How To Set a Marathon Goal That’s Actually Realistic

Photo: Getty Images / DaniloAndjus
I don’t remember how or why I decided I was going to break four hours in my first marathon. Maybe I’d heard about a friend who did it and it sounded impressive while also somewhat attainable. Maybe I thought because I’d run just under two hours in a half marathon, I could maintain that same pace for twice the distance.

Spoiler alert: I couldn’t—and I didn’t. The effort of running faster than I should have for as long as I could meant the end of my race was pretty miserable and involved a lot of walking.

Setting a time goal for your first marathon can be so fraught that many people suggest not even doing it—just aim to finish the race. But even multi-time marathoners can struggle to choose a marathon goal that strikes the right balance of doable-but-challenging without the help of an experienced coach.

Experts In This Article

Time goals aren’t the only kinds of goals runners should be thinking about, though, and they certainly shouldn’t come out of thin air like mine did. Here’s how experts recommend you approach setting marathon goals—yes, plural—for your next 26.2.

The purpose of a marathon goal

The marathon is a daunting endeavor and an enormous commitment. Having a goal “is a way of focusing in order to organize ourselves around what’s really important to us,” says sports psychologist and avid marathoner Emily Saul, LMHC, founder of E Saul Movement.

For instance: Though our goal may be to set a personal record of 3:40, what that goal really represents is our desire to make progress in our running.

“Often, the time you pick is not significant, other than it’s something you’re stretching toward,” Saul says. “Goals help us to be more purposeful and create accountability and motivation.”

How to approach setting a time goal

Certain time goals loom large in the running world: The Boston Qualifier, the sub-4, the sub-3. But, “picking your goal based on what you’ve heard is important in the world, or simply a standard that exists, without a real sense of whether that is a reasonable physical goal for you, is not a good reason to pick that goal,” Saul says.

Instead, your time goal should line up with your current fitness and how much you predict that fitness may be able to grow over the next 16 to 20 weeks. (And if that happens to align with one of those big milestones, great!)

If you’ve run a marathon relatively recently, that’s often the easiest way to set a goal for your next one. But don’t just arbitrarily subtract a few minutes from your last time: You’ll want to consider factors like how that race felt, what the course and conditions were like, and how much time you’ll have to train for your next race.

The math gets trickier if it’s your first time tackling 26.2.

“The marathon is very much a learned distance—you don’t fully understand it until you’ve done it,” says Elizabeth Corkum, a New York City-based running coach, personal trainer, and founder of Coach Corky Runs.

Corkum suggests running a half marathon first to get some information about your current fitness. Just don’t make the mistake of doubling your time and making that your marathon goal. (Multiplying it by 2.2, or doubling it and adding 10 minutes, are usually more accurate predictors.)

It’s not uncommon to hear you shouldn’t even be thinking about a time goal for your first marathon; that it should be “just for fun,” or just to finish. Coach and professional runner Kaitlin Gregg Goodman, MPH, disagrees, saying running for fun and running for time are not mutually exclusive.

“[Time] is much harder to predict for a first-time marathoner, and you should have a healthy respect for the distance, and a healthy respect for the unknown. But it’s absolutely appropriate to have a time goal you want to target—and a goal that you want to enjoy [your race].”

You may even want to set three different time goals, Goodman suggests. A “C” goal that feels very attainable but still something you’d feel proud of, a “B” goal that’s a bit more of a stretch, and an “A” goal, for “if all the stars align, it’s amazing weather, you get a tailwind the whole way,” she says.

“Dream big—see what’s possible, because sometimes, if that day presents itself and you haven’t allowed yourself to visualize it, it catches you by surprise. Be open to the possibility of being faster than you ever dreamed.”

“When you think about your goal, it should energize you.” —Emily Saul, LMHC, sports psychologist and avid marathoner

Be flexible

Setting a time goal isn’t an exact science, and it may be what felt like the right amount of challenging at the beginning of your training cycle was a bit of an overreach.

If you’re consistently not hitting splits in your workouts—Goodman says the workouts four to six weeks out from the race are key—or if your goal marathon pace still feels difficult to maintain for longer stretches, that may be a sign that your goal could use an adjustment.

And while marathon training is almost always going to feel hard, you shouldn’t feel like you’re constantly depleted or needing multiple days to recover from runs.

Know that outcome-based goals aren’t everything

The numbers on the clock when you cross the finish line are just one metric to measure success in a marathon. But the problem with only setting outcome-based goals is “you can’t know that you’re successful until the end,” Saul says. “And there’s so many opportunities to get in your head or get caught up in the pressure of performing when it comes to focusing only on that outcome-based goal.”

That’s why Saul recommends runners set both process-based and experiential goals in addition to (or instead of) an outcome-based time goal. A process goal can be anything related to your training—maybe you want to work on running your easy runs easier or getting consistent sleep during your build-up.

“If I work on a process goal, I’m going to get to the starting line of the marathon and still have no guarantee what the outcome time is going to be,” Saul says. “But I’m going to be able to look back at my training cycle and go, I’m already successful because I worked on that and I got so much better at that.”

Experiential goals are about the experience of running the race and how you want it to feel. Maybe you commit to using positive self-talk or to making sure you stay fueled and hydrated through your race.

“Whereas you don’t have control over lots of factors that influence your outcome time, you have almost complete control over those experiential factors that are based on what’s going on inside you,” Saul says. “In my experience, the runners who feel in charge of what’s happening to them and are successful along the way end up running the best they can. Those experiential goals are the pathway to helping an outcome-based time goal happen, but it doesn’t work the other way around—if I just focus on my time goal, that usually creates more mental and emotional barriers.”

It’s okay to not have a time goal at all

If you’re searching for a training plan online, you may notice most are organized around what pace you expect to run. It’s easy to assume that if you’re training for a marathon, you’re supposed to have a time goal.

But having a ballpark idea of how fast you’re going to run isn’t the same thing as having a time goal, Saul says. And if running for time isn’t meaningful to you or feels stressful rather than motivating, there’s no need to do it.

Running sans time goal may just make sense based on life circumstances, Corkum says. For instance, maybe you signed up for a race but then had an unexpected family situation and weren’t able to train as much as you’d hoped.

“Instead of throwing in the towel and not doing the marathon, sometimes the balance is, ‘Okay, this is still really meaningful to me, but I also recognize that I can’t be killing it in the way I thought I could.’”

It’s also totally possible to have outcome goals that aren’t tied to the time on the clock. Maybe you want to finish the race feeling like you’ve “emptied the tank” or with a smile on your face. Or perhaps you want to be an amazing pacer for a friend running their first marathon and have a time goal in service of someone else.

Just don’t lie to yourself and pretend you don’t have a time goal when there’s actually a number in your head.

“That’s a backdoor attempt at tricking yourself into feeling less pressure,” Saul says. “But I don’t think that’s an effective way of actually addressing the anxiety or worry.”

How the right goal should feel

Whether or not you’re hitting your splits in your workouts is one clue as to if you’ve chosen the right goal. But what might be even more telling is how your goal makes you feel.

“When you have a goal that makes you anxious or decreases your energy or gives you a sense of dread, that’s an indicator that your goal is not a helpful goal,” Saul says. “It’s creating a defensive or protective response rather than an excited response. When you think about your goal, it should energize you.”

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