Don’t focus on goals that don’t challenge you, are repetitive or are impossible. Instead, focus on small wins and stretch goals.

Setting a goal can be a difficult and confusing process for many runners. You want to challenge yourself, but not set yourself up for failure from the get-go. So how do you set a goal that excites you, pushes you to achieve big things and improves you as a runner while also being realistic about your abilities?

Usually, runners choose one of two types of goals:

1. A goal that’s too easy or doesn’t require very much work. For example, after running a few 10K races, you hope to run your first half marathon in 12 months.

2. A goal that’s wildly unrealistic. For example, you just started running and want to run a marathon under 3hrs within 3 months.

The runner who made goal #1 above could be ready to run a half marathon in far less time. This goal is way too easy! And the runner who made goal #2 needs to have more perspective about the challenges of racing a fast marathon. It takes a lot of time, training and patience to reach this kind of goal.

Instead of goals that don’t challenge you or are impossible, there are two better types of goals to focus on: “small wins” and “stretch goals.” Both of these approaches give runners the advantage of thinking small about their daily training and to dream big about their future aspirations.

The value of small wins

Small win goals are short-term, highly achievable goals that force you to focus on the process of training—the daily actions that help increase your fitness, prevent injury, and get faster.

Rather than performance-oriented goals (trying to get new personal bests on a regular basis, reaching a certain amount of distance each month), small wins are about the “boring” elements of training like:

  • Getting enough sleep
  • Warming up properly before speed sessions
  • Focus on executing your stretching correctly
  • Running at an even pace during your runs

These process-oriented, small goals have several unique advantages.

First, they’re easy to accomplish. Any runner can focus on these goals with no disruption to their current training. They’re not intimidating and they’re universal despite your age, ability, or the type of race you’re preparing to run.

They also make you a better runner. By getting more sleep, you recover faster and adapt better to the stresses of training. Warming up properly and being consistent with stretching routines help reduce your risk of injury. Running at an even pace helps to prevent you from blowing up in a race due to a fast start.

Small wins, when compounded over time, add up to a significant training advantage. You’ll be stronger, more athletic, and better rested with less risk of injury. Plus, accomplishing even the smallest of goals is motivating. Runners can “snowball” the accomplishment of these goals, build momentum, and run more consistently.

Set stretch goals to stay motivated

While small wins help you improve day-by-day and week-by-week, stretch goals are long-term pursuits.

This is when you’re encouraged to set big, bold, aggressive (but still realistic) goals:

  • Run your first marathon in 12-18 months
  • Break 20 minutes in the 5K next summer
  • Finally crack the 2-hour mark in the half marathon in 12 months

Stretch goals are exciting. They make you think far into the future and imagine your potential abilities as a stronger, faster runner.

In other words, they keep you motivated to train. Even when it’s cold or dark outside and your warm bed is far more inviting, the prospect of accomplishing a stretch goal gets you out the door for your workout. A stretch goal ultimately gives you something to work toward—if training were a road trip, it’s your destination.

But don’t fall into the trap of being too aggressive with your stretch goal. It still needs to be realistic based on your current fitness level, ability, and willingness to put in the work required to accomplish it. A coach can really help you with setting your goal. With their experience, coaches can easily tell if your goal is too wild or too easy.

For example, if you want to go sub 3:30 in a marathon, but your personal best is 4:30, then it’s more productive to focus on breaking 4 hours first. This is still a big improvement and one that every runner should be very proud of accomplishing.

Or if you’ve only ever raced a 5K, a stretch goal might be to finish a half marathon in 9 months. However, making a jump from the 5K to the marathon in just a few months risks injury, mental burn out, and falling far short of this goal, which will only lead to decreased motivation.

By striking a healthy balance between process-oriented small win goals and larger, more exciting stretch goals, runners better set themselves up to succeed in the short and long-term.

Runners who adopt this approach will perform the daily actions that contribute to better running performances, while at the same time maintaining an exciting future-oriented goal that boosts motivation.

Soon, with a skyrocketing fitness level, you’ll realize those stretch goals are within reach!

By Gert Rijkx, founder and head coach of QuadraCoach. Former athlete and certified athletics coach with over 25 years of experience in coaching, training and motivating runners of all levels