited than sitting down with an athlete and mapping out a plan of action for their first, second, or perhaps even 20th marathon.  I really mean it when I say that having an endurance race to train for over the next few months is the perfect prescription to ensure you have an incredible summer.

When I sit down with athletes I often ask them several questions about their running history.  I want to know how many races they have done at various distances and what their results were.  I also need to know what their goals are besides finishing a race.  As you know from reading this blog, I am a big fan of Goal Setting.  It helps to keep us motivated and also maps out a plan of action for upcoming events.  Without a goal in mind we can be running blindly during training without a real direction to head for.


There are of course all sorts of goals.  It is absolutely reasonable for first timers at a new distance to have a goal of simply finishing.  Many people hope to run the entire course without taking walk breaks.  The goal of not hitting the dreaded wall is a great one and requires that you focus on finding a reasonable pace along with a fueling plan that keeps you moving.

Time goals are excellent as well.  I think for first timers at new distances this can be tricky and you need to be careful that you don’t raise the bar too high.  The other difficult task with this is not using a previous race time from too long ago or a distance that is too short to reasonably measure a predictable goal pace.

I have been working with a lot of runners lately and there seems to be one goal that rings familiar with many athletes.  “I want to qualify for Boston.”  This is an absolutely fantastic goal and a pivotal one for many of us runners.  It is important to remember however that the BAA sets the bar high, especially for men.  Unfortunately, for many people I work with, their previous race times are often very far off from what is needed for Boston. I hate to be a bubble burster and I never want to be negative Coach Sarah.  Whatever your goals are, I am happy to help you reach them.  But I think it is important to keep a few factors in mind when you set race goals:


Cutting slivers off is easier than chunks sometimes.  First of all, this rule does not count for dessert.  You should always cut chunks off of dessert rather than slivers.  But when you take previous race times, it is important to remember that finish times often shave off in slivers.  That is not to say that I haven’t had a marathoner improve his PR by 30 minutes or more.  That can absolutely happen, but it is not always the norm.

Generally speaking, you will need to plan on doing a lot of speed work to improve a race time by a large amount.  Other factors such as improved fitness level, weight loss, and experience will also help increase your odds of making a big leap.


You can’t take a 5k pace and multiply it by 8 to get a marathon time.  This happens A LOT!  And sadly, this will lead to very unreasonable expectations.  You can take a 5k result to get a general idea of a 10k prediction and the same rings true for a half marathon vs. a full marathon.  But they do not completely translate by doubling the numbers.  It is highly unlikely that you will run your half marathon pace for a full marathon.  You are much better off using a race prediction calculator.  Plug in your most recent race time and it will give you a reasonable idea of where you would finish under similar course conditions.  This will not however factor in weather or terrain changes.

This is my favorite Race Time Predictor.

If you aren’t currently running a pace that is somewhat near a BQ pace during a 5k or even 10k, it will be extremely difficult to run that pace for 26.2 miles.  This is the hardest one for me as a coach to have to share with you.  I get many athletes who give me a decent 5k time and then say they want to qualify for Boston.  The problem is, running a 7:30 pace for a 5k and needing a 7:04 pace to BQ are very, very different things.  A 5k is a sprint for us endurance runners.  Sadly, maintaining your 5k pace alone would be nearly impossible for 20+ miles.

A training plan is a guide to help your body learn to handle the mileage and improve your pace over 16-20 weeks.  It is not however a miracle worker.  Be honest with yourself when you look at goal paces and make sure you really think about just how long 26.2 miles is to sustain that pace for.


Don’t be afraid to change your goals.  Sometimes we get half way through training and realize that what we originally set out for might not come to fruition.  That’s okay and it is totally fine to readjust your plan.  Honestly, it is better to go into a race with realistic goals than to set yourself up for failure.  Nothing is more frustrating that getting 2 miles into a half marathon and realizing you are nowhere near where you want to be.  Goals are not set in stone and there is nothing wrong with making some game changes along the way.

20 thoughts on “Setting Realistic Goals

  1. This is an awesome post and totally resonates with me. I got really excited last year when I ran my marathon PR and started going all, “I am going to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Trials.” HA. While it’s great to have a huge goal, what I was not quite grasping was that I would still need to cut 33 minutes off of my time. Seeing as I had cut more way than 33 minutes from my first marathon to my PR, I thought, “I can do that”. It took some really awful races where I went out at suicide pace and could not maintain it that resulted in disaster to check my ego and realize a more realistic goal would be to run a PR (sub 3:06) or try for a sub-3 marathon before going all crazy. And maybe I sound crazy, but I truly believe that with enough hard work, I can do it: I just think the time frame I was trying to do it in was what made it completely unreasonable. There’s always 2020… 🙂 Thanks for the reality check!

  2. I feel like this is the year of changing ALL my running goals! Ha ha, dang injuries. I love this post – especially the part about chunks of desert 😉 I’ve had to re-evaluate my goals and even put some off until next year. It’s taken a few months to decided that but it’s the best decision in the long run to be injury free.

    • The dessert part is my favorite too! There is nothing wrong with re-evaluating goals and making adjustments. That is what makes you a wise athlete. Before you know it, you will be back on track, and those goals will be back where you want them.

  3. Good advice and timely, since I am one of those guys chasing a BQ. 🙂

    One thing that runners chasing a BQ also need to realize is that it might take years of preparation and training. Very few of us are naturally gifted enough to BQ easily and it very seldom happens during a first or second year of a current running cycle.

    I think we all have cycles where we run better than others and times where we have time away from running for more than 6 months (for what ever reason) and need to basically start physically as a new runner – even though we might progress more rapidly because of our previous experiences – it still takes more time than we want to admit. Your body and mind both still need a certain amount of time and training to toughen up to the demands of running 26.2 at a BQ pace (and for some – unfortunately it may never happen).

    It doesn’t mean that we can’t try or push ourselves to do more than we think we can, but sometimes as you say we need to set realistic goals for ourselves. The reality part was/is the hardest part for me, but I am getting better at it hehehehe. Now to do the work and actually BQ after all, it has been a while since I said that I would – in fact almost a life time.

    • This is a great point. Having a long term goal is fantastic and I think you are right on track with this. It would make life much easier if many of the runners who come to me would take your same attitude. The BQ isn’t easy but a long term plan for getting there makes it much more doable. Often I have someone who is capable of qualifying for sure, but maybe just not during this training cycle. This sport definitely teaches patience. Happy training!

  4. Great post. Definitely all about perspective. I found it so hard to make goals attainable, so I ended up breaking them down into immediate and future goals, and then realistic and stretch goals. I think sometimes the unattainable is great for motivation, but we also need to have realistic goals that we can and WILL accomplish to help motivate and focus our training. Hope you have a great MDW!

  5. This is a great post! I think it’s great to have a hard-to-reach long term goal – as long as you create little goals to accomplish along the way that are more realistic. For instance, I’m one of those who aims to BQ one day 🙂 My first marathon was a 4:30 and I never thought I could reach a BQ time. But I worked on my speed and endurance and a year later ran a 3:51. I’m still not at the point where I feel I can BQ at my next marathon (for instance I haven’t even run a half at BQ pace yet), but a more realistic goal for me is 3:45 which would still take me in the right direction!

  6. AHAHA You should always cut chunks off of dessert rather than slivers- glad we are on the same page 😉 I love the idea of setting a marathon goal of not hitting the wall. I think when I finally start training for another marathon- that will be my goal (instead of a time goal). Love it!!!

    • It is a great goal and one that we both know isn’t that easy. It takes careful preparations during your long runs to make sure you are fueling and hydrating properly and then you have to not start out too fast during the actual race. None of that is easy!

  7. Such great reminders. I think I do fairly well knowing my current limits and setting reasonable goals. I ran my first marathon in 2013 in 5:23. I did my second in Dec 2014 coming in at 4:52 =) I then set my eyes on a 50K in March which I did in about 6 hours ( I had turned 50 in 2014 and thought it would be a cool way to “celebrate” it haha) I learned so much about myself preparing for those events. And like any normal runner, you do have that Boston fantasy, but I don’t know if I have the abilities to knock that much more off my time to qualify. I am happy however, with continued improvement on any level even if I never participate in that race =)

    • Those are some incredible improvements! There is never anything wrong with aspiring to a larger goal. But as you said, continue working on those smaller improvements….and you just never know! Keep up the great work 🙂

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