5 Ways to Set and Achieve Your Running Goals

Woman in head scarf running

Getty Images / Deby Suchaeri

Picture yourself crossing the finish line of a challenging race. Doesn’t it feel good to see the smile on your face, hear the cheering crowd, and know you’ve achieved something great? Accomplishing a major running goal like finishing a race or hitting a certain distance brings immense satisfaction—but it usually doesn’t come without strategic goal-setting along the way.

Read on for how to set—and achieve—your goals for running. The finish line is in sight, there are just a few milestones to pass before you get there.

Why Running Goals Are Important 

As with any other eyes-on-the-prize target, setting running goals can help you break down your race, distance, or pace into more manageable steps. By following incrementally increasing goals, you likely won’t feel like you’ve bitten off more than you can chew—which, in turn, keeps you from feeling overwhelmed and giving up.

Setting specific goals can also help you clarify exactly what you want to get out of your running workouts. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Are you training for a race?
  • What pace would you like to keep?
  • How far would you like to be able to run without feeling out of breath?
  • How many times a week would you like to run?

As you ponder your personal goals, consider writing them down and sharing them with a friend. According to 2015 research from Dominican University, people who sent weekly goal updates to a friend were twice as likely to accomplish them than those who kept their goals to themselves.

Types of Running Goals

Every runner has their own reasons for lacing up. With all the potential benefits that come from running, your desired outcomes may look different from someone else’s. Some possible goals for running include:

  • Running a specific distance, such as 1 mile, 5 miles, or 10 miles
  • Achieving a certain time
  • Registering for and completing a fun run or competitive race
  • Reaching health goals like weight management, lower blood pressure, or better blood sugar management
  • Making friends through a local running club
  • Relieving stress or boosting mental health

How to Set Achievable Goals

When setting goals, it’s often helpful to think of the acronym SMART, which stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-bound. Since its invention in the early 1980s by management consultants, this easy-to-remember mnemonic has helped countless people meet their goals.

Making your goals specific narrows your focus so you know exactly what you’re striving for. (“I’d like to run in my local turkey trot this November,” for example.) Similarly, keeping them measurable makes it clear when you’ve accomplished them—such as after completing a 10-minute mile.

Each person’s version of “attainable” is unique, so give some thought to what your body is capable of before setting a goal that may not reflect the next letter: R for realistic. Finally, sticking to a time-bound schedule for running goals ensures that you’ll meet them sooner rather than later.

How to Achieve Your Running Goals

Beyond creating SMART goals, there’s even more you can do to stick to your plan for progress. Try these five tips to see you through to the finish.

Make a Commitment

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step—and the journey of your running goal begins with a simple commitment. Consider what SMART goal you’re reaching for and commit to it in writing. (Again, sharing it with a friend can help keep you accountable.) You can place your written goal in a hard-to-miss spot in your home to keep it at the forefront of your thoughts.

Focus on Small Steps

You’ve probably heard that small steps add up to big accomplishments—it’s true, both metaphorically and literally in this case. Research from a team at Stanford University found that focusing on small sub-goals early in the pursuit of a larger achievement enhanced people’s motivation. As individuals in the study neared the completion of their goal, it was more helpful to visualize that big-picture accomplishment.

As you journey toward your running goal, try breaking it down into doable chunks. If you’re working toward a 10K, try a training regimen that slowly increases your distance from 2 miles in week one, 2.5 miles in week two, and so on. Then, when race day nears, shift your focus to how you’ll conquer the full 6.2 miles.

Prevent Injuries

When you have a goal in mind, it’s understandable to want to give it all you’ve got. But pushing yourself too hard and neglecting safety could land you on the sidelines. To reach your running goals in a state of good health, it’s important to take the right precautions to prevent injury.

Stay mindful of best practices for preventing accidents or injuries, such as stretching before and after runs, running in the right shoes, hydrating properly, and observing rest days. And, if you’re running solo, ensure your safety by always telling someone when and where you’re running.

Track Your Progress

Without tracking your progress, it’s hard to know how close you’re getting to your goals. Fortunately, there are tons of tools at your disposal for monitoring your runs in terms of distance, speed, heart rate, calories burned, and more. Snag an app that suits your needs and track every run on it. Seeing your progress can provide the encouragement you need to keep going strong.

Reward Yourself 

We’re all motivated by rewards. For each major milestone reached, plan to celebrate your success with a little something special. (Just make it something that won’t interfere with any health goals.) For the biggest motivation boost, try treating yourself immediately after you accomplish the goal. Some research has shown that enjoying a reward right after an accomplishment amplifies positive feelings and motivation.

A Word From Verywell

Running is a full-body aerobic exercise that brings tremendous benefits to physical and mental health. And, like any other skill, it’s something you can become better at over time. Setting (and sticking to) goals is a surefire way to achieve the race times and distances you desire. If you have any questions or concerns, talk to a healthcare professional before diving into a new running practice. This can help clarify whether your goals are appropriate for your health.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do you know if your running goals are achievable?

    The best way to know if your running goals are achievable is to enlist the help of an expert. Discuss your goals with a personal trainer, running coach, or a general practitioner to make sure they’re not unrealistic or detrimental to your health.

  • How important is goal setting when you are a runner?

    If you run simply to squeeze in an occasional workout or to clear your head after a long day, you may not need to set goals. On the other hand, if you’d like to progress in your athleticism, compete in a race, or have desired outcomes for health and wellness, setting goals is key.

  • How do you become a better runner?

    To improve your form and technique, you can always ask a running coach or another qualified trainer for tips. In general, though, becoming a better runner simply takes time and consistency. The only way to realize your goals is to put in the time to hit the pavement (or the treadmill) regularly. Little by little, you’ll see improvements.

3 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.
  1. Gardner S, Albee D. Study focuses on strategies for achieving goals, resolutionsPress Releases. Published online February 1, 2015.

  2. Huang, S, et al. Step by step: Sub-goals as a source of motivationOrganizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 141 (2017): 1-15. doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2017.05.001

  3. Woolley, K., & Fishbach, A. (2018). It’s about time: Earlier rewards increase intrinsic motivationJournal of Personality and Social Psychology, 114(6), 877–890. doi:10.1037/pspa0000116

By Sarah Garone, NDTR
Sarah Garone, NDTR, is a freelance health and wellness writer who runs a food blog.