Set SMART Running Goals for Sticking to Your Habit

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Setting and reaching goals is an excellent way for runners to stay motivated. During the process of achieving your goal, you gain a sense of direction and progression. When you finally reach it, you gain a sense of accomplishment and pride.

Running goals can be competitive in nature, or they might be personal or health-related. Many different types of goals can energize your running program. However, setting a SMART goal can make the process more valuable.

What Is a SMART Running Goal?

When defining your running objectives, it helps to use the SMART method. This involves setting goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound.

The SMART goal-setting method is used by coaches, business leaders, educators, and others to help people define and reach performance targets. Each component of a SMART goal plays an important role in the process.


A specific goal helps keep you motivated because you know exactly what you need to do to accomplish it. As you move closer to your goal, you get excited and motivated by your progress, so you work even harder to get to that end result.

A specific goal is defined by precise terms. So, your goal should be narrow in focus and avoid generalizations.

For example, you might want to run faster. This goal is broad and unspecific. A specific goal for improving your pace might be, "I want to improve my PR (personal record) in the marathon by two minutes."

If your goal is to participate in a running race for the first time, you might set a goal to sign up for a 5K event in your area. Or if you hope to lose weight with running, you might set a specific goal to lose five pounds in two months by running 3 to 4 days per week.


When you define specific criteria for measurement, it allows you to check your progress periodically and make adjustments as needed. This helps the program seem more manageable so that you stay on track and maintain your motivation.

To make your goal measurable, you need to define how you will track your progress. You also need to decide how you will know when you've reached your target.

For example, if your goal is to improve your marathon PR by two minutes, monitoring your pace during long runs is one way to measure your progress. Set specific pace targets for each long run, making incremental speed increases each week.

If your goal is weight loss, you might use a bodyweight scale, body mass index (BMI) measurement, or body fat percentage for measurements. Pick one and decide how often you will measure your progress, such as choosing to weigh yourself on a bodyweight scale once each week to see how you're doing.

Body Mass Index (BMI) is a dated, biased measure that doesn’t account for several factors, such as body composition, ethnicity, race, gender, and age. 


Despite being a flawed measure, BMI is widely used today in the medical community because it is an inexpensive and quick method for analyzing potential health status and outcomes.

Whichever method of measurement you choose, use the same one every time so you can easily track your progress along the way.


Let's face it, not everyone is going to qualify for the Boston Marathon or run a six-minute mile. So, while it's good to set lofty running goals, it's important to choose those that you will be able to accomplish if you're willing to put in the work.

The best goals require you to push yourself outside of your comfort zone but aren't so extreme that they are intimidating. If a goal is too far out of reach, you are more likely to give up easily because, deep down, you know that it is not achievable.

To figure out if a running goal is attainable, see how it compares to your previous running achievements. Do you have to make considerable improvements—beyond your ability—to get to that level? If you're not sure, talk to a running coach or running friends to help give you a gut check.


For a goal to be relevant, it should be something that you consider to be worthwhile and important, so you're willing to work toward it. It needs to be personal and meaningful in your life.

For example, many runners set a goal to complete a marathon. If distance running is not interesting to you, then this goal is not relevant. Perhaps you enjoy mid-distance runs instead, so you set a goal to run a 10K for a local charity with a mission you support.

Some runners participate in the sport for health reasons. Decreased BMI, lower blood pressure, or a lower resting heart rate might be relevant goals for these runners.

Other runners enjoy running because of the social nature of the sport. A relevant goal for this runner might be to join and participate in a running group two days each week.

Just because you're a runner, this doesn't mean that you have to set a goal that's popular among other runners. Pick a goal that is meaningful and relevant to you.


Time-bound goals are those that have a deadline. This means that you set and define a time frame for reaching your target. Having a deadline will keep you motivated and prevent you from getting bored or wanting to skip workouts.

For example, if you say, "I want to run a sub-2-hour half marathon", but you haven't chosen a specific race, then there's no urgency for your goal. But if you choose a specific race and say you want to run a 1:59 half marathon on that date, you can lay out a week-by-week program to reach that goal.

If you find that you're ready to achieve your running goal way ahead of schedule, simply readjust your goal and keep challenging yourself.

Tips for Setting a SMART Running Goal

There are a few things you can do to make your SMART running goals even more effective.

  • Take your time. Spend some time considering each of the important factors listed above. It may take an hour or more for you to brainstorm ideas and narrow down your target.
  • Write down your ideas. You may find that journaling helps the goal-setting process along. Writing out your ideas is also helpful as you move through the process of reaching your goal. You may want to review your notes about why your chosen goal is relevant or the running accomplishments you considered to determine that your goal is attainable.
  • Read your goal regularly. Once your goal is established, write it out and post it in a place where you see it on a regular basis. It will serve as a reminder of your commitment and it will prompt you to record measurements along the way.
  • Take notes to keep moving forward. Once you reach your goal, take notes about how you feel about your accomplishment. Use that pride as inspiration to set a new goal.

By Christine Luff, ACE-CPT
Christine Many Luff is a personal trainer, fitness nutrition specialist, and Road Runners Club of America Certified Coach.