Running to Finish vs. a Time Goal, Which is Right for You?

This post is a part of my series, Tips for New Runners. It is based entirely on my own experiences as a new runner and may be missing a lot of information. This series is intended to help my readers find what works for them by sharing what worked or didn’t work for me.

During the Galloway Marathon Training class that I took, we got some very different advice on the “time goal.” Jeff Galloway is adamant that a first time marathoner should run to finish. Our class leaders also adhered to this approach. Several of our expert guest speakers, however, disagreed.

Ultimately you have to decide for yourself whether a time goal is right for you for your first race or any race you run. Some runners and run/walkers find that they gain motivation from the time goal. They are competing against others, or perhaps just against themselves and their own limits. Having a goal keeps them on track in their training and pushes them onward during the race. On the other hand, pushing yourself too much can make you more likely to become injured. So in that regard, it depends on your priority. How important is it to you to make it through your training and finish the race healthy enough to continue running afterwards, vs. how important is it that you run your race in a certain amount of time? Only you can make that determination.

I am not a competitive runner at all. I didn’t even start run/walking until age 37. I’m not fast and I don’t anticipate being fast enough to even win my age group any time soon, if ever. What I do want is to keep run/walking for the rest of my life. So for me, avoiding injury is much more important than any time goal.

In fact, I find that trying to have a time goal causes me stress. Toward the end of our marathon training class a particularly persuasive guest speaker told us how important it was to have a time goal in order to stay motivated during the race. Since I was completely inexperienced at running races, I took her advice to heart and tried to set a time goal for myself based on Jeff Galloway’s Magic Mile prediction formula. Whenever I looked at the difference between my suggested training pace (13:46) and race pace (11:46) it started to freak me out. I couldn’t figure out how I was supposed to run 26.2 miles 2 minutes faster per mile than I was used to. Other runners advised me that races are different and I’d get a boost from the adrenaline and race energy and go faster without even realizing it, but I had my doubts. I actually found myself having bad dreams about it.

As the day of the race approached, much was made about how hot it would be that day, and how we needed to slow down to protect ourselves from the heat. I think that all the concern about the heat saved me from a lot of stress. As I once again let go of the idea of having a time goal, not really knowing what to expect from the heat, I suddenly felt much better about race day. My attitude turned from dread back to excitement.

The morning of the race, my pace group buddies and I chatted about what we wanted and agreed to run a conservative race and focus on having a good time. I am so pleased with that decision. We ended up running  very close to my training pace and the truth is, I had a great race that I will always be able to look back on with pride. It doesn’t matter to me that my finish time is just barely under six hours. What is important to me is that I finished a marathon and I had a great time doing it. It makes me want to run the marathon again next year. If I’d tried to speed it up 2 minutes per mile I probably would have had a very different race, and I suspect that I wouldn’t have come across the finish line as excited and happy as I did. I know myself well enough to know that if I’d hurt myself in the process, it might have discouraged me from running at all after that.

So when you are deciding whether or not to have a time goal, consider what is best for you. Will you be motivated by it? Will it help you get stronger and faster and be a positive force in your training? Or, will it cause you unnecessary stress and take your focus away from finishing and having fun? Your friends, other runners, teachers and experts can tell you what they think, but they can’t see inside your head and know what is best for you. Just do be careful about choosing your time goals at first. Make sure you’re not setting yourself up for disappointment. Be conservative. It’s probably better to set a conservative goal and meet or surpass it. At least, that’s what I think.

Happy Running!

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6 thoughts on “Running to Finish vs. a Time Goal, Which is Right for You?

  1. Yes! Great post. The first marathon is just to finish. Having a time goal in the back of your mind is okay as long as it’s realistic and based on how your training goes. A marathon is not the same as training, and crazy things will happen that you won’t expect. Enjoy the experience and accomplishment! If you choose to run another one, you can really focus in on a time goal and come up with a great training plan.

  2. Yeah that’s a big debate on a lot of running forums. There are some guys in my club who’ve ran even more than me (one guy is on 35 marathons for this year) and they abandon all time goals completely, and then you have guys that do one per year and who are so purist that they’d like 3h30min cut-offs on the biggest marathons. I’d be somewhere in between – I have some time goals for the year and I know when I could have run better but it’s mostly about the quantity. (for this year anyway)

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