Running Goals: 3 Runner-Tested Strategies That Actually Work

Ready to set some running goals to run far, chase PRs, and cross more finish lines in 2024? These THREE runner-tested strategies will help you make it happen.
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With a new calendar year comes an influx of goals and aspirations that we want to accomplish within the next 12 months before the cycle starts all over again next January. 
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For most people, that’s exactly what New Year’s resolutions become.
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You know...yet another revolution of a vicious cycle that rarely results in anything actually productive. 

  • We start out full of sky-high hopes and untapped motivation...
  • Only to get overwhelmed by the scope of our goals and unsure of our ability to make progress toward them. 
  • The result? A hard-stop on pursuing those goals because we must just not be ready for them yet. So we put them off until next year, and the cycle continues. 

That ever happen?

Here’s a wild thought…

What if the problem has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with your goals? 
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Not necessarily the subject matter of those goals, mind you, but rather the way you’re framing them for yourself.

3 questions about big running goals

As a sports psychology consultant, I fully advocate for setting goals so big that they scare you a little bit. 
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I’d even go so far as to argue that doing so encapsulates the whole point of running: 

  • Giving ourselves the chance to chip away at an overarching objective that doesn’t allow for any shortcuts...
  • Just honest, consistent, intentional effort. 

But the difference between setting a big, scary goal and actually reaching it comes down to actionability.

Let’s say you want to qualify for the Boston Marathon this year. 

  • You do your research
  • You determine the standard
  • You give yourself a buffer, and...
  • You wind up with a crystal-clear number

Now there's THREE critical questions to ask yourself:

  1. Does that number tell you anything about how to actually cross the finish line in that amount of time? 
  2. Does it give you any sense of control over getting to that point? 
  3. Can you actively do anything with that information? 

If you arrive at a resounding “no” to those questions, I’m not surprised. 
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That’s exactly why so many runners struggle to achieve the running goals they set (if the intimidation factor doesn’t scare them away from setting them at all). 

Running goals: There’s another way to dream big

Looking for a better way to set running goals?
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You know...
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A way that puts you in a position of authority and autonomy instead of leaving you feeling overwhelmed and altogether out of your depth.
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And all it takes is one simple linguistic shift to start.
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Here's how...

Outcome goals vs. Process goals

The goals that most runners set for themselves fall into the category of “outcome goals”. These are goals based on what you want to achieve, like…

  • Qualifying for Boston
  • Running a sub-3 marathon
  • Making it onto the podium
  • Completing an ultra 
  • Beating your dad in a 100m sprint (totally not inspired by a true story, of course…and yes, I won—barely)

There’s nothing wrong with having these types of goals in mind. In fact, they’re a crucial part of the planning process.
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But pay attention to the operative word “part” here.

  • Outcome goals serve a purpose as a starting point. 
  • They’re just not the end all and be all. 

Once you figure out what you’re aiming toward, the next step is to translate that into how you’re going to get there from where you are now.
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Enter: process goals.
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If outcome goals identify the destination, process goals outline the journey. They hone in on the actions required to create the result that you’re looking for.
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Let’s take that BQ example again.
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This is the outcome at which you want to eventually arrive. To make it happen, though, you need to work backward from there.
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What will it take to snag that qualifying time? You’ll need at least…

  • Weekly speedwork
  • Weekly long runs
  • Weekly easy runs
  • Weekly rest days 
  • Progressive mileage
  • Strength training for injury prevention and muscular power
  • Personalized fuel and hydration strategy
  • Smart self-care habits for everyday energy, recovery, and stress management

These are all examples of actions that make the outcome.
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You can’t directly control the time it takes for you to cross the finish line.
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That comes as a result of focusing on these behaviors. Sticking to them doesn’t 100% guarantee anything—but they’ll make your dream a heck of a lot more likely to come true than fixating on the what instead of the how.

Setting process goals

Once you’ve translated your ideal outcome into components of the process, it’s time to turn those components into a tangible checklist.

  • These are the behaviors that help you build the fitness your outcome goal requires. 
  • Your list should also include the habits that keep you healthy, happy, and energized enough to put in the miles. 
  • Consider how the specific actions you need to take in those arenas fit into your schedule on a yearly, monthly, weekly, and daily basis.
  • Flesh out that schedule with additional details like the amount of time you want to commit and the kind of effort you want to bring to each activity. 

For instance, you might base a typical training week around…

  • One long run at an easy to moderate effort on the weekend
  • One interval session at a hard effort after work
  • Three to four short early morning runs at an easy effort
  • 10 minutes of mobility after every run
  • Two 20 minute strength training sessions during your lunch break
  • Eight hours of sleep every night
  • Three balanced meals, two to three snacks, and three liters of water every day
  • New shoes every 300-500 miles

But don’t stop there! For optimal effectiveness, break those process goals down even further.
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What’s going to give you the time, energy, and focus to complete the actions you’ve listed in the ways you intend to?
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Maybe that means…

  • Consuming 40+ grams of carbs every hour on long runs
  • Learning concentration strategies for staying focused during hard intervals 
  • Calling your mom on easy runs to keep the pace slow enough
  • Picking three mobility exercises that you can do at the kitchen counter while breakfast cooks
  • Going straight from work to the gym so you don’t lose motivation to lift by stopping at home in between
  • Sticking to a wind-down routine at night to fall asleep faster
  • Planning out your meals and snacks ahead of time so you don’t accidentally fall short
  • Putting aside money every month to save up for fresh gear 

Keep working backward until you’re able to boil down even the most intimidating outcome goal into bite-sized progress goals that take away both the fear and the ambiguity. 

  • At that point, let go of your outcome goal. 
  • You don’t need it anymore now that you’ve created an actionable checklist. 
  • Thank that goal for helping you plot your gameplan, then let it fade into the background. 
  • You’ll get there. All you need to do now is focus on ticking the boxes. 

Tracking your progress

There’s not much point in setting goals of any kind if you don’t track your progress toward them. 

  • Half the point of turning outcome goals into progress goals and breaking them down into the smallest possible pieces is for the sake of building confidence. 
  • Each box that you check serves as proof of your ability to do the things that you set out to do. 
  • Those little wins add up by the time the big day comes around. 
  • Then, you’ll be able to look back on a huge database of evidence that testifies to your readiness. 
  • If you’ve checked all (or even most) of the boxes you created for yourself, then there’s no question: you’ve got what it takes. 

But don’t trust your brain to just “remember” those wins.

Why?
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Your brain has a lot to keep track of from chores to bills to what’s for dinner. It won’t know to prioritize something until you train it to.
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Keep intentional track of your process goals and exactly how you’re tackling them bit by bit.
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This is where a well-kept training log makes a huge difference. Logs are good for more than just tracking hard data like miles and minutes. 

  • Document each day’s goal in writing, complete with a reflection on what you did to accomplish it and how doing so contributed to the big picture. 
  • Pen and paper triggers memory best by bringing in a kinetic stimulus.
  • But what matters most is actually doing it—so if digital spreadsheets and apps help you keep track more consistently, lean into the convenience. 
  • At the bare minimum, check your boxes (literally) on a habit tracker. Even without the details, you’ll have visual confirmation of your commitment to the program you laid out. 

There’s nothing easy about chasing big running goals

But there is such a thing as making the process harder on yourself than it needs to be. 
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Turn your scariest outcome goals into feasible process goals that keep you chipping away day by day. 
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One of those days will be the one where you take the final step to success.

What are your running goals for 2024?

Share your big dreams in the comments.

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Lucie Hanes
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Eagle, CO
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Ultrarunner, rock climber, occasional artist, fond of good wordplay. Small human on big adventures with big goals and big fee...

Comments

David Moore Amazing tips on process goals over outcome! A goal of mine in 2024 is to complete my first road marathon. I began training for one in 2023 but was derailed by injury. I’ll be coming back to this when setting up my training block.

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