Why I’m Throwing Out My Marathon Time Goals

imageLots of runners have great big marathon time goals, like going sub-4:00, qualifying for Boston, going sub-3:00, or running an Olympic Trials qualifying time. I used to daydream about goals like these. I fantasized about coming through the finish chute, seeing a particular time on the clock and weeping in elation as the confetti fell and a rainbow broke out across the sky.

That’s right; I used to dream about crushing a huge marathon goal like that. But this year, I’m throwing my marathon time goals out the window.

Process Over Outcome

After years fixated on the numbers on the finish clock, I’ve decided I want to focus on the process rather than the end result.

A marathon time goal is an outcome goal, but the marathon is a finicky beast. So much hangs on the weather, the terrain, the fueling, and simply whether or not it’s “your day“. There are so many variables that having a single goal time is just about pointless.

A little history: I ran my first marathon in well over six hours, then spent the next couple of years working to go below five. For a while, I was shooting for 4:30, but cramped every single time. I’ve PRed by over an hour. I’ve PRed by one excruciating second. You’d better believe I had my eyes on the clock for a long, long time. Maybe I’d say I wasn’t concerned about time, but the finish time would still stress me out and drive me to frustrated tears, proving that my words weren’t completely honest.

And frankly, I feel like I’ve wasted enough energy fretting about time goals. For years I’ve dreamed about hitting this or that time. I’ve wasted enough of my life in simmering resentment that I may never qualify for Boston while another runner might waltz in on her first try. I’ve spent too long dreaming and not long enough doing.

So this year, it’s more important to me to identify my biggest weaknesses and tackle them with process goals. I typically cramp near the end of a marathon, so I’d like to strength train two days a week through this year, even if it means shorter weekday runs. Other process goals for the training cycle might include self-care, like stretching and massage, or improving your nutrition. They even include tackling your mental weaknesses, like if you give up midway through a tempo run when the going gets tough, what strategies can you invent to stay in the moment and complete the run?

How to Stay Motivated Without a Goal Time

But, wait! You might interject here. If I have no time goals, I have no prescribed long-run goal pace. If I have no goal pace, how will I know what my training paces are? Here’s what I’m doing. I’m going really old-school: entirely by feel.

Instead of staring at my watch, I’ll ask myself if I can talk in full sentences or whether I’m pushing so hard I can only spit out a few words. How long does it take me to catch my breath? How do my feet and legs and muscles and bones feel? And of course, throwing out race goal times doesn’t mean I’ll stop wearing my Garmin altogether. I’ll still wear it, and I’ll be able to see what different paces feel like.

be like water

On race day, too, I’d like to focus on process goals. Can I stick to my race plan and not get carried away? What happens if I start to feel bad during the race? Can I set out in advance my threshold for discomfort, and practice, through visualization, how I’ll respond? And most of all, can I find joy in the moment and make memories out of that?

I find that when I’m racing for time, I don’t have the mental bandwidth to capture those moments: the jokes shared with random strangers on the shuttle to the start, the surge of the crowd as the race begins, the surprised pleasure on a volunteer’s face as you thank them. These are the things I want to carry with me when I think of my marathons. I want to smile at the memories. I don’t want my longest races to be just another training-run blur.


I won’t be the first runner to do this, but I do believe it’s a personal journey. You can read about it, as I had before, but not accept it or want to try it until you’re ready. For the marathon, at least, I’ve finally learned to let go of those time goals and just trust in the process, come what may.

Do you make specific time goals when training for a marathon or do you focus on the process?

Tropical transplant to the chilly Northeast. Professional writer and researcher, cantankerous editor, mom to two! inquisitive children, asker of inconvenient questions.

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  1. Great post! My goals this year award also process based. I have goal races, but the type of races I do are really dependent on weather, trail conditions and others, so time goals don’t really work. This year I have decided to focus on consistency, nutrition, and allowing the pain to come. I am focusing on learning to acknowledge and accept pain, fatigue or bad conditions and rather than look for ways to get rid of them, learn to run with them.

  2. Love it Mango! I think the best thing about the process goals- it teaches you to actually appreciate the process. Especially with something as time consuming as marathon training- if you spend months training and only look forward to the end goal, seems like you’re losing the ability to see the beauty in the journey(weeks and months!) it takes you to get there. For me, I do set time goals a lot but at the beginning of each training block I also make a point to set goals for the training. 1. Those goals will help me get at least closer to my time goal and 2. Those goals allow me to have achievements along the way keeping me motivated and if I don’t get my goal race time, I at least had success along the way getting there and tend to enjoy the race more.

  3. I love this and it really resonates with me. I found myself in the same situation at the beginning of this year. 2016 was filled with disappointing races which were only disappointing in retrospect because I had placed so much value on hitting an exact finish time. Anything slower and I was mad, disappointed, and embarrassed. I found myself really resenting running, both training and racing. I decided to rethink running and ended up hiring a coach this year with the sole purpose of becoming a better runner. We did not set a single time or PR goal; only to evolve as a runner and see where that takes me. Two weeks in and that proverbial weight already feels like it is being lifted. Thank you for writing about this and good luck on your running journey this year!

  4. This is great, Mango. I’m excited to see how it works for you! I love the mental challenges you’re giving yourself by taking this approach, and your recognition that you miss some of the fun stuff when you’re focused on a goal time instead.

    I had to think about this. I usually begin another training cycle with a goal time in mind, but that time is determined by recent past races and current fitness. I race pretty frequently, and enter the next training cycle mainly looking to build on what I did the season before. My coach also doesn’t use goal times/paces during training or racing — we work off effort and feel — so maybe I’m doing better with this than I thought! I have been setting my goals for the year more process-oriented, recognizing that it is the process of doing the training that makes the times happen. I can’t just write down, “Run XXX for the marathon,” and think that it’s going to magically happen or that it is even realistic. But I can task myself with “doing what coach says, even the hard stuff,” which should yield race times that make me happy!

  5. YES!! And it feels AMAZING!! I am training for my second Boston marathon right now. My first was in 2013 where I finished with a great time (I re-qualified, planned on running it again in 2014, but got preggo with #5) but my experience and memory of that race was surrounded by an awful tragedy. So, I am returning to Boston for the first time since the day of the bombings (we left quickly that night in a rental car). To say I am emotional about it is putting it lightly. So, I didn’t want a goal clouding my experience or hanging over my head during my training period. I want to enjoy all my long runs and not have to worry about hitting tempo paces and getting speed work in. I want to travel to Boston, be in the city, enjoy the expo and excitement, without the anxiety or worry of hitting a certain pace and finishing time. I want to take in every breath of April 17th with gratitude and joy. Enjoy every single step, look at every face, slap as many hands as I can, enjoy every cheer, and capture a better memory of Boston. So, it feels absolutely wonderful not having a time goal for this race. My next marathon after Boston will hopefully be NYC in November. Again, I will train to just enjoy the experience. I guess the older I get, I have a greater appreciation and respect for what my body can do. I know that I am capable of a PR in the marathon distance. But, my heart isn’t there. I don’t want that pressure right now. My mind is just filled with appreciation for being healthy and staying injury free. The fact that I get to experience the magic of Boston again is such a gift to me!!

  6. I love this! The thing about the marathon is that most of the time, you get just one shot per training cycle and there are so many variables that are outside your control that can impact your finish time. Focusing on the process helps so much!

  7. I’m totally with you on this, Mango. Its hard not to have time goals floating around in your head but I have stopped getting too attached to them. The meaning is all in the process.

  8. I think this is huge! I plan on doing this after baby Turmeric comes–just shoot to finish a couple races in the fall, get back into it. No time goals in mind, I just want to be healthy, happy and enjoy the process again!

  9. I admire this so much, but I just don’t think I’m there yet. My reliance on constant calculation and pacing by numbers is a crutch, certainly, but a crutch is a tool to help you get where you’re going, right? For now I’m gonna stick with what’s working, but I’m interested to follow along with your experiment and see how you feel at the end. I’m sure that one day, probably a day not too far from now, I’ll be right where you are, ready to refocus.