Choosing a Marathon Goal

Goal Setting
Marathon goal setting doesn’t need to be quite this complicated. Right? (Photo credit: angietorres)

Mint’s recent Marathon Pacing post touched on the many ways you can go about marathon pacing. Today I’d like to take it one step further and talk about how to choose your marathon goal. Having run 24 marathons (!) I have gone about this process in pretty much every way possible, and I think there are benefits to each method. I should note that for the majority of the marathons I have raced I did not hit my goal (though I did usually get better). Perhaps I am a dreamer, or perhaps I just set aggressive goals.  The marathon is a tricky race and there are so many variables that need to be just right to run your best 26.2, but I firmly believe that this fact should not prevent us from aiming high! Salty Readers, let’s go for it this fall!

And to help you do just that, I’ve outlined some handy tips for selecting a marathon goal time and give examples from my marathoning past to help you. Ready to go on a goal-setting adventure? Let’s go!

The Calculators

Ah. The internet and all its fancy tools. There are several excellent calculators available to help you ballpark your marathon goal time. All you need is a recent race time, preferably a half marathon, but for most of these tools, any race distance will do. Plug in the race time and *voila!* out pops a marathon goal time. Here are the most popular online calculators:

The Jack Daniels VDOT Calculator 

The McMillan Running Calculator

The Running for Fitness Race Time Predictor

Hill Runner’s Race Conversion Calculator

Pepper’s Preferred Method also from Hill Runner (requires math!)

And for those who like to calculate numbers the old fashioned way, we have a formula for that!

The old fashioned/simple approach: Half marathon*2 plus 10 minutes.


A modern ouija board plus planchette
Not a good tool for picking your goal for your first marathon! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The obvious goal is to finish, but if you are a Salty Reader I am just guessing your aspirations are a bit higher. Perhaps you had a goal in mind and you trained for it from the start, but how do you know if it is realistic? There are quite a few good tools to predict your marathon time based on current races. I’d say as a first timer those calculators are pretty aggressive. Unless you have trained at a very high level it is unlikely your 5k PR is a realistic base for what you can currently do in the marathon, and even your half time may be off. But when trying to get a ball park the above calculators are useful tools to start with. If you have recently run a half-marathon, an aggressive, but doable first time marathon goal time would be to use the old-fashioned approach (half-marathon*2 +10) and add an extra 5 minutes.  So if you ran a 2:00 half marathon, a doable but aggressive first marathon goal time would be 4:15.

For my first marathon I had a goal before I even started training. I wanted to qualify for Boston, and seeing as my friends said I could do it, I just sort of assumed I would. Ah to be young and naive again. I do not recall if I even followed a training program, but I do know I ran most weeks less than 26 mpw and that I added a last minute 20 miler two weeks out because my peers told me a three week taper was too much. Based on my first half marathon in 1:43:17, the 3:40 goal wasn’t unreasonable. Though my training was not nearly up to par and I made that goal by the skin of my teeth. I honestly believe I made the goal because someone said I could do it and I believed them. I’d like to thank my friends for not convincing me I was faster than that! The calculators would have predicted I was set for 3:37 but I suffered mightily to come away with 3:39:42.


That’s a lot of back-up goals! (Photo credit: Digitalnative)

Many runners like to set an A goal, and then maybe a B and C goal in case race day isn’t perfect. I went into my 3rd marathon with multiple goals, which came in handy when I realized my A goal, 3:25 wasn’t going to happen. It helped to have a back up goal in place, which for me, ever the competitor, was to at least be faster than one of my friends PRs. I managed to up her PR by a few seconds finishing in 3:27:17. A new PR, but not quite that A goal. I would go on to chase that same 3:25 A goal for another 5 marathons before breaking it in 2008 at Boston in 3:22:50. In those cases having the B goal of qualifying for Boston most certainly helped keep me on track when my legs started to mutiny.


Be very quiet, I am chasing a huge PR. (Photo credit: Raquel Camargo)

Anyone who knows me is well aware that this is not my area of expertise, as I like to share most of my goals. However, it seems very common for runners to sandbag their private goals when announcing them publicly. [Editor’s note: sandbagging means to say you plan to run slower than you really do.] This can be advantageous if you are easily persuaded by peer pressure or negative commentary on your abilities. Sometimes a goal is best kept to oneself, maybe for a big breakthrough that you know you are due for, or a ballsy effort you are planning that may go wrong.

The closest I have come to the secret goal was the race in which I set my marathon PR. Before the race I publicly stated my goal was to go sub 3. Lofty based on what I had done on paper, but I was confident I would go under 2:56 even on a bad day, and I just had a feeling I was capable of between 2:48 and 2:52 on a good day. It did help that the spotlight was not on me at all and no one expected me to race so well other than my closest supporters. I had no pressure that race from anyone but myself, and it paid off big time with a 2nd place finish at the 2010 Columbus Marathon and a PR of 2:49:53.


Do what your heart desires, never hold back a ...
Sometimes the best race has no goal other than to leave nothing on the course. (Photo credit: deeplifequotes)

In my most recent two marathons, 2011 Philly and 2012 Boston, I set no goal other than running the fastest I could given what the race day dealt me. The first time I tried it was Philly. There the ultimate goal was 2:46 for the OTQ, but training was interrupted, injuries ensued, and all I wanted was to run a marathon as hard as I could on the day. Sure I wanted to run a PR, I wanted to run 2:46, and my realistic goal was to be under 2:52, but I set all of those aside and simply raced instinctively. I can tell you that I have never worked as hard in a marathon or been prouder of my effort. I let it all out and pushed myself to the max that day, running a 2:51:59. I think for most this may be hard to do until you have raced several marathons and really have a feel for what a well raced marathon feels like. But for me I have a feeling this is how I will race most of my races from now on. Even when I have an ultimate time goal. This was a life saver for me at Boston this year with the extreme heat. Had I stuck to a time goal like most runners that day I would have had a terrible race. Knowing how a hard marathon effort should feel was key to pacing myself appropriately in the heat that day.


how not to run a marathon
Don’t become a marathon statistic. Avoid the bonk and set a realistic goal based on your training. (Photo credit: TR4NSLATOR)

As a pacer who has seen many people set their goals too aggressively I cannot express enough how important it is to be realistic, while still aiming high. Do the training and achieve your times at shorter distances to really get after your marathon goal. But if race day comes and you aren’t quite ready, save that goal for the next race and run a smarter marathon by setting your goal realistically for the day and the conditions. The best marathon experiences usually aren’t the ones where you fell off pace and suffered mightily on the back half; they are the ones that you paced perfectly for a tough but doable finish!

That said…


You’ve put in the miles, you’ve raced quite a few marathons, you have hit all your previous A goals. You have a pie in the sky goal, and even though nothing indicates you can hit it, you know in your heart of hearts that you are ready to pull it off on a good day. Maybe it’s time to test the waters and really go big. In my experience this hasn’t worked very well, but for every 9 out of ten failures at this there is one success. Maybe today will be your day? I’d only go with this method if you can be content with a ballsy effort and a relatively poor result.

If you are lucky the stars will align and this will work for you, if you are semi-lucky you will experience a minimal break down and still run a decent race (shoot for the stars and you may reach the moon?) If you are human you may experience the marathon bonk, and the even more humbling death march to the finish. All results are character building and will teach you lessons. I’d say this one is worth a go every so often, but don’t make it a habit.  I had a very bad experience with this one at Boston in 2011 (hint running the first 10km near your 10km PR is unwise).

The best marathons are those run at an even pace or with a negative split, and those results usually come from nailing your prediction for your appropriate marathon goal.

How do you set your marathon goals? Do you share them with the world? Do you have backup goals to keep you accountable if things don’t go your way? Are you an all or nothing runner? Let the Salties know your goals for this fall so we can root for you to achieve them!


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A gal on a mission to save Cuyahoga County streams one storm water facility at a time. An ex runner of many facets including marathons, pacing, ultras and more. Chronic left side issues have me cycling more than running these days but I'm attempting to get back to my running roots.

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  1. I love this! I have done all of these approaches too except the sandbagging one. Maybe someday. 🙂 I think the approach you decide really depends on the season and how your training is going. Last spring, I felt super strong and ready to nail a PR, but wanted to be conservative because I just did not want another crappy marathon. A blow up would have really done a number on me mentally. So, I ran conservatively and missed my goal by 2 minutes. But I was super happy because I had a strong race – just what I needed! With that under my belt, I am more prepared to make a gutsier move this fall and have bumped up my target goal marathon pace. I won’t like it if it is not my day and I fall off, but am ready to take the chance and really go for the PR I know is right around the corner.

  2. Pepper! You’ve outdone yourself. This is a great post! I especially love the little anecdotes from your marathon history after each segment.

    I just wanted to share that for my first marathon I did the half marathon x 2 + 15 minutes and it worked perfectly. It was challenging, but doable and I had an amazing experience. Since then I’ve aimed for 8-10 minutes over my half marathon x 2 and it hasn’t worked out so well! When I get to the point when my half marathon x 2 plus 15 is < 3:00 then I might do another marathon 🙂 I'm curious what has worked for others!

    1. Thanks 😉 I think the “calculator” I actually prefer to use got lost in editing. It is based on more than race times, using base mileage too. The site has the calculator linked above but the article here discusses a more complicated method of getting a 10k “conversion” to your marathon time based on training mileage:

      The only race I have ever come close to the calculators for a marathon based on my shorter distances was Columbus 2010. I am guessing it isn’t coincidence this also coincided with my best and most consistent training mileage. I would say for the most part the calculators are aggressive unless you are training at a semi advanced level.

      Of note for my Columbus PR ran a 1:21:52 half on a fast course. Daniels would have had me running 2:51 to 2:53 based on that. In this case the old fashioned method would have made me a sand bagger. But in most other cases it was always pretty close. For example when I ran my 3:05:57 I had run a 10 mile around 1:05 and a half just over 1:27. Daniels would have had me at a high 3:01 but the old fashioned approach would have put me at 3:06!

      Major difference for me between those two efforts was a couple of big key runs in 2010 where I ran at or very close to 2:50 pace. Huge confidence booster!

  3. This is a great post and great tips! Thanks for sharing. I am contemplating my goal for NYC currently and found this really helpful. Especially since Cle was such a bomb for me (for may reasons).

  4. You may want to check out, a very nicely built web app designed for tracking goals, habits, and todo lists, and supports time tracking too. It’s clear, focused, easy to navigate, and most of all, really works!

  5. Great post with a lot of good suggestions – setting a goal is hard but important as going out too fast is a definite recipe for disaster (except maybe one out of ten times, as you suggest), and going out too slow can be tough to recover from, leading to a suboptimal result. My favorite approach is to run a half-marathon about 4-6 weeks ahead of the marathon and use that with various pace calculators and other mitigating factors (hilliness of the respective courses, weather conditions, etc.) to dial in my goal. In fact, I’m running the River Run Half tomorrow; last year I ran 1:23:30 (or so) and did the Towpath in 2:55:41, so roughly 2xHM+9 minutes (I think I’m a smarter marathon runner than half-marathon runner). So I plan to use about that formula to set my Towpath goal this year.

  6. Hi I’m running my second marathon in a little less than two weeks and I have been training hard for it. My first marathon was 3:45 and it was really fun and amazing, but extremely hard. I had only ran a bunch of 5.7 miles and one 18 miler. So I was pretty happy just to finish. This marathon I want to set a realistic goal…I have ran two half marathons since that first marathon and ran it in 1:30 and 1:31. The 1:31 was a crummy finish and I walked part of it mainly because I was trying to run a pie in the sky goal. I have ran one 7:11 20 miler and felt pretty good. I am not trying to put out these stats so I can stroke my ego, but honestly want sound advice of what a realistic time goal is. No matter what I do I know I will get a PR, but that is not really what my ultimate objective is. Any advice? Thanks

    1. Congrats Julie! I ran a 1:31:57 with a terrible flu 8 weeks before my second marathon – tried to break 1:30 but with the hacking cough that was pipe dream! I still thought I could race a 3:10 marathon at Boston, but ended up running a disappointing, but big pr 3:18:09. I really wanted a 3:10, but I don’t think I was ready. 3:15 would have been a better goal. What I found, for me, was that if I went for what the predictors said it was a little too aggressive for me having not run many marathons. I’d say 3:13 for you would be a good ambitious but totally doable goal assuming you’re putting in the miles which it sounds like you are. If you want to be very aggressive then go for the sub 3:10. The 20 miler would suggest this is possible if things line up well for you on race day. It really depends on how much you want to risk blowing up. At this state in your career and if I had a time machine I would be less aggressive and go for solid races and solid prs and not be so impatient with the process.

  7. Thank you. This helps a lot. My running partner ran Pretty much told me the same thing, but I guess I just needed a whole lot of re-assurance. Thanks again!