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.