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How to Set Ambitious (but realistic) Running Goals

Over the last week, we’ve started to discover what it really takes to become a consistent, injury-free runner.

A photo posted by Jason Fitzgerald (@jasonfitz1) on

Jason racing cross country in high school. More at

We’ve seen that most beginners flounder with incomplete, haphazard training plans.

With no flexibility or extra guidance about what to do if things get tricky, I’m not surprised that many new runners end up quitting, getting hurt, or never even glimpse their potential.

And since I believe in transparency, I want to let you in on a little secret: I’m completely guilty of these mistakes, too!

Too often, I’ve chased complex workouts or shiny new training methods that glossed over the fundamentals. I didn’t do runner-specific strength work and I refused to give my body the time it needed to recover.

I only realized later that focusing on advanced training strategies was masking the underlying problem: getting the foundational principles (fundamentals) right first!

Once I did that, everything changed.

I realized there are only a few really important aspects of training to focus on – especially as a relative beginner.

And if you get those few fundamental things right, everything else will just fall in place.

Because once the foundation is in place, you have more freedom to chase after your goals:

  • Injuries are far less common.
  • Motivation is through the roof.
  • You’re not distracted by “sexy” training ideas that don’t have a firm footing in the fundamentals.

But even after I got the fundamentals right, I knew that it wasn’t enough to simply KNOW this concept. I needed to to know how to apply it correctly to achieve my goals.

I’ve seen far too many runners fall short of their goals. And instead of being like that, I wanted to be the runner that actually accomplished their big goals.

Getting help from 10+ coaches over the years helped – a lot. Shying away from opportunities to learn was lesson #1 for me. And after that, my USA Track & Field coaching certification helped formalize those lessons.

Most importantly, I’ve learned first-hand from coaching thousands of runners since 2010 that you can’t just start attacking a big goal on day 1.

The Ladder Technique to Goal-Setting

You need a progressive approach if you want to be a consistent, successful runner.

I call this approach The Ladder Technique – it helps you tackle a huge goal (like “run my first marathon”) in a smart, incremental way.

I’ve tested this strategy with countless runners – and the results have been profound:

“I don’t just feel better; I feel transformed. I’ve never run like this – with strength and without aches and pains. Thank you… once again I’m excited to run and discover what improvements I can make.” – Rebecca

“Once again I owe it all to you Jason. Tonight was my 5K race and I put all the pieces together. It worked PERFECTLY! I was pooped but felt great. For a 47 year old guy who was 300 pounds just over a year ago, it’s pretty big. I’ll also add, a guy who’s been running injury free since starting.” – Mike

And today, I want to share this approach with you.

Free Download: The Project: Runner Goal-Setting Worksheet

Instead of an unsystematic way of thinking about goals, this is very specific. You won’t be left saying, “I’d love to be able to run my first 5k without walking” but then wonder how you’re going to do that…

A few minutes of planning will help get your running on track:

First, download and complete our Goal Setting Worksheet – this makes your goals concrete.

Notice that you’re brainstorming BOTH big stretch goals (like “run my first marathon”) and small, daily habits that will help you achieve these big goals.

Next, think backwards from your big goal. What are the steps that will help you get there?

Here are a few ideas if you’d like to cross off a bucket list goal like Qualify for the Boston Marathon:

  1. Make running a regular, consistent habit.
  2. Run your first 5k without walking.
  3. Improve upon your 5k time and get faster!
  4. Run your first 10k and then half marathon.
  5. Run a faster half marathon.
  6. Run your first marathon.
  7. Run a faster marathon.
  8. Run a BQ Marathon.
  9. Run the Boston Marathon!

This process isn’t always linear but this approach gradually gets you from consistent running to crossing the finish line on Boylston Street.

Like climbing a ladder, each “rung” is closer to your final destination.

Now that you’ve created a “ladder of goals,” you’re ready to get started!

The Next Step

Of course, knowing what your goals are and how to get there are two very different things. Far more than what I can include in an email.

There are other questions to answer:

  • What motivation, discipline, and accountability tactics can I use to stay consistent?
  • How do I actually train to accomplish my first 5k without walking?
  • What if I get stuck along the way and have questions? Should I resort to googling every random question I have?!

If you want all the details and step-by-step answers to these questions, I’ve got great news. This technique is just one tiny part of an entire course that I mentioned a few days ago.

I’m announcing Project: Runner early next week and it’s perfect for new and beginning runners. If you want to get started the right way – with no confusing training plans – you won’t want to miss this program.

Until then, I’m challenging you to do just ONE THING in the next 2 minutes.

If you’re a beginner or just getting back into running after a long layoff, then fill out the Goal Setting Worksheet above.

Put those ideas on paper. Make them tangible. Commit to them. And get ready to improve faster than you thought possible.

Let us know in the comments below about your biggest – and smallest – goals. What are you going after this year?

You’ve seen how powerful it can be to focus on the fundamentals. To get your foundation set as you begin your journey as a runner.

It’s transformative – and has the potential to change your life.

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