Alternatives To Setting A Rigid Time Goal In Your Next Race

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If you’ve ever run a race, you’ve probably gotten this question from your friends, family members, running buddies, and, innocuous (yet annoyingly curious) strangers:

“What was your time?”

It’s a simple question that holds a TON of weight. It’s invasive, almost — at least, in my opinion.

Because once I answer that question, it doesn’t matter how hard I trained for that race, or what was going on in my head from the start to the finish line. It doesn’t matter if this was my personal best time, or a time I’m not proud of. It doesn’t matter if just having the courage to get to the starting line was a struggle in itself, or what I went through during the training process.

I know it’s a standard question; a common one in the running community. But it can also be belittling.

Once I answer that question, “What was your time?” everything that I am — a writer, a runner, a lover of dad jokes, and a person who usually prefers the acoustic version of a song to the version played on the radio — is diminished into a number.

Why am I writing about this? Well, I was talking with one of my runners this morning, and we were discussing goals — specifically, time goals in races. While there probably isn’t anything more rewarding than setting a goal for yourself and reaching it, we talked about how sometimes, making time goals for yourself in a big race can be more detrimental than rewarding, especially if you fail to reach your goal. 

I thought about this more after our talk, and realized that I inadvertently may have been pushing time goals on some people when I first talk with them about being their potential coach. So I wanted to clear some things up.

For some people, having a time goal is a great motivator. And if you picking a time goal and working towards it makes you feel empowered, then I say, ‘Go for it!’ You do you.

Getting stronger means that sometimes, getting uncomfortable is inevitable. But if establishing a time goal — maybe you’re chasing that coveted “BQ” (Boston Qualifying Time) in the marathon, or you really want to run your fastest time ever in your next 10k — causes you distress on the reg, psychs you out mentally, or messes with your performance (or, alternatively, makes you feel like all of your efforts were for nothing if you don’t reach your goal), here are several alternatives to setting a rigid time goal in your next race. 

1. A Tiered Goal System

Rather than zeroing in on one specific goal, there’s been times that I create a tier system of goals that are a little more realistic. Some may file this under the (often looked down upon), ‘Everybody gets a trophy’ mindset, but, honestly, everyone who finishes a marathon does deserve a fucking trophy. For example, in the 2015 Boston Marathon, I decided that if I ran my personal best time, that would be amazing. If I ran under 3:25:00, a more realistic goal, I would be impressed with myself. And if I teetered across the finish line around the 3:30:00 mark, well, that would still be pretty satisfying.

2. Running Negative Splits

In the 2016 Philadelphia Marathon, I decided that rather than create a time goal in my head, I wanted to negative split the race. If you don’t know, to ‘negative split’ means to run the second half of a race faster than your first half. For me, that meant taking the first half of the race very conservatively, then trying to push myself to shave a few seconds off of my miles after mile 14. While this was particular goal was inspired by Strava’s Back Half Challenge, it was also a great way for me to avoid pushing the pace too early and causing burnout later in the race. It was also a great way to avoid stressing about getting a PR. I knew a PR was unrealistic in the moment and trying to force myself to run with that mindset would have been an instant fail.

3. Following A Designated Race Plan

On race day, anything can happen. But if you choose to run by a specific plan (like pacing yourself evenly, or being conservative enough not to hit a wall at mile 20 of a marathon, or to go balls out and try the ‘fight the fade’ method), and can stick to it despite nerves, a crowded race field and outside elements like weather, that is something to be proud of.

4. Finishing Without Regret

There have been too many races (5ks, I’m looking at you!) where I’ve wimped out and let my mind override my body at mile 2, only to realize just before mile 3 that I’ve got a kick left, and had I used it earlier, could have left it all on the course.

This is a tough one to pull off. But if you can honestly finish a race knowing you gave it your all, how could you POSSIBLY be disappointed?

5. Finishing, Period.

Sure, you could let your competitive side win. But honestly, some days you just have to let yourself be proud of the fact that you woke up, got yourself to that start line, and saw the course through to the end.

6. Finishing Without Hating Yourself!

This is my personal favorite, and a goal I strive to accomplish, often. There have been too many races where I have cursed myself at various points, vowing I would never run another race again. (Spoiler: I broke that promise). To run comfortably is a virtue, and sometimes you need to just celebrate that you’ve trained adequately enough that you don’t feel the need to throw up mid race, or 10 feet past the finish line.

7. Having Fun 

I know, I know — isn’t all running supposed to be fun? Isn’t that why we do it in the first place? While the answer should be yes, we’re pretty much all guilty of getting too competitive at one point or another. Rather than pick a competitive goal, maybe try picking a fun goal instead. Maybe you finally want to be the cool runner who grabs a beer cup at mile 20 of the Philadelphia Marathon, or maybe you just want to race in a tutu and see if it can make people smile.  There are some runs where the end result just shouldn’t matter at all — instead, enjoy the course .. er, journey.

Yes — lofty time goals give us a challenge, and sometimes, we need to rise to that challenge to test ourselves.
But always remember that you are so much more than a number.

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