How to Set Goals and Stay Motivated as a New Runner, According to a Running Coach

Group of women running

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It’s no secret that exercise is good for you—there is clear research that it benefits your muscles, mind, and overall well-being. The good news is, you don’t need to join a fancy gym to get in a good workout. Really, all you need are a good pair of supportive shoes and a safe place to run. 

If it’s been a while since your last workout, you may think running is out of the question. After all, the only way to get benefits from running is if you go all in, right? Not according to running coaches. Any movement is better than none and you don’t have to run hard, fast, or long to get results. But you do need to establish achievable and realistic goals.

Learn more about goal setting for new (or returning) runners, as well as expert tips from motivating running coaches.

Being a Runner Doesn’t Have to Be Hard

If you find running too hard, you’re probably doing too much. Many beginner runners mistakenly think that they need to run hard in order to get the benefits, notes Michael Walls Garrison, Ph.D., avid runner and accomplished running coach at Hawaii Running Lab

This all-or-nothing attitude not only leads to burnout but also increases your risk of injury. Inexperienced runners are twice as likely to get hurt, so it's particularly important to maintain safe, sustainable running habits.

But contrary to what you may believe, being a runner doesn’t have to be hard, especially if you go in with a good attitude and set realistic goals.

Setting Running Goals

Making the decision to start running is a step in the right direction. Goal setting as a new runner is, however, the true key to your success. Before putting your goals down on paper, Garrison suggests you take a look at what you’re doing now. Awareness of your current routine can help you see how to change it and make running a part of it.

Create Small Achievable Goals

Having a goal to run for 30 minutes, five days a week is great. However, you don’t need to do it all at once. Garrison suggests new runners make “bite-size” goals. Small, achievable goals that work for you right now.

Instead of doing a 30-minute run your first time out, start with a 15-minute walk-run routine: walking for five minutes, running for five minutes, walking for five minutes. Garrison says you’re running at the right level of effort if you can hold a conversation without getting breathless. 

Slowly lengthen your workout and running time as your running stamina improves. This will help you work toward your 30-minute running goal.

Make Running a Routine That’s Easy to Maintain

Starting any type of exercise requires a change in your routine, which you may find overwhelming. Mikael Hanson, founder of Enhance Sports, an endurance sports coaching and consulting company, says new runners need to build up to a regular workout routine that they can easily maintain. 

Hanson suggests committing to running two to three days a week, alternating between walking and running until you get into a pattern that works for you. Developing a rhythm and routine helps you stick with it.

Sign Up For a Race

Once you get into your running routine, Hanson encourages you to “look for a local 5K race to run for fun. Many local races include walking and is something the whole family can do together.”

This race is your next running goal, giving you something to work towards as you continue to improve. “Race day should be a celebration of all your hard work,” notes Garrison. 

Walking Is Okay

Running is the goal, but it’s important to remember that it's okay to walk. Both Garrison and Hanson suggest a walk-run routine for new runners. Walking is completely okay any time you don’t feel up to running. 

When goal setting for running, or anything else, it’s important to have self-compassion, turning your compassion inward and being kind and understanding rather than critical. You’re going to face obstacles when establishing your new running routine, or even after you’ve gotten into your rhythm. Don’t let these “hiccups” derail your efforts. Nothing is wrecked, even if you have to go back to your initial “bite-size” goals.

You’re more likely to re-engage in healthy behaviors when you have the ability to forgive yourself when you mess up.

How to Stay Motivated

Goal setting is the first step for motivation in running. Here are some additional, motivational tips to help you stick to your goals and continue to make gains.

Join a Running Club

Running is a solo sport and you may enjoy the alone time. However, if you’re having trouble sticking to your workout schedule because of all of that time by yourself, consider teaming up with a friend or running group. 

“Running with other people is a great way to hold yourself accountable and can make the whole experience more enjoyable,” advises Hanson. 

“Finding a running partner that’s a little more advanced than you may also help with motivation,” suggests Garrison, “or, you may find it more helpful running with someone who needs your support for motivation.”

Keep Running Fun

Despite the health benefits, many people look at exercise as a chore. Something to check off on your to-do list. This is why you may struggle to get started or find it hard to keep going.

You need to make running fun in order to stick with it. Signing up for races, creating a running playlist, or looking for new routes to explore may help you see exercise through a more optimistic lens. Or, turn your run into an adventure with a running game app where you chase zombies or try to collect your favorite video game characters. 

Run For a Cause

Running for a cause may give you the motivation to keep going. Hanson explains, “Many of the large marathons—like the New York City and Chicago marathons—thrive on charity teams for their participants. Plus, you may find it highly motivating when running to raise money for something you’re passionate about.”

What to Do When You Don’t Feel Like Running

You’re not going to feel like running every day. Even lifelong runners have days when they're not up to it. Self-compassion is important when creating health and wellness goals. It’s okay to take a day off or walk when you don’t feel like running.

Rest days are important and part of your body’s recovery process. Your running can't improve if you don't give your body time to recover.

Hanson understands this feeling, noting that it gets boring running the same route day after day. He tells his new runners to change up the route or run it in reverse. Running with friends also helps pass the time, and keeps you accountable.

A Word From Verywell

Many people choose running to improve health and fitness. As a new runner, setting realistic and achievable goals can help you succeed. More importantly, be kind to yourself when you hit a roadblock, fail to reach a goal, or take a day (or more) off. Nothing is wrecked, forgive yourself and start again. 

Consult with your primary care provider before starting your new running program. They can make sure running is the right activity for you and provide guidance for getting started and moving forward based on your current fitness level.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why is running harder at the beginning?

    Running is harder at the beginning because it’s new and not part of your routine. You can make running easier by starting with a short walk-run routine a few days a week. Then, as your drive, fitness, and energy improve, slowly increase the length and intensity of your run.

  • How do I start enjoying running?

    Goal setting and motivation in running is a great way to bring joy into the sport. Make your goals realistic and achievable and find your motivation, whether it’s signing up for a fun race or working out with a friend. 

    You also need to keep running fun. Try your usual route in reverse or look for new routes to try. Using an adventure app or creating a special playlist may also help make running more enjoyable for you. 

  • What is a good running goal for a beginner?

    Establishing a rhythm and routine is a good running goal for a beginner. You don’t need to run fast or far, but you do need to get started. Whether you walk or run, you need to create a workout you can easily maintain.

5 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. van Poppel D, van der Worp M, Slabbekoorn A, van den Heuvel SSP, van Middelkoop M, Koes BW, Verhagen AP, Scholten-Peeters GGM. Risk factors for overuse injuries in short- and long-distance running: A systematic review. J Sport Health Sci. 2021 Jan;10(1):14-28. doi: 10.1016/j.jshs.2020.06.006.

  4. National Institutes of Health. News in Health. Creating healthy habits: Make better choices easier. March 2018.

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By Jill Corleone, RD
Jill is a registered dietitian who's been learning and writing about nutrition for more than 20 years.