How to Decide What Your Race Goals Should Be

If you are in taper, if your goal marathon is still a good few months away, or even if your race is a shorter race like a 5k or 10k, as we approach race day, we start to get the question.

Not just from others, but from ourselves.

What are you trying to run?

I could see people trying not to roll their eyes when they would ask me that question before a big race and I would respond with, “I don’t really know to be honest, I don’t have a specific pace or time goal.”.

I would give that answer, but of course, the seed has been planted, and it sets off a whole chain of questions in our minds. Maybe one of these sound familiar:

Well….what should my marathon pace be?

How do I set a marathon goal pace? Half marathon, 10k, 5k or any other distance for that matter?

What is a realistic marathon time improvement? 

Although I desperately wanted to stick with what I had responded with, that I didn’t have any kind of time goal, it was not completely true (wow, this is cool, I really can say exactly what I was thinking now!!).

We can TRY not to think about race goals, but come on, let’s be real (Hashtag Running4Real :p), as runners we ALWAYS have some kind of time goal in our minds.

We can try to push them out. We can tell others we don’t. But it’s just human nature to allow those, “what if’s” to come through.

So, how should you go about time goals, knowing that yes, you do trust me enough to give the effort scale a try, but you need to somewhat prepare yourself for what you would be happy with.

Yes, just finishing a race should always be the goal, and we know that, but not so easy to put into practice.

Well, Steve and I came up with A, B, C and Stars Aligned.

(Side note: Steve and I spent about 10 mins trying to come up with a funny/original letter/shorthand for that stars aligned goal to show just how big we are talking. Best I could come up with was a mic emoji, as in mic drop goal…we are still thinking).

So if you are coming up to your next goal race, this could be how you look at your goals for the race.

How to set a marathon goal pace or other race time goals?

As I mentioned, we like to use A, B, C and Stars Aligned.

A Goals

This is your best expected finish.

Obviously you have to be realistic here, and know the difference between this and the stars aligned goal. This is going to be the result where almost everything went right, there may have been a few little setbacks during the race that lost you some time, but overall, this is your best case scenario (being realistic here).

To achieve this goal, you must be well prepared for the race, which means you have practiced your nutrition, done all the little things during training, and will raise your arms in celebration at the finish as you have either tears of joy or a GIANT smile on your face as your result reflects all those hours, the sweat, the time and energy, you have put into training for this race.

Think about a goal you would have the energy to run towards your family members, and embrace them saying “I did it!”. When you go to bed that evening, it takes you a while to fall sleep as you are too excited from what you accomplished.

For this goal there must be good weather, and you must feel confident in yourself as you approach race day.

B Goals

This is your most likely result, a result you would be very happy with, smiling at the finish. You would still definitely be celebrating after this goal, and when you go to bed you go to bed with a smile, satisfied, and very proud.

This would be the result that would be likely if you have to overcome a few unexpected obstacles in the race, where you go through some struggles that make you question if you can make it.

Of course every race is going to have some kind of rough patch, even the A goals (and yes, stars aligned too), but this has quite a few setbacks and mental freakouts that make you really have to decide if you want to fight or give up mentally.

The weather might not be ideal for this goal, but you are prepared to fight through it to get what you want.

This goal will be around a PR, or a time that you would be satisfied with.

C Goals

This is kind of your salvage goal. You should not have an intention for this goal, there shouldn’t really be a time associated with it, but if things go wrong, this is something that will keep you motivated to keep fighting all the way to the finish.

Maybe there is bad weather, maybe a lot of things went wrong in the race, maybe you weren’t prepared enough, but this should be your goal to just do your very best with the situation you are presented with.

You will cross the line happy with this goal, but know that there was more in there.

Stars Aligned/ Mic Drop/Dream Goals

This is completely unexpected. Beyond what you could ever imagine happening. This is one of those where when you cross the finish, you have to stare and focus on your watch or the clock as you can barely believe that you ran that time.

This is where everything comes together, you are in flow during the race, you feel strong, confident, and enjoy every second.

These goals and these kind of races happen a few times in your LIFETIME. This is a goal that you can always have as an ultimate, but maybe you really surprise yourself and hit it before you expect.

To give you an example of the three goals. For my California International Marathon race. Just to give you some context, I had previously run a 2:37:35 as my marathon PR about 6 months before. Training had gone very well, my tune up had shown I was in shape, and I felt confident going into the race.

Here were my goals:

A: Sub 2:34

B: Sub 2:35


Stars Aligned: Sub 2:33

Now that means with my 2:36:39, I technically hit my C goal, but, looking back, we were not as prepared as I thought we were because of the rolling hills the first half, and therefore the A goal and Stars Aligned goal were both pretty much out of the question from the start. I do think the B goal could have happened on that day, but I would have had to take a bit more of a risk early on, and I am not sure I was ready to do that.

As you see here, it is pretty tough to find a good balance here, as it is so subjective to your personal feelings and experience.

How do I know what pace or time goal I am ready for?

Well, this is a giant rabbit hole that we could spend hours on. There are many different coaching styles here, and if you have a coach, they may believe in a different system to Steve and I, or they could have a different approach of how to get people ready for races.

Depending on you as a person and your relationship with your coach, this might be different.

Some coaches like to tell their athletes they are ready for what Steve and I would consider a stars aligned goal, and for some athletes, that works really well. They want to prove to their coaches that they can do it, and it gives an extra motivation knowing that their coach truly believes they are capable of something so far above and beyond what they have done before.

If that is your coach, or if you think that would work best for you, by all means DOOOOOO IIITTT!

Steve and I are just not that way, and I find that it tends to put far too much pressure on a performance and time, rather than just focusing on doing your best and letting the result show you what you are ready for.

In case you haven’t noticed, I am an intuitive person 😉

Instead, we believe in having that you should focus on two things first, before everything else for every race:

  1. Crossing the finish line
  2. Crossing the finish line knowing you did your best

If you complete both of those, then you should be proud of yourself, and happy with it. That is all you can ask for, and hundreds of variables can affect us on any one day, which can make an A goal completely unrealistic, just as I mentioned with my California International race.

Now, there are a few questions you should be asking yourself as you try to settle on your four goals. Print out the worksheet I have provided with further explanation of these and tricks to come up with each of your goals. That will make it a lot easier, but if you want the bare bones/quick fix answer, sit down and ask yourself the following:

  • Is there a pace in your workouts you found yourself hitting often or settling at regularly during tempos
  • Did you race a tune up during this build up? How did it go?
  • What is your previous race PR at this distance, do you feel like you are in better shape than you were there?
  • Do you usually race well at your peak races?
  • Are you being reasonable with your progression from your previous race at this distance?
  • Did you set a goal at the beginning of the season? Would you say training has matched up with that?
  • How well have you practiced your nutrition?
  • Are you prepared to trust your body to tell you what pace it is ready for?
  • Do you feel confident?
  • What does the weather look like for the race?

Once you have answered these, you should have a good idea of goals for each. Sit down for a few minutes and look at the goals you have set for yourself.

Do you feel excited or scared? Do you feel good about them?

If not, sit down for a few more minutes and see what you can change to make yourself feel like they are more accurate for your fitness level.

I know this is not super descriptive, but a lot of finding the right time goal is picking what feels right to you. The worksheet will make things a lot easier, especially if you are struggling with this, but ultimately, I would once again like to encourage you to try the effort scale in your upcoming race.

At the end of the day, running by feel is always going to be the best way to run your very best. Unless you are in a competitive environment where you are going for placing, your body will tell you what it is ready for, and it will mean you do not force it into a pace early on that it is not ready for.

I know this sounds counterintuitive, but it really does work, and be sure to read my effort scale post if you still aren’t convinced.

Doubting yourself before your race?

Read this letter I wrote to myself before I shaved 4 minutes off my marathon PR. You are ready to run well, you just have to trust yourself.

How do you set goals?

Goal Setting Guide for Runners

Not sure how to set realistic goals for you?

This worksheet will help you find out

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1 Comment.

  • I know I may not be your precise target market with this post – – but I’m so excited after finishing my first marathon and also so much realizing I had no goal. I wasn’t even pressuring myself to finish but enjoy the process. Next time? Goal

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