Keep Your Race Time Goals in Perspective
Photo: Brian Metzler

Why being too intense about a time goal will prevent you from success

We are addicted to our GPS watches. The running nerd in us thrives in all the stats and data they provide, and we can see the tiny improvements in running that can keep us motivated when the novelty wears off.

It is through our data and the subsequent analysis that we start to see what we are capable of as runners. Our minds start to go into overdrive, and we think: “If I ran this, then surely slowing it down a little, I can hold it for at least a few more miles.”

Before long, we have big time goals ahead of us—goals that are a little scary and may seem a little out of reach. It doesn’t matter if it’s a sub-3-hour marathon you’re shooting for or a sub-2-hour half marathon. We start with confidence that we are ready for them. We can do anything we put our mind to—we’re told that over and over again, right?

Having a big, scary goal is a good thing. It motivates you more than anything else on those days you just don’t want to get out there, or just don’t think you can finish. You can achieve that goal. No matter what you set for yourself, you can do it.

The problem arises when we start to put a time limit on our goals, which can be hard to avoid once it is set in your mind.

No sooner have you decided what your goal will be, you have found the perfect race to do it at. It would be the greatest triumph of your life, it makes so much sense for it to happen on this day, this year.

The pressure starts to mount, now you don’t have that much time left to prepare, and your running is definitely on a bit of a rollercoaster lately; the setbacks seem to be coming along a little more than usual now.

But I have to accomplish my goal on that day. This is my one shot. I want it more than anything.

Your stats may have shown that it was not so out of reach, and besides, you are more committed now. The problem is, there are far too many uncontrollable variables in running, too many factors that go into a perfect race. And it just takes one to knock off your dream race plan and make it all go down the drain.

We as runners are perfectionists. We want things to happen as we plan for them to happen, and if they don’t go that way, something is working against us.

The more you focus on completing a specific goal by a specific date, the more pressure you are putting on yourself. The more pressure you put on yourself, your body senses stress. It doesn’t like stress, which means it will make some changes to avoid that stress.

Now your goal seems like it is even less likely, so we think that if we commit more, do more, prepare more, we will be ready, we will deserve that result, right? Unfortunately, the world of running does not work like that, and often, the harder we try, the more we force it, the more things seem to go wrong.

None of this even takes into account what the conditions will be like on race day, and how you will be feeling that morning.

All of this becomes a recipe for disaster, and yes, of course there is a chance your race will unfold exactly how you hoped it would and you will hit that pie-in-the-sky goal, but more likely, a few things will go wrong and your race plan will crumble away, it wasn’t “meant to be like this”.

Deflated and defeated, most tend to give up on that big, scary goal altogether. Feeling like they are inadequate, and not even worthy of having big goals, they will never reach them anyway.

But you don’t have to give up. If you didn’t reach your big, scary goal this time, that’s OK. That means the world has asked you the question, how bad do you want this goal? How good will it feel when you accomplish it, knowing that you had so many setbacks, and you didn’t let them stop you from getting there?

Spoiler alert: It will be one of the greatest feelings in the world.

Instead of focusing on completing your goal by a certain time and date, just have the faith that you will do it. You don’t know how, you don’t know when, your goal might morph just a little, but you will get there. Keep training diligently, but be sure you’re recovering, fueling and resting properly—and avoid overtraining.

Just like if you were going to drive across the country in the middle of the night, you can’t see the entire road ahead of you, all you can see is the distance ahead of you where your headlights shine (or maybe the street lights). You don’t know what twists, turns, uphills or downhills are coming, but you know you will get there.

See your goal as making it there, and trust in yourself that you will put in the work, you will use it as motivation on those days you don’t feel like training, but you will let your body tell you when it is ready for that time goal, not your GPS watch.

All you can do is your best in every hard workout, every race, every opportunity you get to succeed. As long as you do that, and you trust in yourself, the reward will come to you, and you will learn so much about yourself along the journey too.

Tina Muir
Tina Muir is a 2:36 marathoner from the UK who is also the founder of Running for Real, a community of runners and popular running podcast. Tina recently stepped away from her professional running career to start a family, and is now pregnant with her first child.