Your Science-Based Approach to Setting Running Goals

Molly Hurford
by Molly Hurford
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Your Science-Based Approach to Setting Running Goals

It’s that time of year again: setting New Year’s resolutions. If you choose to go the resolution route, set smarter goals that have a basis in the latest science. Here are five strategies for successful resolution — or goal — setting that might just change how your upcoming running year goes.



If you’ve never kept a resolution to run a marathon or hit a new 5K pace, consider setting a micro-goal that’s easier to hit. Try something like running four days a week. In November, the British Journal of Sports Medicine published an article with good news for runners: Any amount of running is linked to a significantly lower risk of death from any cause. You don’t have to run far or fast, the researchers concluded. You just have to get out and run. So, instead of setting a specific mileage goal, set a goal to run four days a week, even if it’s only for 15 minutes. Bonus: With this as one of your resolutions, even if you don’t meet your PR goals or stick to your more intense resolutions, you’re still winning the year.



While it might not be as sexy as setting a marathon PR, set a goal to get more sleep. Sleep does more for your running and your overall well-being than a marathon PR. A recent study showed a sleepless night can trigger up to a 30% rise in emotional stress. That stress can tank your immune system, make you more susceptible to colds and flus and wreck your training. It can also simply be harder to get out the door to run when you’re emotionally exhausted. You know the fix: Aim for 7–9 hours of sleep each night, and keep your room cool, dark and quiet. Any sleep improvements you can make in 2020 will pay off big time in your training.



In 2018, a study found that gameifying training for people who used a fitness tracker actually made them take more steps in a day — 2,200 more steps, to be exact. That’s a huge increase for most people. You can easily use an app you already have, like MapMyRun, to set challenges or engage in friendly competition with your running buddies. Or, if you want to make it even more interesting, consider getting a large map of a spot you’d love to explore, whether it’s Europe or a certain state in the U.S. Put it on the wall near your running shoes, and use a marker to trace a route across the country based on the mileage you log each day to see how far you get in 2020!



Classic goal-setting dogma tells us to niche down, but if you’re looking to simply be a happier runner in 2020, new research has suggested more general goals might be better for your overall sense of happiness. Be honest with yourself: Do you want a marathon PR, or do you want to enjoy running more? If you answered the latter, consider swapping “run a 3:30 marathon” with “run four times a week and write one positive thing from each run in my training log.” You’ll still get the miles, but having less structure may, as researchers found, make you “open to experiencing a broader range of positive emotions.” Instead of lamenting a missed interval, you might notice the sunset was particularly gorgeous that day, making you a much more positive runner (and your times may actually improve in the process).



In 2018, researchers studying weight-loss interventions found an unexpected conclusion: When they told one of the groups that taking the steps to weight loss would be extremely challenging, that group was able to rise to the occasion. “We said, ‘It’s impressive and encouraging that you are taking this step to improve your weight and health, but we need to help you understand the daunting challenges you’re facing,’” explains study author Michael Lowe, PhD, a professor at Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences. “The reason we did this was not to discourage them, but to give them a more realistic sense of how crucial it is for them to make lasting changes in their parts of the food environment that they could control.” The same applies to running resolutions: If you’re a new runner hoping to go from one 3-mile run each week to your first marathon, it’s not going to be an easy task. Acknowledging that right away might be the challenge that helps you stick to your training plan, rather than quit after the first tough workout.

About the Author

Molly Hurford
Molly Hurford

Molly is an outdoor adventurer and professional nomad obsessed with all things running, nutrition, cycling and movement-related. When not outside, she’s writing and podcasting about being outside, training and health. You can follow along with her adventures on Instagram at @mollyjhurford.


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