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How to Set Goals for Running a Marathon

Running a marathon is a huge undertaking that needs to be planned carefully. Many runners end up giving up halfway through their training because they didn’t take the time to prepare and set the right goals. This is really a shame because picking the right marathon goals doesn’t take very long and doesn’t need to be complicated.

In order to set goals for running a marathon, you need to consider your timeframe, skill level, and overall passion for running the race. Marathon goal setting is a mix of physical self-awareness and mindset readjustment.

A lot of runners grab marathon training books, flip to the plan that seems to be at the right pace for them, sign up for whatever race is a few months away, and then go for it. Especially for new runners, this is setting yourself up for failure. Thinking through your marathon goals isn’t a huge ordeal, but it does need to be done thoughtfully. Here’s how to do it. 

Marathon Pacing Guide

Before we dive into your own marathon goal, let’s cover our bases and understand how fast runners need to run each mile in order to reach certain targets. It sounds simplistic, but you’d be surprised how many runners say they want to run a 4 hour marathon and don’t realize what that means on a mile-to-mile basis. A 4 hour marathon is a common goal, so people go with it blindly. Nah, that won’t cut it. Here’s what every marathon goal means per mile. Remember that this mile pacing needs to be maintained for 26.2 miles.

3:03:29 marathon = 7 minute mile pace

3:16:35 marathon = 7:30 minute mile pace

3:29:31 marathon = 8 minute mile pace 

3:42:47 marathon = 8:30 minute mile pace

3:55:53 marathon = 9 minute mile pace

4:09:05 marathon = 9:30 minute mile pace

4:22:12 marathon = 10 minute mile pace

4:35:18 = 10:30 minute mile pace

4:48:25 = 11 minute mile pace

5:01:31 = 11:30 minute mile pace

5:14:38 = 12 minute mile pace

We’ll revisit these at the end of this post. For now, keep these goals and paces in mind as we work through the next steps.

What’s Your Ultimate Marathon Dream?

No one accidentally signs up for a marathon. Many of us get dragged along to 5ks and charity walks, but a marathon is a different story. If you have a dream to run a marathon, you have a REAL dream to run a marathon. Maybe you’ve imagined yourself crossing that finish line; maybe you’ve imagined the progress you’ll have made with your health during your training; maybe you’ve imagined yourself as a general badass and running a marathon is a great way to earn that label. All of us have marathon dreams. 

Ok, let’s tap into that dream. That big, ultimate, ultra dreamy dream. This dream doesn’t have to be anything wild, like qualifying for the Olympics and breaking the 2 hour marathon. This big dream is simply the main reason why you want to run a marathon in the first place. 

Say to yourself, “If I achieve x, y, or z running this marathon, it will be my personal definition of total success.” How would you fill in that “x, y, or z”?

This doesn’t mean running a perfect race or having a perfect training period. No, this is about identifying your main motivation to run your marathon and making sure that you have a streamline focus on it. Inspiring your family, improving your health, proving to yourself that you have what it takes. Why do you want to run a marathon in the first place? 

Let your mind dream big and have no limits. Right now, it’s not about being realistic. But, you need to make sure that your goal is actually something that YOU want. Not your friends on Facebook or the commercials on TV or the family you see at Christmas. This is YOUR dream marathon goal and motivation to complete the race.

What’s your ultimate marathon dream? _________________

What’s Your Realistic Marathon Goal?

Now that you know your ultimate marathon dream, it’s time to hone it in so that it’s realistic to where you currently are in your marathon journey and your upcoming race. Most marathoners have big dreams. I mean, we’re all basically crazy anyway, right? 

Those of us who are delusional enough to want to voluntarily run 26.2 miles aren’t usually the best at setting realistic goals from the get-go. In order to turn an ultimate marathon dream into a realistic marathon goal, there are some factors to consider. We’ll walk through them in the next steps and then revisit the question of what this goal should actually be.

Where Are You Physically, Running Wise?

Being in shape and being in “running shape” are completely different things. Yeah yeah, you’ll be ahead of the game if you’re already hitting the gym and doing a lot of cardio, but running takes a very specific type of training. This is why people train for running races to begin with. 

If you’re a new runner, or a runner who is used to shorter distances, it’ll take more time and effort to get yourself ready for a marathon. On the other hand, if you’re a seasoned runner who has run a number of marathons and consistently has high mileage each week, you may be ready sooner and have the bandwidth to push yourself harder towards your dream goal.

Keep your physical fitness in mind as you set your marathon goal. You don’t want to set a goal that is below your skill level and leaves you bored. You also don’t want to set a goal that is so physically demanding that you get injured and never reach the starting line to begin with. 

As I’ve written about a lot, I was really ambitious with my first marathon goal. It turned out alright in the end, but probably just due to luck. I ran that first marathon on an injured calf that I had to nurse for the next few months afterwards. Sounds fun, right? Be realistic about where your physical skills are at so that you aren’t blindsided by failures or injuries.

What Are Your Time Commitments?

Marathon training takes a lot of time. When I’m training for a marathon, I normally have to wake up at 4:30am on most weekdays before work and spend a good deal of my Saturday completing my long run. As I talk about in Better Running Goals, there are a lot of ways to fannagle your schedule so that your running schedule works for you instead of against you. But, no matter what, it’s going to take some time. 

Think about your current time commitments and how much wiggle room you have within them to fit in your marathon training. 

How do you calculate that exactly? 

First, think about your regular pace. Now, multiply that by the number of miles you’ll be running at your peak. Training plans differ, but this number will probably be between 40 and 50 miles. Calculate your pace by 40 or 50 and you’ll have a general idea of how many minutes you’ll need to dedicate to running at your peak. This isn’t a perfect formula, but it’ll get you close enough. Is that number something you’re ready to take on?

When considering your time commitments, you might want to ask your family if they’re on board as well. Giving up large chunks of your Saturdays and waking up at early hours to go for runs is something that is not only a strain on you, but everyone that interacts with you as well. If your family is going to give you the death stare every Saturday as you leave behind the family pancake breakfast in favor of a long run, your marathon training plan may not last. Talk to those who will be impacted by your marathon training and make sure that the time commitments are realistic.

How Bad Do You Want It?

As we’ve talked about, running a marathon is a big physical and mental commitment. Even if you’re methodical and careful, training for a marathon can turn your life upside down. I’ll say it until someone throws a pair of running shows at me: running takes A LOT of time and effort. Even when you aren’t running, you’re eating, sleepy, and planning your day around when you ARE running. 

Believe me, I’ve written an entire book about how to set running goals that DON’T take over your life and even I still struggle with this. Like any goal that you want to achieve, it’ll become a significant part of your life if it’s something you actually care about achieving in any quality way. 

Before you jump into a marathon goal, make sure it’s something you actually want to do. Yes, marathons are great bucket list items, but they are much harder than they are impressive. Your friends and family will think it’s awesome that you did a marathon, but then the next episode of American Idol will air and they’ll be on to the next thing. You need to want it for you, not anyone else. 

Set Your Marathon Goal

Now that we’ve covered the physical and logistical aspects of running a marathon, let’s set that goal. Depending on your responses to the previous sections, it’s now time to decide how realistic your ultimate marathon dream actually is. 

Maybe you read through this post and realized that you’re in a great place to push yourself towards that ultimate marathon dream. Physically, you know that you can be where you need to be after completing your marathon training plan. Logistically, you have the time and space you need to commit yourself to a big goal. In that case, go for it!

On the other hand, maybe you read through this post and realized that your ultimate marathon dream is a little farther off. That’s ok! There are any number of goals that you can set and get excited about between where you are now and your ultimate marathon dream. 

Scroll back up to the top of this post and figure out what your marathon time would be if you ran at your current pace. Even if you aren’t a distance runner, this pace is prior to your 3-4 months of marathon training, so it’s still a good marker.

If it is your first marathon, look at your current pace and set a goal that is close to that. Maybe you can shave off a minute or two, but don’t focus too much on time. For your first marathon, you want to focus on crossing the finish line injury free.

If you’re a seasoned runner, you can be a bit more ambitious with your training goal. Always keep in mind what the marathon hours to minutes per mile conversion is though and make sure that you are not setting the bar too high. You also don’t want to set the bar too low. I’ve been known to shave off as much as 13 minutes between one marathon and the next. Ok, I only did that one time, but still. 

Even if you aren’t ready to achieve your ultimate marathon dream yet, hold on to the spirit of it. For example, if your ultimate goal is to run a 3:30 marathon, but you’re at a 4 hour pace right now, know that any minutes you can shave off gets you closer to that ultimate goal. If your ultimate goal is to come in first at a race, know that every time you get 4th, 3rd, or 2nd, you’re getting closer to that ultimate goal. 

Basically, be mindful of your progress and don’t take it for granted. As runners, we know and love the feeling of slow, painful progress. It’s what makes us crazy and wonderful. Remember the real reason you love running and use that as constant motivation, no matter your specific goal at the time. If you love running, you love running. It’s easy to get caught up in crushing goals, but remember how much you love running for the sake of running.

Also, understand that you may never reach your ultimate marathon goal, either because it’s too lofty or it keeps changing. As humans, we’re great at always pushing the finish line further and further away. What might have been your ultimate marathon goal two years ago may soon become your baseline as you progress. That’s ok. Let your goals change as you do. 

It’s Ok to Change Your Goal

A huge problem I often see is runners being really rigid with their goals. “This is my goal and I’m not changing it! You can’t make me!” I totally get it. Once we set a goal, we get really excited about it. We also don’t want to think about it anymore. Training plans are great at giving us the step-by-step and day-by-day guide to the starting line. It’s already enough mental strain to train for a marathon without having to realize that something is wrong and critical thinking needs to happen to make some adjustments. 

It’s REALLY important to be open to change though. If you’re not ok with making adjustments to your training plan, you could head down the road of a wrong training plan and be unhappy with the result. Maybe you don’t hit your time goal or, worse, you wind up injured and watching the race from the sidelines. 

In order to have the best marathon possible, you need to be mindful of how your training plan is going and be ok with changing gears in the middle of it if needed. Especially if this is your first marathon, it can be hard to know what training plan is right for you. You simply don’t know how your body and mind are going to react. If you need to do some readjustments to your pacing or mileage, do it. If it’s what’s best for you, it’s what will be best for your race as well. 

Even if you’re a seasoned runner, life happens. It’s REALLY hard to get through a 3-4 month training program without something throwing you off. Vacations, injuries, family emergencies, any number of things can throw you off. It’s easier said than done, but be ok with being flexible. As someone who has been overly neurotic about training plans, trust me, everything will be ok if you miss one run or two. 

Setting marathon goals can be a big undertaking. Along the way, make sure you’re self-aware of your current fitness level, your time commitments, and your desires to dig in and really set your heart and mind to achieving your goal. Whether you’re at a place to achieve your ultimate marathon dream or not, understand what’s right for you and your lifestyle. Alright, go have fun with 26.2 miles!