How to Reach Big Goals by Setting Small Ones

A woman runs along a waterfront pathway

A decade ago, leading up to my 26th birthday, I lacked excitement. I was far past twenty-one, but thirty was way in the distant future. I wondered, “What happens when you turn 26? What do you celebrate?” So, I decided to spice it up and try to run 26 miles. There was only one problem.

I was not a runner.

I was always an athlete, active in team sports throughout grade school, high school and even university, but those sports made sense to me. You ran towards something. The sport of running made no sense. Where are you running? What are you running towards? I was perplexed, and thus intrigued. And so, I attempted to run one mile.

Shuffling my feet to a stop in the dirt, my chest heaving in and out as I gasped for air, I thought, “I did it! One mile! Step one … complete.”

In November of 2012, I ran 26.2 miles through the historical city of Philadelphia, with the bronze statue of the famous boxer Rocky cheering me on at the start and finish..

And my “one mile at a time” technique is exactly how I made it to 26 miles. I started small and gave myself plenty of time to gradually increase my distance. I mapped my runs through different neighborhoods to make each week interesting and new. Sometimes, I’d run to a brewery and meet my friends.

You can use the same technique to reach your running goals. Here’s how to reach big goals by setting small ones.

Give Yourself Time

Our society is embedded in a fast-paced world, where we are expected to constantly rack up achievements as quickly as possible. Instead, why not embrace the slow burn of life’s candle, and commit long-term to your big running goal?

Look at your calendar and carve out plenty of time to slowly progress towards your goal. The more time you allow yourself to focus on small steps, the more space you have for real life setbacks (life rarely goes according to plan, and giving yourself extra time instead of rushing the process can prevent injury, illness, burnout and stress).

Create or Choose a Training Plan

Now that you’ve committed to X number of months to work towards your goal, make a plan. Having a training plan or a coach to tell you what to do each day increases your chances of accomplishing your daily tasks and, in turn, a better shot at accomplishing your goal. In a 2013 study by Linda Ooms et al., participants who joined a training program increased their physical activity significantly compared to those who did not.

Training plans work well because, even without a running coach or personal trainer, something is telling you what to do. Stop by your local running store to see if they offer training programs. Most Fleet Feet locations offer training groups and weekly fun runs to help keep you on track.

A group of friends run together on a water front path.

Write it Down

Wherever you write down all the other important meetings and to-dos of your day, include your training plan too.

A 2015 study by Sarah Gardner et al. found that when you write down your goals, you’re more likely to follow through with them. Every time I have a training plan to follow, I add it to the same calendar I use for work and life. For me, it’s a Google calendar. For you, it might be a notebook diary or a whiteboard calendar.

Pepper in Cross-Training

While running will be an essential part of reaching your running goal, aim to include other activities like walking, biking, swimming and stretching. Cross training helps build up muscles that you don’t use while running, preventing imbalances that lead to injuries.

Cycle to the post office, the grocery store or around your block. Take a dip in a cold lake or river to soothe your aching muscles. Go for a slow walk or hike, stimulating blood flow to the tissues and muscles that need it most. Check out these yoga poses to help you prepare for the day ahead.

Make sure to choose an activity that you enjoy, so cross training will feel like a gift rather than a chore.

Celebrate Small Milestones

You don’t need to wait until you achieve your big running goal to celebrate.You can celebrate one month of sticking to your training plan, or commemorate your first time running one mile continuously. Make time to acknowledge the small successes along the way, and make a list of ways you enjoy celebrating and sprinkle them into your calendar. This will help keep you motivated as you work towards your ultimate objective.

Runners hang out on a bench after their workout.

Listen to Your Body

While having a training plan is essential for following small goals, don’t put your body at risk for the sake of following the plan. Injuries and illnesses happen, so don’t ignore them. Training through injury can lead to bigger problems down the road.

It’s better to take a couple of unplanned rest days then have to miss out on months of running due to overtraining. Stretching, walking, massage, hot baths and other activities that slow you down can help you feel in tune with your body and notice any irregular aches and pains.

Emotional stress, like an increased workload at your job or problems at home, can affect your training just as much as physical stress. Your mental health is just as important as your physical health, so be sure to reach out to a friend, family member or a mental health therapist for support.

Whether your overall goal is to run a 5K or you’re aiming for your first ultramarathon, breaking your big goal into smaller pieces will make it feel less overwhelming and more attainable. While it’s okay to have your eyes on the big prize, stay focused by focusing on the little things you can do each day to get you across the finish line.

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