Forget Time Limits When it Comes to Your Running Goals

Words I, myself, need to live by.
If it doesn’t happen when you cross your next finish line, it’s not the end of the world. Really.

1. Get married by 27.

2. Buy house by 28.

3. Have first baby by 29.

4. Have second baby by 32 …

We’ve all at least heard of someone with these kinds of deadlines. Some people impose these deadlines and don’t even have a potential mate lined up! As most of us who have settled down and started a family  can tell you, relationships have their own timeline and an organic flow to them. When we try to force things along to meet arbitrary deadlines things don’t tend to go so well (hello sky-high divorce rate!) In the end, does it matter if you achieved your goals by 32 or 42? No.

And of course, the same is true for running.

We make a big goal for our fall marathon and expect to work towards achieving it in 12 – 20 weeks. We line up to knock that sub-4 or BQ or 2:50 off the list of goals and it doesn’t happen and we end up wondering what went wrong. The reality is that sometimes one training cycle is enough time to make the fitness gains we need to achieve our goals, but often it’s not. And what’s really hard to stomach is that there really was nothing else we could have done differently to achieve our goals in that time frame. There was nothing wrong with our training, our race day nutrition or ourselves. We just didn’t give it enough time.

Grandma. The Matriarch.
As sweet as she is, any advice she gives you won’t assure you’ll hit your goal by your self-imposed deadline. Particularly, ignore any advice she gives you involving castor oil. Trust me!  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Running is not a math problem. 12 weeks * (Fast track workouts + fast tempos + high mileage) ≠ goal achieved. Instead, training is a physiological process, which may or may not happen within a desired time frame. If any of you reading has tried to get pregnant or been pregnant, you know no matter how much you want that baby by a certain date, there’s not a whole heck of a lot you can do to guarantee it, no matter what those old wives say. Achieving the fitness we need to get the race times we want is the same thing.

Besides the fact that it may or may not be possible, these deadlines put an awful lot of pressure on us, very very unnecessary pressure. Believe me, I know this from personal experience! When you line up at a race with the belief that it must happen now or never, the pressure can be overwhelming and way counter-productive. It’s hard to run relaxed when you believe that you MUST.RUN.A.HUGE.PR.RIGHT.NOW! And do not see the future beyond the finish line. And then it’s hard to feel the run-love after the race when you feel perpetually disappointed.

Sometimes, in fact often, it takes two, three, four or more training cycles to make the gains in fitness we need to achieve the fitness it takes to achieve our big dream goals. Why not be open-minded with each training cycle and instead of training to run xx:xx goal time, train to improve and run whatever you’re capable of. Chances are, whatever that is will be a PR or at least a large improvement from where you started the training cycle.

I’ve recently come out of the hoping-for-an-OTQ (Olympic Marathon Trials Qualifier) closet. Note I never said when I hope to get an OTQ. Perhaps I will make the gains in fitness I need by 2016, but perhaps it won’t be until 2020. Similarly we have several bloggers with the goal of snagging a BQ this year. What if it doesn’t pan out this year? But next spring or the following fall? Does it matter?

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with hoping to achieve a certain goal by a certain date. Sometimes having a firm date to achieve something can be just the kick in the pants we need to go for a big dream kind of goal. Some goals are time specific, like a BQ or an OTQ. There’s also the whole aging thing which puts some time limits on us, too. We might also have incremental smaller goals leading up to our achievement of a bigger goal, but even that might be expecting too much out of one training cycle. In all these cases, it will never be the end of the world if we have to wait another training cycle or two to achieve our goal.

Believe me. This is advice I need to take myself. I know I don’t have a prayer of meeting my goals if I continue to pressure myself with arbitrary time limits. This is all very hard to do, especially when I feel very antsy to get back into shape during this postpartum period when 15 pounds over my in-shape weight, still relatively slow and without much free time to run as much as I’d like. But it will get better. Maybe not by the time I’m 38 or 39 or 40, but it will and I will get to where I want to go. Eventually.

How about you? Do you put deadlines on achieving your running goals? 


Hi! We’re taking a break from fresh content to rerun some of our 2013 favorite posts. This post originally ran on April 4, 2013. Cinnamon and I were just discussing this post as we’ve both needed to remind ourselves to practice patience this year. Cinnamon ended up not meeting her BQ goal and struggled to regain her confidence in her ability to do it in the wake of a bad race. And me … oh me. I ended up “injured” only to discover that my ab muscles separated somewhere during one of my pregnancies and are now so debilitated, I suffer severe back pain if I attempt hard training. So, I’m working on it and trying to learn to enjoy each mile rather than viewing each mile as a means to some end goal. It’s a process, but I believe that this is an opportunity for me to become better at running and life and I’m taking it!  

Have you met your 2013 goals? Was this a year where you were forced to practice patience? 


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Salty Running boss and mother of 3 little ones with PRs of 3:10:15 (26.2), 1:25:59 (13.1) and 18:15 (5k). I love to write about running culture, mental training, and fitting in a serious running habit with the rest of a busy life.

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  1. Great, great article. (double great). When my time goal became a BQ, I started to test myself every run and ended up running myself ragged. Took me ten years and many tries before I got there, part of how I finally did it is by forgetting about the the watch on certain training runs, and using time just in more sporadic fitness tests to see where my training had plateau’ed. It was so easy for me to look at the finishing time rather than the process.

    1. Thanks Mark! That’s a really great point – removing the time deadlines from running goals, doesn’t just make race day less stressful, but it also makes the whole training cycle less stressful. Instead of hammering every run impatiently trying to force fitness into this short time frame, we might actually do what the training plan calls for! I have definitely been guilty of this, myself. This forcing the issue/overrunning training runs is counterproductive and probably making it take LONGER to achieve our goals. Congrats on getting that BQ!

  2. This is a really great point. I think setting to stringent of a timeline can totally psych you out sometimes. I have a goal of a sub 2:50 but I have a very loose goal of 5 years on that goal. If it takes 4 years…great. If it takes 7…heck I still got there so also great! The only thing I’m pretty set on at the moment is that I’d like to qualify for Boston before I start thinking about kids and I’d like to have our first child around 31 so that gives me a slightly smaller window. However, I’m also flexible with that as well!

    1. Ha! Yeah, you basically need to have your hoped for timeline, a rough idea how long it will take for all your goals in a best case scenario and then a worst case scenario to keep from going crazy when the best case scenario doesn’t work out. As I said in my reply to Mint, we need to balance being goal focused with being flexible. It’s hard, but important to keep the crazies away 🙂

  3. I agree with all of this, but would like to point out the inherent conflict in play. If we are training for a distance race, we are naturally setting a goal with a deadline (race day!) and are working toward it for several months. It is GOOD to set a specific, lofty goal, work hard to go get it and focus on that goal on race day. It wouldn’t be as meaningful (or successful no doubt) if our goal for the season was, well I’d love a BQ and I’m going to train, but I’m not worried if it doesn’t happen. I think the key is that we still should set high goals every training season (if that is what we want), we just also need to let ourselves off the hook if we don’t make it. We need to understand that maybe we just need more time, learn from our mistakes and move on to the next season. Similarly, if we are shooting for a BQ, but our training does not suggest we are ready, we should allow ourselves to adjust our goals for that season rather than sabotaging ourselves in the name of a goal we are not ready to achieve.

    1. Yes. I feel that conflict too. I think instead of “I am going to BQ in 12 weeks” we would be better to say something like, “I want to BQ or take a significant step towards my BQ in 12 weeks.” With goals and deadlines we tend to be all or nothing. I think this approach is still motivating, but more productive, at least to me 🙂 Also we can train our butts off, but sometimes it’s clear in the later weeks of a cycle that our fitness probably isn’t where we need it to be to meet our A goal. Of course, we aren’t always willing to admit that, though, or we can actually be in better shape than our workouts say for some reason so relying on that isn’t always a great idea. As with anything, it’s finding the right balance of “go for it!” and “open-mindedness” that works best for each of us.

  4. I’d agree that there are hard and fast time limits and more flexible ones. If you want to BQ for 2014 or 2015 or whatever there is an actual time limit of when you need to run your BQ and for that you need to be on a time line. Same for the Olympics. Someone going to peak and going to get too old. Maybe you can do 2016 or 2020 but it’s not likely that you still have a shot in 2024 if you had one in 2016. Actually with marathoners maybe it is but you get the point.

    But I think for most recreational runners the goals can have a much more flexible timeline.

    Ok that said, the way you started made me think of an acquaintance of mine. She had a plan that she would have 5 children by age 30 so that she could begin to take wonderful vacations and travel the world in her 40s and then run for some office in her 50s. She had this entire plan before she had even one child. Ok… she had her first child at age 22. Her second at age 24. And… told her husband that he needed to get a vascectomy when she was 25 because she then realized she only wanted 2 children. I think those goals of white picket fence, perfect family, 4 children or whatever sometimes become rearranged by reality.

    1. There is also the scenario, that we all live with, that something CAN’T happen for us. Maybe we just can’t get into the shape we want to get into before we age out of improving as a runner. Maybe we can’t have as many kids as we hoped for whatever reason. That side of the coin is definitely not something to fixate on, but it’s always out there and should be thrown into the calculous on how to balance short and long term goal making.

  5. Great article, well worth re-posting! I just wrote about this too — not in terms of a time goal, but a new distance. I did several 50K races this year for the first time and loved the longer trail distance. Finished up the season hot to do a spring 50 miler. But, after reflecting on it, I realized spring is not a good time for me to train for a 50 mile race. Family stuff, work stuff, not a good time. Summer or fall is better.

    I /knew/ this intellectually, but I was still a little wistful when “my” spring 50 miler registration opened last weekend… and filled within hours (Ice Age 50).

    What I am telling myself is that “The races will still be there next year.” I have years and years of great running ahead of me. I don’t need to have it all right now. But it’s good to know that others struggle with similar feelings!

    Here’s my post on the subject. Skip down to #5: