Coach Jeff

Written by Coach Jeff


The Importance of Setting the Right Race Time Goal (and How to Find Yours)

You’ve picked out the race, booked your hotel, and confirmed your flights. Everything is ready to go for your next big race.

Now it’s time to set a time goal so you can get training!

If you’re like most runners I coach, picking your goal time is a somewhat arbitrary process.

Usually you pick a goal designed to get you under some barrier like two hours for the half marathon, four hours for the marathon – or to qualify for a specific race (Boston being the most common).

While this seems reasonable – after all, how critical can selecting a goal time be – I believe setting a time goal that is too ambitious is the most common reason runners get injured, plateau, and race poorly.

So, if choosing the right goal is that important, how do you determine what your goal time should be? What’s wrong with shooting for the stars and laying it all on the line?

In this article I’ll walk you through why setting an arbitrary goal time is a dagger to your training and provide you with a simple 3-step system to make finding your goal time a breeze.

The dangers of setting the wrong goal time

1. Not targeting the right workout efforts

The most immediate problem with choosing the wrong goal time is that almost all template plans are based on your goal finishing time.

As such, the workouts and the paces you are assigned to run all assume you’re targeting and hitting a specific physiological effort. However, if you are not at that level of fitness, then the workout is wasted because you didn’t accomplish the objective. Here’s an example:

In marathon training you’ll be assigned workouts called aerobic threshold runs. Aerobic threshold is defined as the fastest pace you can run while using the aerobic system as the primary energy pathway. Aerobic threshold is important because it’s the pace that is the perfect balance between fat and carbohydrate utilization. The faster your aerobic threshold pace, the faster you can race the marathon without bonking.

To target aerobic threshold you need to run at aerobic threshold pace, which is roughly current marathon pace. If you run too fast you’ll actually be running a lactate or anaerobic threshold run – a workout that targets a different energy system. Here is a specific example:

Let’s say your goal is to break 3:45 for the marathon (8:35 per mile pace) and you base your training off this. But, your current fitness is more like a 4:00 marathon, which is 9:09 pace.

That means when you’re trying to run aerobic threshold runs at 8:35, you’re WAY too fast to target your aerobic threshold properly. At almost 40 seconds a mile quicker, this is more a high end or anaerobic threshold run.

Sure, it’s going to get you fitter overall, but it’s not going to help you improve in the marathon. This is exactly why you keep getting fitter and maybe even PRing in shorter events but bonk or fall apart during the marathon.

In short, when your goal time is off, all of your paces are going to be off. That means you’ll be running all the wrong effort levels and negating the most important benefit of your harder workouts. You’ll be wasting your time training.

2. Increased risk of injury

The second major flaw in training for the wrong goal time is that it dramatically increases your risk of injury.

Typically, runners will choose a goal pace that is too fast. As such, the balance of hard work and recovery is thrown off, which leads to overtraining. Here’s another example to exemplify this idea:

A tempo run is designed to be a moderate or medium-effort workout. Your training plan therefore assumes that you’ll be recovered and ready to run hard again or perform a long run just a couple of days later.

However, if the tempo run was too fast for you, then the effort level was also increased. This means you won’t be as recovered for your next training session as planned. This fatigue slowly builds up throughout the weeks of marathon training until you become overtrained or your muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones give in and get injured.

3. Ruining race day with bad pacing

Finally, race day pacing is one of the most crucial elements to having a successful race. In fact, studies have shown that running the first mile of a 5k race more than 6% faster than goal race pace considerably reduces performance; so much so that almost all the subjects that ran faster than 6% failed to even finish the race.

In the marathon, running too fast for the first few miles will burn through your glycogen stores faster. This will lead to you bonking and having a terrible race.

Once again, we’ll use the example from the aerobic threshold run to illustrate this concept.

To hit your goal time of 3:45 for the marathon, you start out at 8:35 or 8:45. However, if your fitness is currently is more like a 4:00 marathon (9:09 pace) then you’re already running 20 to 25 seconds faster per mile at the start of the race. You’re race will be doomed from the start. It won’t matter how “bad you want it”, you’re going to bonk.

How to find your goal pace

Now that you understand the pitfalls of choosing the wrong goal time, how the heck do you decide what pace you should shoot for?

Step 1: Establish a baseline

The first thing you need to do is determine what your current fitness level is.

If you’ve run a race recently, you can use this time to extrapolate what you could run for a longer or shorter distance.

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Click here to access this handy pace calculator to determine what pace you should be running at for in training and at each racing distance based on a recent race result.

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If you plan to race the same distance again, no calculations are needed. We can simply use this time as your data point for step 2

If you haven’t run a race recently that you feel reflects your fitness or a good effort you have two options:

  1. You can race a 5k. This is your best choice if your goal race is more than two months away. The race doesn’t have to be big or fancy. You just need a race effort.
  2. If you have no races available, you can do a one mile time trial. This option is recommended if you have 1-2 months between now and your goal race because it can be incorporated into training quickly and a mile won’t leave you too tired to pick up training where you left off.

Whichever method you choose, just enter your time in the calculator mentioned above and you can extrapolate to any race distance.

Step 2: Factor in your likely rate of improvement

Now that you have your fitness level established we can use your training history to help determine your rate of improvement.

If you’ve been running less than a year and improving with each race, you can expect about a 6 to 8 percent improvement in performance over the course of your training. As an example, if your data point shows you’re in 4:30 shape for the marathon, you’d be looking at a goal time of about 4:08 to 4:13.

If you’ve been running for more than a year but you’re still PRing in most races and increasing your commitment to training, you can expect a 4 to 6 percent improvement to your performance. As an example, if your data point shows you’re in 4:00 shape for the marathon, you’d be looking at a goal time of about 3:45 to 3:50.

If you’re more experienced and have been training for many years, then you should expect a 2 to 4% improvement in performance. As an example, if your data point shows you’re in 3:20 shape for the marathon, you’d be looking at a goal time of about 3:12 to 3:16.

Since I know calculating percentages of race pace and goal times can be difficult, you can download our calculator here if you need help.

Step 3: Adjust and adapt

Finally, your rate of performance isn’t something that is standardized. While I’ve given you some good guidelines to follow, every runner is going to be different.

After three to four weeks, if you think you’ve gotten fitter or you want to measure your rate of improvement to determine if you’re making progress towards your ultimate goal, run another race. Try to keep the race as integrated with your training as possible (for example, run the race in place of a hard workout) so you don’t impact your long-term progress.

With the new race data, you can plug your time back into the performance calculator from step 1 and see how much your goal pace has improved.

I hope this in-depth look at the science of choosing your goal pace helps you avoid one of the most common pitfalls and sets you up for a great training segment!

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3 Responses on “The Importance of Setting the Right Race Time Goal (and How to Find Yours)

  1. If you’ve run a marathon, say, 6 months ago, and are beginning a new training cycle based on improving that finishing time, how do you determine your current fitness level for that training plan?

  2. This may be obvious but just wanted to make sure – I assume we should base our training paces on the estimated goal times? So in the example above, an advanced runner would be training at paces around that 3:12-3:16 target?

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