Goal-Setting Alternatives to Time- and Mileage-focused Objectives

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With my marathon goal time, the Runner’s Ally app gives me goal paces and equivalent race times for other distances.

On Tuesday, Lemongrass discussed SMART goal making, and this got me thinking about goals. Chances are that if you are a runner, you, like me, have some specific goal numbers in your mind. I’d bet serious money than many of those numbers end in :59  or are a nice round integer like 30, 45,  or (gasp) 100 for the week. There’s always that one special number with that cruel .2 dangling off the back.

I definitely fall in this category. If you wake me up in the middle of the night, I can probably tell you how many miles I’ve already run this week and how many to go to reach my weekly goal. I can rattle off per-mile paces for my goal 5k, half, and marathon times without hesitation. Yep,  I’m intense.

However, having spent much of the last year pregnant and now working my way back to fitness postpartum, I’ve opened my mind to setting other types of goals. Even in a sport focused on numbers, focusing on other objectives is important, too.

General Health Goals 
Catnip: Maintain weight above X pounds. Eat at least 3 servings of veggies daily. Core at least twice weekly.
This sort of goal can relate to sleep, nutrition, injury prevention, etc. I’ve always been someone who borders on being too skinny so I set this goal so that I would be mindful about healthy weight for both my and JB’s sake. Let’s just say that so far I have not had the slightest difficulty with it.

On the other hand, eating the veggies is a bit more difficult. I am planning to begin using Sunday to prep crudites for the week so I can make better snacking and lunch-packing decisions. For some reason, I’ve also had a hard time getting down on the floor to do my core strength work. I have a routine focusing on pelvic floor, transverse abdominus, and hips (the postpartum weak links) that takes less than 10 minutes — but initiating it has been a challenge.

Minutes Over Miles
Catnip: Seven hours weekly.
Once I was able to get moving postpartum, I chose to focus on minutes of activity per week, combining walking and running minutes. This is a great way to make sure the emphasis is on appropriate effort for current fitness. As I rapidly gained fitness postpartum, the mileage within the 7-hour parameter naturally increased without feeling like an increase in training load. For example, at 5 weeks postpartum, my run/walk total was 31 miles within 7 hours and 1 minute. At 10 weeks postpartum, I covered 45 miles in 7 hours 21 minutes. Both weeks were equally challenging as my fitness improved.

I often recommend that beginning runners start with time-focused goal and feel that the “10%” rule” is much better applied to total training time than mileage  (i.e., run 150 minutes one week, then add 15 minutes to the next week). Tracking minutes is also good for those runners subbing in some cross training or working out under challenging conditions (altitude, humidity, etc.).

Catnip: At least one run with friends per week. Run the USATF Club XC championship  and possibly the team race at the Gate River Run. Volunteer at a minimum of two races.
Running is a huge social outlet for me! Most of my closest relationships have been established through running. Spending time with my friends is excellent for mental health and keeps running fun.

Even if you don’t enjoy running with others, volunteering or cheering at a race, encouraging a friend to pick up a fitness habit or donating unwanted swag are great ways to make social connections through our sport.

Process Goals 

I may have failed to qualify for the Olympic Trials Marathon in 2011, but I met my process goal of trying my damnedest to run every mile under 6:20. I finished with a smile, running right into my mom’s arms.

Catnip: Learn to run tempo runs by feel rather than be a slave to the treadmill/Garmin.
Process goals relate to your choices in the moment without focusing on the overall result. As I got slower during pregnancy, I continued doing light tempo runs for a while, refining my ability to select the right pace for a given effort. As I’m getting fitter and setting ambitious race goals, it’s tempting to try to hit a specific tempo I “should” be running. Instead, running by feel will help me to avoid overreaching or (the flipside) unintentionally setting limits to my progress.

Another common process goal is achieving negative splits, especially when it comes to the marathon distance. You may also consider process goals relating to positive self-talk, running with or behind a certain competitor, or finishing that last mile under 7 minute pace.

Salty readers: What are your “number” goals? And what other goals have you set in your running journey?

I'm a 20-year veteran of competitive running, USATF certified coach, mom of a toddler -- and still trying to set PRs. I write about training from 5k to marathon, motherhood and competitive running, and the elite side of the sport. The 5k is my favorite race (16:56 PR) but I've got a score to settle with the marathon.

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  1. I can totally relate to this post and it came at just the right time. Now that I’m about 3 weeks postpartum, I’m slowly able to begin bringing up my walks to jogs, which I’ve been chomping at the bit for…however, I’ve found myself already getting down on my pace and the general feeling of apathy that I have had on my few runs so far.

    With the little guy, I’ve been squeezing in 2 mile jogs at 5 a.m. just after his usual 4:30 am feeding and while my husband is still home. I’m not sure if it’s the time shift (before baby, I’d usually do my runs around 7 a.m.) or my body just not quite ready, but I’ve been feeling like absolute CRAP! Lots of cramping…I chalk it up to my insides still trying to realign and not very enjoyable. For my mental health, though, I feel better afterward having the fresh air and about 20 minutes all to my self before the 2 hour feedings commence once again! Don’t get me wrong, I’m IN LOVE with Connor…but, I won’t say that it hasn’t come with lots of emotional ups and downs. The little exercise I’ve been able to squeeze in has helped keep my sanity.

    I’m going to implement your time over miles idea…which is something I did throughout some of pregnancy. If I can count my walks in my overall fitness time, I think this will give me a boost of confidence and stop my obsessing over low mileage with running at first. You give me hope that I’ll be able to keep on chugging and getting back to where I was!! Oh, and I’d love a mommy run date sometime…I live over in New Albany area 🙂

    1. If running feels bad or weird, stop and wait! I wish I’d been more relaxed in my initial comeback and when I think about how quickly the fitness did come back, stressing out over getting my minutes done was totally NOT worth it. I totally relate on the mental health/cleansing effect of movement & getting out. I was a bit blindsided by how taxing and even miserable those first few weeks were. Let’s definitely try to get together sometime soon!

  2. I’m so happy to read all about your goals! This is exactly what I was talking about. There’s too much focus on achieving PRs or finishing longer distances, but I agree that there is more to celebrate. Plus, if we all start paying attention to these other things, maybe they’ll start gaining more weight in our community, taking away the focus from the sometimes dreaded question “what was your time.”

    1. Thanks, Lemongrass! Yes, I think we could all afford to take some focus off faster/longer being the ultimate goals in our ssport. Even though I still am aiming for a big fast goal I know these other objectives are necessary to support achieving it…and having overall good long term health!

  3. One of my numbers goals is to ditch the numbers. Let’s not get crazy and burn the Garmin. I still want the numbers, but not in the moment. I left my watch at home (on purpose) for my last half marathon and cut 12 minutes off my last PR time. I had no idea what pace I was running, I only knew that I was pretty sure I could sustain it for the next 12…10…5…3 miles. I’m going to take the pace field off my Garmin screen…I swear I will. I just haven’t grown ballsy enough to do it yet. 😉

    Another goal is to make better food choices. (Typed with one hand over the webcam so no one can see the mac and cheese I’m packing away for lunch.)

  4. Hi Jamie! Congrats on the big PR! Was it a surprise then when you saw the finish line clock?

    I hear you on struggling with eating better. With nursing+ mileage, I need a lot of calories right now. I do ok getting the basic healthy stuff in my body but then I fill the rest in with crap! Need to remember that I need more than just calories- need high quality nutritious food!