How To Set And Accomplish Running Goals
Each running journey starts with a desired goal, something we haven’t done before, something we are keen to accomplish. Something to strive toward.
A beginner runner who is very young and talented may dream of the Olympic glory. A 52 year bloke who I was when I started running may be a bit more cool headed due to his age and experience and simply aim to accomplish an easier target.
Like being able to jog for 15 minutes without collapsing in a heap of sweat.
It’s important to get simple things right and decide what we want to achieve and whether our goal is realistic (no Olympics for me, that’s for sure). Then we need to be prepared to put in some hard work and ask for help if we get stuck.
And finally, we need to learn how to accomplish running goals we’ve set.
Set the running goals – pick the distance!
There may be a few on our journey. We all start with the easiest goal – learn to run first and if happy afterwards, move on and pick another.
Two of the biggest running goals that I have accomplished – 5K and the marathon, thrilled me the most.
The first goal, 5K, was about how to run properly as a brand new runner. And 5K distance was a realistic target. Marathon is at the opposite end of the scale but in one way it’s similar to 5K. I was the first timer again, setting myself a distant running goal and venturing into the unknown.
You can use my tips from both in order to reach those or your other targets, either 10K or ultra marathon or any other distances in between.
In order to accomplish those targets you will need to consider a few factors. Here’s how I did it.
Choose your terrain
First, where will you run? Trails, roads or inside on a treadmill. (If your goal is a marathon, and you aim to run it on a treadmill you deserve an utmost respect. I don’t think there are many who do that, but wherever you are, well done you!)
For the rest of us, it’s either urban asphalt or country roads. That basically means different efforts, different shoes, different approaches.
It’s quite simple.
Running on a wet pavement is very different to running on a muddy trail. You will need different shoes and perhaps be prepared to slip and fall more often if you are running downhill on a country lane in the pouring rain.
Decide before you go and buy those shoes – unless you are keen to mix and match different terrains. Be warned though. Not many novice runners will be too keen to invest in two different pairs of good (probably not too cheap) shoes.
Think about it!
Choose your training program
When facing the running unknown you have two choices. Choice one is no program. It’s about being adventurous, going in head on first, oblivious to anything and seeing what happens on the go.
Choice two is more pragmatic – plan and prepare.
I prefer that.
A training program will tell you what’s ahead. How far you are from reaching your running goal. You will know how long to run each week and for how many weeks. It will give you an idea of the time needed to set aside.
You will know if that is something you are prepared to do or able to do at all.
There are many programs out there, many highly specific and dedicated to novice, intermediate or advanced runners. Find one that can work for you, whether you are a total beginner or an aspiring marathon runner. Ask other runners, see who they have followed.
You don’t know any runners?
Join online forums where they hang out (I’ve even created my own running community forum!) , or join a running club where you live. I googled lots and learned even more through social media.
There is an incredible amount of info out there, find the best one for you.
Choose your running gear
In the beginning focus on the essentials only.
What you literally need is a pair of perfect fitting shoes irrespective of brand and price. Just make sure they fit, ask the shop assistant as much as you wish and don’t walk out with something that won’t work. The rest will be socks, shorts and a t-shirt.
Most people will start running in fair weather or gyms so there won’t be any need for elaborate tech gear just yet.
Learn on the go.
With the marathon, you will need to take into account how long the training is first. Novice training can take up to 18 weeks and you will experience all sorts of weather conditions.
By now you will own your running jacket and you will know your shoes. Make sure the shoes don’t run out of miles and become uncomfortable. That can put strain on your long training runs.
If you need to change them make sure you break the new pair well on time before the actual marathon – you want as little discomfort on the day as possible, and none that should come out of your shoes.
During early 5K training you may need a sip of water. You won’t need anything more than your ordinary 300ml-500ml bottle. When training for the marathon, especially when being alone as I was, think of the ways of hydration. You WILL need to hydrate.
This is not optional. And you will not want to leave that decision for the last day.
Fuel and hydration – what to eat and drink when preparing for short vs long distance running
One of the most usual questions the new marathon runners will ask is – ‘what do I eat before and during my run’. Not very much, is the answer to both.
If you are a brand new beginner and run in the morning, you won’t need much food (if any food at all) to complete your short run. Many run on an empty stomach. Some will only drink tea, coffee or a glass of water.
There is enough in your system to help you run for 30 minutes, or often longer.
I never had more than a banana or a boiled egg. Anything more elaborate and you will be facing gastro issues that you would be keen to avoid outside of the safety of your own home.
Never run on full stomach, never run straight after breakfast. Even drinking during short runs is not necessary. There is enough water in your body already.
When you reach the marathon training stage you will already know that the diet is important and you will know that a dish rich in carbs is a good call an evening before the run.
In the morning you will leave a few hours gap between the breakfast and the run and during the run you will consume what you have got used to during your long practice runs. Whether that will be jelly babies or other sugar kicks, small chocolates, energy bars, ready made electrolyte drinks or electrolyte powder mixed with water, you should know by then.
Don’t experiment on the day and take something new. That something new can wreak havoc with your gastrointestinal system and that’s never a good show in front of other people with absence of portaloos or at least some bushes.
Stick with what your system knows and appreciates.
During those long training runs you may experience puking when experimenting with some food, or running too hard near the end. That’s because during the run the oxygen rich blood leaves your stomach and goes where it’s needed more – your lungs, heart and other running muscles.
Even when not running simple sugars are harder to break down so your cookies, energy gels and other sugary food that enter your stomach may end up being sent to where they came from.
Given the length of your maiden marathon training, you are likely to experience very different weather conditions at the end of it. You start in the winter, and you run the final run when it’s quite warm.
My 50km ultra took place in early July and I suffered a bad cramp due to high temperatures during one of the final long training runs. During cooler months that didn’t bother me but I was not prepared for the sudden jump in temperatures.
Plan for those things and prepare accordingly.
You will sweat more, the blood flow will go to the skin to cool down the body and if you are not careful you will risk dehydration. So, if you don’t like to end up being draped over a dustbin, practice drinking little and often, monitor how your body behaves during training and especially in different temperatures.
I ended up being fine with just a small chocolate bar and a good supply of electrolyte powder that I mixed with water. The most common solutions for carrying your drinks as a lone runner are hydrations packs (basically a water bladder in the backpack) and hydration vests (a few water bottles attached to each side of the vest).
Here’s a great hydration tip from Hal Higdon: ‘I recommend that runners drink when thirsty until two hours before the race, then stop until just before they start to move (which can be 10-20 minutes after the gun sounds in large races). Otherwise, “Hello, Porta-a-Potty.”
Plan to lower your risks and avoid injuries
Any distance target will carry a potential injury risk.
I picked up three bad injuries when attempting to complete Couch to 5 K, but not a single one when training for and running a marathon.
Why? Experience was the main reason in my case.
Too hard and too soon was too much for a 52 year old sedentary body. I struggled to adapt and was pushing harder than I should have done. When preparing for the C25K program I didn’t even consider injuries as a potential obstacle. I didn’t even think anything like that could happen.
And that is exactly why they happen.
If I knew the strain I was going to put my body under, I would have worked on my overall body strength, bought better shoes, hydrated more often and rested more.
I did nothing and deserved my injuries.
When it came to the marathon I used my experience and read all I could find about dangers of overtraining, poor hydration, electrolyte loss, glycogen depletion, slips and falls through tiredness. I was ready for that. When I felt too tired I cut the run short or took an extra day off.
As a result I completed it all without a single glitch.
Planning is everything!
Will you need support when running?
When running the final run of the C25K program I don’t think you will need an elaborate team of technical and medical support, trainer, managers, PR or similar. All you need is a park, or a treadmill and some simple gear.
You may want to run with an equally experienced friend to add to the fun but that’s literally all it takes. You will not be gone for hours on some wild trail or carry tons of drink, food and supplements.
In terms of innocent beginnings this is as simple as it gets.
Marathon though, is different. If your run is an organised event there will be portaloos along the way, drinks and nibbles every 5 or so kilometres, medical staff, security, spectators cheering you on.
In other words, there will be people around whose job will be to guide, assist and help you.
That is, if you participate in an organised event, which I never do. I run alone so planning and experience gained during long training runs are crucial.
Deciding where to run 42km I had to figure out the route, and I would be in charge of my own supplies.
If something happened I would be on my own.
My planning considered the route around central London where on the day there would be lots of people. Let’s say I felt unwell, or twisted a knee, I could raise my arm and shout for help. The route went along the way where there was a good phone signal.
The route was flat and easy which meant it wouldn’t take me a long time to finish, risking to drain the phone battery. The route was littered with shops where I could buy water bottles because I could not carry so many and I would need quite a few because the weather was going to be warm.
There were pubs on the route where I could use a toilet, if needed. There were big train stations along the route as well, where they had trained medical staff, just in case.
I picked the time when public transport was not going to be busy, in case I got injured and needed to get back quickly. The last thing I needed were packed rush hour trains.
And of course, I had to plan my fuel intake. I rehearsed the route in segments and I knew where I would have to stop to mix my electrolyte powder with water.
I practised and trained for months and when the day came I was ready and all went fine.
Distances may differ but many principles are the same or similar when setting and working towards your running goals. Getting from 5K to 10K is not very hard. Jumping from 10K to half marathon becomes a norm for many.
5K and marathon distances are wide apart – it is obviously much more demanding to run 42K than 5K but the approaches to either accomplishment are quite similar. You are in a new situation, there are ground rules to study, preps to go through and time required to complete them.
It takes curiosity and will power to get there but once we do there is no better feeling than the sense of achievement as a reward. That often inspires us to go further. Whether trying to run 5K as fast as possible or run ultra marathons, it doesn’t matter.
What’s important is our new found inspiration that takes us to new running territories.
I hope that sharing my story, and what I have learned along this journey, will inspire you to get started and to keep going. To keep striving and being the best you can be. In running and in life.
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