Mindful Goal Setting for Runners

Maybe if we didn't try so hard, things might be easier.
Maybe if we didn’t try so hard, things might be easier.

If you are well-studied in the art of mindfulness, you may find the title of this post misleading. And you would be correct. Mindfulness has no goal. I first introduced this concept in a primer post on mindfulness and running. Often referred to as nonstriving, when we are mindful we enter an experience open to whatever that experience presents. A better word for goal would be intention but, if I titled it that way you probably wouldn’t have clicked on the link to read the article. Mindful Intention Setting? It sounds like it belongs on SaltyYoga.com. Since we runners sure do like our goals, I went all clickbait on you.


Welcome, glad to have you here. Take a seat on the floor and cross your legs. I’ll get the incense lighted. And … don’t worry. I’m just kidding. As mindfulness continues to become mainstream, many people are often surprised to learn that it’s not all woo-woo and chanting. Sure, there are forms of those practices but the wonderful thing about developing a mindfulness practice is that it is deeply personal, much like goal … er … intention, setting.

When setting an intention, we are honoring our wishes and desires but understanding that it is ultimately up to the universe, environment, God, or circumstance of the present moment to decide what happens. There is only so much we can control. And when you think about it, setting intentions dovetails quite nicely with our traditional approach to running goal setting.

Traditionally speaking, runners often set goals, like to qualify for Boston. Goals like this motivate us, but it can be unrealistic to put all of our energy into achieving this one precise thing when we don’t have complete control over it happening. More current approaches to goal setting emphasize the use of multiple goals, often referred to as “A”, “B”, and “C” goals. These are also nice because they allow some wiggle room for error. Typically, an “A” goal is the ideal goal, the “B” goal is the realistic goal, and the “C” goal is the “I better just finish” goal. That last one is where we mess up. What if we don’t finish? We’re likely to get down on ourselves for not accomplishing any of our goals. Sometimes we have to DNF. And that’s ok, too.

What does it look like to set intentions? What it doesn’t mean is that we throw our hands up and no longer care what happens. Instead, it means that we are open to whatever is thrown our way. In fact, it could even include setting goals with the intention of being open to the possibility that they may or may not happen. This is hard for us to do when we care so deeply about our running performance, but, paradoxically, letting go of the need to perform and hit a goal will likely ensure you perform your best.

One thing to keep in mind about mindfulness, is expecting it to make you feel less anxious, depressed, and more settled. It’s true, mindfulness can improve these areas of our life, but you actually inhibit that from happening by entering the practice with a goal or expectation that you want to relax. You can still have goals; goals like, I want to be able to meditate five days a week or have a streak going for 30 days. But the goal is anchored by the intention; the intention to do the act itself. So meta.

So how do we apply the same concept to our running program? Well, if we have a couple of goals, our primary intention that anchors those goals is to, well, run. We do the things needed to reach those goals but carefully detach from them as we mindfully navigate the present moment of our run, our workout, or our race. In theory, it might look like this:

The heart goal: Another name for our “A” goal, but more inspiring and the reason why we train and compete. If we didn’t have a heart goal, we wouldn’t be as motivated to chase our desires and dreams.

My heart goal for the Erie Marathon
My heart goal for the Erie Marathon

The gut goal: Another name for our “B” goal, meaning the goal we pretty much know we’re capable of achieving. It’s rooted in reality, a reality we sometimes don’t want to admit because our heart is getting in the way.

My gut goal for the Erie Marathon.
My gut goal for the Erie Marathon.

The whatever happens, happens intention: Our anchoring point. This intention replaces the common “C” goal we so often hear: just finish. Instead, we bring this intention to every run, workout, or race: as I begin my activity of running, I am open to whatever the situation brings.

My intention for the Erie Marathon.
My intention for the Erie Marathon.

Mixing intentions with our goals is a great way to maintain peace with ourselves and keep us grounded. This type of approach is helpful for any runner at any level, including the pros! At the end of the day, it really is just one foot in front of the other. Our goals certainly spice up our relationship with the sport but if that’s all we ever focus on, we’re likely to not last as long as we hoped.

Are you open to the process when it comes to your running? 

If you are interested in learning more about mindfulness and running, sign up for Salty Running Camp, where I’ll be leading a workshop on mindful running and where we’ll all be able to practice some concepts deep in the heart of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

I write about mindfulness, mental health, and the professional sport of running with the occasional poking fun at the sport. When I am not running, I'm either helping people as a counselor or trying to make them laugh as an amateur open mic comedian.

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  1. Great article. I think this approach to goal setting is so important for Race Day strategy! I’ve encountered crazy weather in races that required me to manage expectations. If I wasn’t open to a *range* of goals, it could lead to unnecessary (and unproductive) disappointment.

    1. Thanks, Maple! I think this approach mainly comes in handy for races that may have unpredictable weather, which seems to be many these days!

  2. I loved your article! So many times I see goals as an all or nothing experience. Goals = disappointment many times, for me, as for many with ADHD. I adopted the mind set that goals create tunnel vision (many times) and I can miss other opportunities as well as miss the process & journey of reaching said goal. So I focus on being present.
    With ALL of that said, your article has opened my mind to blending goals with mindfulness and having more of a “gray area” available to my goal by using the terms, heart goal, gut goal and intention. Thank you!

    1. Thanks, Dawnel! Good to hear from you and your experiences. I think our new presenter at work, Daron Larson, is going to do a presentation for us on mindfulness sometime this year. I can’t wait for that!

  3. I loved it! I did a 8 weeks training in Mindfulness while preparing for my first marathon. All concepts about be in the moment, open to whatever happens helped me to face all fears and tiredness of training. I still use a lot during hard interval trainings, like 15x 400m.