Want to Start Running? Start with SMART Goals

Three runners run together down a path.

Setting the right goals is important for runners. Set goals that are too ambitious, and you risk burnout; set goals that are too easy, and you won't get better.

Many runners will have multiple goals related to training that they want to tackle each year. Maybe you’re looking to set a personal best, run your first marathon or finally commit to a regular meditation routine. In an effort to make these types of objectives more achievable, try a mindful approach to goal setting. For starters, this involves setting “True North Goals.”

You can think of your True North Goal as a foundation for your training, somewhat like setting intentions in yoga practice. This objective will diverge from more conventional, results-oriented goals. It will help you establish a process-oriented mindset going into your season, which emphasizes a greater purpose behind day-to-day training. Think of it like the North Star for your running practice.

Your True North Goal will be more meaningful than those related to pace, pounds or mileage. It will help light the way toward improved health and performance by emphasizing process over results. Faster times and a fitter physique just happen to be the byproducts of this approach to training.

A man runs down a city street.

To establish this foundational goal for training, spend a bit of time asking yourself the following questions:

  • What matters to me most in life?
  • What makes me happiest?
  • What would I most like to let go of?
  • How would I describe my best self?
  • What do I feel grateful for?

Here are a few examples:

  • Learn to find more joy in running and everyday life.
  • Discover greater emotional balance.
  • Learn to listen to my body and take better care of it.
  • Find greater focus and calm.

While your True North Goal will remain consistent throughout training, it is important to have a bit more flexibility when it comes to traditional goals. With that said, it doesn’t diminish the importance of those objectives, too. Once you’ve set your foundation, it’s time to turn your attention to the more results-oriented goals for the season. I guide athletes to choose S.M.A.R.T. goals, a concept taken from the world of business, which stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-Bound.


Set up a time and a place for your goals to be achieved. Signing up for a race or identifying an event for which you want to lose weight are good examples. 


Instead of setting a nebulous goal, like “I want to be a faster runner,” go into a bit more detail. It could be, “I want to run a two-minute PR in the half marathon,” or “I want to lose 10 pounds for my wedding in August.” 


Choose a goal that pushes you but isn’t totally out of your reach. 


Your goals should sprout from your own personal ambitions, not just something your running buddy wants to do. 


Keep your training on a timeline. If you signed up for a race, this takes care of keeping it time-bound.

Three runners run through a city park.

In reflecting on how your ambitions might fit into this framework, consider setting multiple goals in order of importance. Maybe your “A” goal is to run a sub-3:30 marathon, and your “B” goal is to finish under 3:45. You’d be happy with both, but you’d prefer to strive for Plan A if training goes according to plan. This offers some flexibility in case you are sidelined by an injury or some other unforeseeable circumstance. It also can help you from getting too fixated on a single number.

Additionally, you can set process goals for training within the S.M.A.R.T. framework. For instance, perhaps you want to work to run six days a week or begin implementing more speed work. Just as you would with race goals, be sure to not only set the goal, but also think about the steps necessary to achieve it.

Establishing a greater purpose behind your running, along with concrete goals for racing and training, sets you up for greater motivation and success in the upcoming season.

By Mackenzie L. Havey. Mackenzie Havey (née Lobby) writes about endurance sports, mind/body health and wellness, and adventure travel. Her work has appeared in Runner’s World, SELF, Triathlete, TheAtlantic.com, ESPN.com, the Star Tribune and elsewhere. In addition to completing 14 marathons and an Ironman triathlon, she is a USA Track & Field-certified coach, an instructor in the Physical Activity Program in the School of Kinesiology at the University of Minnesota, and has done training in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.

[This article was updated on January 1, 2022]

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