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Setting Good Goals

Goals make us extract the best from ourselves. They help us get out of bed when we would rather stay in; they keep our fitness on track when it would be easy to let work and family life get in the way. But if you don't choose your goals wisely, you risk injury and burnout that can derail your running altogether. Here are five goal-setting secrets that will set you up for success.

Make it Personal

In this time when the marathon seems to be the everyman's Everest, it is tempting to feel like you have to run a marathon, and that you have to finish it within four hours, or at least faster than your brother-in-law—even if you've never run before. But if a goal is completely out of whack with your fitness or experience, or even what you enjoy - then you're setting yourself up for injury and burnout. It's easy to get caught up in what other people think; try to avoid wasting energy on that. Most people are so focused on their own running lives, the only thing that really matters is how you felt about it.

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How To:

Half-marathons and marathons are very popular right now. But running long distances isn't for everyone. Think about the kinds of distances and workouts you enjoy the most, and pick an event and a goal that will allow you to spend most of your time running that distance. If you want to target a half-marathon, it's best to have at least six months of regular running experience before you start out. If you want to run a marathon, it's best to have at least a year under your belt. In terms of picking a realistic finish time you've got to start where you are. Do a 5-K and plug your time into any of the many online fitness calculators.

Make Sure the Training Fits Your Schedule

Whatever distance you intend to race, be sure you have the time to train for it. If you're training for a long distance, you'll need one to four hours at least once a week for an endurance-building long, slow, distance run. And with most standard training plans, you'll need to run at least five days a week, plus make time for recovery, sleep, and strength-training.

If your schedule already feels jam packed with work and family commitments, you might consider targeting a different goal. If the training begins to interfere too much with sleep, work, or time with your family, then there's a good chance that you're going to burn out or give up before you reach the starting line.

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How To:

Look at some standard training schedules for the distance you're considering. Map out how and when you'd do each workout on each day of the week. Talk to your spouse, partner, kids, and boss, to let them know that you're considering training for an event, and about how and when you'd fit the training in. If your first choice for a goal isn't going to work, target a different distance. You can build your fitness by racing at any distance. Racing 5-Ks will help you build speed so you can kick to the finish; targeting 10-Ks and half-marathons will help you learn how to sustain a faster pace for a longer distance.All of those skills will help you ultimately in longer-distance events.

Let the Body Be the Boss

If you've made the mistake you know, that you just can't beat your body into submission. There is a huge difference between the general muscle soreness that goes along with pushing your body farther than it has gone before, and the the sharp, shooting pains that go along with injury. Each individual has his or her own unique orthopedic threshold—that is, how many miles, and how much intensity he or she can handle before the body breaks down. This threshold is determined by age, genetics, gender, anatomy, biomechanics, history of injury, experience, and a variety of other factors. And it changes as we age, and as we get more miles on our bodies. Trying to train through pain will only turn short-term injuries into long-term problems that will haunt you for life.

How To:

Consider what types of workouts and distances you can do without pain. Does cross-training and strength training help? Pick a distance and a goal which allows you to train within your pain-free sweet spot.

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Get to the Starting Line with Four Goals

Even if your training goes perfectly, anything can happen on race day. It may be 90 degrees. If your satisfaction with your event is entirely contingent on reaching a single time goal, then you're setting yourself up for upset. It's important to have three goals at the starting line: a goal for the ideal day, a goal you'd be happy with, a goal just to finish, and a process goal. Process goals don't have anything to do with the outcome of the race. They have to do with the things that you'll do during the race, to help increase your chances of reaching your goal time. You might aim to execute your fueling strategy perfectly, not walk up the hills, or even run a negative split (do the second half of the race faster than the first half).

How To:

To figure out a realistic time target, schedule a tune-up race two to four weeks before your goal event to test your level of fitness. Plug your finishing time into an online training calculator to figure out a realistic goal for your big event. Aim for that result - not the time that you targeted when you first started training.Training requires months of preparation and anything can happen during that time—work, injuries, and family commitments can all impact that original goal. You have to start each race where you are!

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Think Beyond the Finish Line

When you're training for an event, the preparation gets so intense and takes so long that it's easy to get consumed by the result, and to feel a little lost after it's all over. That's natural.

How To:

Schedule a race of a shorter distance, or a vacation or a big event in the weeks following your big racing event. That way, no matter what the race result, you'll have something to look forward to after you finish!


About Jen Van Allen


Jen has spent the past six years working as Special Projects Editor for Runner's World magazine, and writing stories for the magazine. Her books, The Runner's World Big Book of Marathon and Half-Marathon Training, (Rodale Books, June 2012) The Runner's World Big Book of Running for Beginners and The Runner's World Training Journal for Beginners, (Rodale Books, April 2014) are available wherever books are sold. She is currently at work on her next book, The Runner's World Guide to Weight Loss, which will be available in stores in January 2016. She also contributes stories to The Washington Post, and The Portland Press Herald.


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