How to Set Long-Term Running Goals

How to pick and train for a worthy goal that is six, nine or 12 months out.

When setting new goals, consider planning beyond your next race or even your next season and choosing an ambitious long-term goal. “If you’re just looking at lots of short cycles, it’s hard to reach your potential,” says Jess Cover, a running coach. You can lose motivation once you hit a short-term goal, letting the fitness you’ve built lapse. Or you can train or race too much, burning out before you peak. By setting your sights on a long-term goal, you can string together shorter training cycles and smaller victories in a way that builds toward a big win.

In Six Months, You Can. . .
Increase Your Short-Race Speed By One to Three Per Cent

If you haven’t been running regularly, spend one to three months building a base of at least three weekly runs, working up to at least 10K for your weekly long run, says cross-country and track coach Tim Bradley. Then add one speed workout per week: after a two- to three-kilometre warm up, run six to eight 30-second repeats at goal race pace or slightly faster, with one to two minutes of jogging in between.

Each week, either speed up or lengthen your repeats until you’re running 30-second intervals at your mile (1600m) race pace (“as fast as you can run while still feeling like you have another gear you can change into,” Bradley says) or two- to three-minute intervals at 5K or 10K pace. If you’ve been training consistently, do one speedwork day per week during the first three months, plus a long run and one to three easy runs. Beginning in the second month, swap one easy run for a tempo run each week. By race day, you’ll have honed your speed – and built the endurance to maintain it.

In Nine Months, You Can…
Double – Or Substantially Increase – Your Weekly Mileage

If you average 20 to 30 kilometres per week, increasing this total builds endurance and allows your muscles, joints, and bones to better adapt to the stress of the sport. Start by adding up to a kilometre or two to some of your runs (or three kilometres to one run) to increase your weekly total by 10 to 20 per cent. Maintain this mileage until it feels easy – three to four weeks – then consider adding again.

To stay healthy, slow your pace and do as many runs as you can on soft surfaces. Listen to your body: if you’re tired and achy, back off for a week. And instead of racing, set mini-goals focused on what Bradley calls “training fundamentals” – for instance, aim to spend five to 10 minutes on strength exercises (especially for your core and hips) before each run and five minutes foam-rolling afterward to boost injury resistance.

In One Year, You Can. . .
Run Your First Long Race

For new runners eyeing a half or full marathon, a year “gives you enough time to overcome the training learning curve and accumulate appropriate mileage,” Bradley says. While more-experienced runners could tackle these distances in three to six months, a year allows more chances to practice necessary skills like eating and drinking on the run without gastrointestinal distress.

Follow the same guidelines you would to build mileage, but include shorter races every two to three months. Within two months of your goal race, use the next distance down (a 10K if you’re training for a half, or a half for a full) as a trial run to test your race-day outfit, fuelling strategy, and pacing strategy, Cover recommends.

In One Year-Plus, You Can. . .
Run a Distance-Race Personal Best

Figure out, percentage-wise, how much time you want to shave off and divide it into more than one training cycle if it reaches double digits. For example, if you’ve run a 4:30 marathon and you want to break four hours (11 per cent faster), aim to speed up four to seven per cent (11 to 19 minutes) in your next marathon, and cut the rest after another full training cycle. (This aggressive improvement may not be possible for all, but dedicating a year or more to marathon training ensures that you’ll run the best time you can.)

Bradley recommends just one marathon per year (though other coaches allow one in spring and one in autumn), with shorter races every six weeks along the way and a backup race six to eight weeks after the first in case weather or illness derails you. Half-marathoners can compress this schedule, planning for two per year with a backup three to five weeks out. As your race nears, make a plan for the weekend, including where you’ll eat, how you’ll get to the start, and how you’ll pace yourself. Follow it closely for the best chance of capitalising on all your hard work.

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