So you've made the decision: you are going to run your next big race and you are going to crush it with your best performance...
You purchase your entry into the race, look online to find the best price on a hotel, and do some research on travel plans. All of the logistics are set up for your next event to be a success.
Now onto the real work: training.
You start to look into training guides and workout plans, and one of the first steps with these guides is to decide on a race time goal to base your workouts around.
Most runners (myself included for a good chunk of my racing life) kind of pick a number from thin air, or base it around certain time barriers like trying to get under 22 minutes for a 5k or 2 hours in a half marathon. In other instances, runners are looking to run a certain time to qualify for larger races.
When I was gearing up to run the “Rock and Roll" marathon in San Antonio, I picked a race time goal of running a sub 3:00:00. My PR goal sort of took into account my previous race times, but didn't factor in my current fitness level or aptitude to run this distance, or the types of training cycles I wanted to perform. In all truth, I basically just chose the number because it sounded good and really, there wasn't much merit behind it.
This marathon was the first one that I Did Not Finish (DNF). My training was burning me out big time and my run pace was way off. My pace started off way too fast and I hit a wall around mile 21. All of this can be traced back to picking an arbitrary time goal that was not proper for my body or my fitness level when I started training.
On first thought, it might seem like the best way to pick a time goal is to shoot for the stars and pick something extraordinary for you. Might as well be optimistic, right? In reality, setting race goals that are too ambitious is one of the most common reasons runners get injured, perform poorly in their races or hit plateaus during their training.
So why shouldn't you just pick the most ambitious number and run with it? What could really go wrong from putting your hopes high?
The biggest problem with not choosing a proper goal for your fitness level is that you will be basing your workouts off of your goal finishing time, which could lead to improper training for the race you will be attempting. For example, you might burn out on a marathon if you've been working out with workouts designed for shorter distances.
Another problem is injuries: many runners choose a pace that is too fast, leading to too much training and not enough recovery time. This leads to over-training and often times, injuries.
Finally, by choosing the wrong time goal you could ruin your race day with bad pacing. This study and others have shown that running the first mile of a 5k race more than 6% faster than goal pace considerably reduces performance. In fact, most of the participants that ran faster than 6% of their goal pace didn't even finish the race.
So how do you go about determining the right race time goal? Here are some simple tips that can help you make this decision.
Gauge From Past Running Experiences
One of the best, and most simple ways to determine your time goal is looking past running performances (the more recent the better) to determine what your current fitness level is. Be honest with yourself when you are assessing your fitness level – don't base a new goal on a PR that is a few years old – training, fitness and age can all modify your goal. Aren't sure of your times? Try signing up for a shorter race, such as a 5k, and see what time you are able to run. You can also run a one mile trial run and assess your time goals from there. You can extrapolate this time and find out your goals for a half marathon or a marathon. Look to work this “trial race” into your training schedule and kill two birds with one stone!
Use A Pace Calculator
Pace calculators are handy tools that can help you determine what pace you should be running at. It's important to remember that these are not 100% accurate, they can give you general goals to shoot for in your training. One great option is the Mcmillian Run Calculator (https://www.mcmillanrunning.com/) or the pace calculator at Active.com (https://www.active.com/fitness/calculators/pace/). The McMillian Run Calculator shows you tables with your goal paces and times for multiple different distances. Print this out, save it to your phone, whatever you do and reference it when running your training workouts.
Remember To Keep Your Goal Adjustable
Remember, every runner is different and sticking to a concrete goal with no flexibility can hinder your progress or lead to over-training and injury. Take time to feel out your body and see how you are progressing over time. After three to four weeks, if you feel like you've gotten more fit or are making progress toward your goal, you can try running another race to see how you perform. With this new race time data, you can switch your goals and training regimen up to suit your new performance threshold, whether it be faster or slower. This will lead to a more consistent and successful performance in races.
Focus On Small Improvements
For maximum results, stick to small improvements over longer periods of time. Some of the best runners I know are focused on these small (relatively so), continual improvements that build up over time and eventually lead to huge gains over the long run.
Be Aware of Group Dynamics
The final piece of the puzzle when it comes to finding the perfect pace isn't immediately obvious until race day. Unless you have insane focus and aren't easily distracted, it's very easy to get swept up into a pack of runners during race day. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as those who run without company can find it grueling and just not very enjoyable, but it's quite likely that you will find runners who are faster or slower than your goal pace. Finding the right pack for your pace can lead to a much better performance during the race, especially for those who don't have many races under their belt.
There you have it, why having the right race time goal is important and some simple steps on how to discover yours.
Stephen Novak is the owner and main contributor to Ultimate Core Health, a health and wellness website focused on workouts, fitness, healthy recipes and supplement reviews. Stephen hails from Texas and loves learning about the physiology of the human body. He grew up playing soccer, baseball and golf and dreams of becoming a physical therapist in the future.