First, after every big race, it's important to rest, recover and assess your performance. Be sure to recover properly before you race again, but there's no reason you can't start considering your next challenge while you rest up. Setting a goal is important as it gives you a focus, but give it a few days after your last race before you decide on the next goal.
Start with a long-term goal that may be up to 12 months away. This should be something you really want to run well at and make a big effort for. It may well be next year's Virgin Money London Marathon, the ING New York City Marathon or even the Sydney Marathon - it's all about the event that you really want to commit to. This race should be the main focus of the next year, but there's no reason you can't set some medium and short-term goals.
Medium-term goals should be ones that can be achieved within the next few months and in all probability will be shorter than your main goal. There's no point setting a medium-term goal that is totally unrealistic, but it should not be too easy so as not to challenge you at all. Medium-term goals give you a focus over the next few months and you can plan quite a few races in this program depending on how you feel.
Finally, set some short-term goals that are based on weekly performances. These may not be races but training goals; for example: run 60 minutes twice this week, or aim to run an interval session faster than last time. These short term goals are based around very realistic and very attainable targets as they are reviewable every session. Goals should be simple tasks that challenge you a little but help guide you towards the main objective of the medium-term goal and more importantly, the long-term goal.
So why are running goals important?
Whether you're a seasoned runner aiming for a marathon, or relative newbie to running, running is made easier by setting yourself goals. No matter how big or small, running goals will keep you on the track to success.
The brain is one of the most important muscles you use when running but at some point in your running, your focus and motivation will waver. Setting running goals helps you restore this all important motivation and gives your training purpose and direction.
Both long term and short term goals are equally important and when setting running goals and a common principle used to set both types is the SMART acronym to ensure targets are: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time specific.
Setting goals is an integral part of running
During a runner’s pursuit of a goal, there will undoubtedly be setbacks on their journey. This adversity can come in many forms: an injury, poor weather, a finish time slower than you anticipated... the list could be endless. But how you react to these setbacks is pivotal in your development and success as a runner. Just because you haven’t achieved what you anticipated today does not mean that the goal cannot be achieved, it just might take a little longer than expected.
Are your running goals measurable?
Sports psychology theory suggests that it is better to state that your goal is to run a race in a certain time rather than generally stating that 'I just want to have a good race.' Measuring your running goals will allow you to track your progress so that you can determine the steps needed to achieve the aim.
Compatible with your running mission?
Is your racing plan compatible with the goals that you have set for yourself this season? Too often runners can lapse into the habit of racing too much and this defeats the conventional wisdom about performance peaking.
Time specific running goals
When do you wish to reach your goal(s)? Short-term goals may focus on the next few races or weeks of your programme. Whereas longer term goals will likely deal with the next few seasons, where would you like to be three to five years from now? Build your targets in relation to both your short and long term ambitions.
Commit to a running goal in writing
Committing a goal to words adds a contractual component to your planning. It can serve as a gentle or brutal reminder of the direction you have decided to go. Put the piece of paper somewhere you will see it so that you never lose sight of your goal. For example, if you train early in the morning and are struggling to drag yourself out of bed, hang your goal on your ceiling and it might just provide you with motivation to get up and run.
Ownership of running goals is important
These are your goals, nobody else’s. They are what you believe will help you become a better runner. Don’t allow anyone else to impact your goals, no matter how small they may seem. Sharing these goals is also important for it allows you to form a mental contract with yourself; "Now that other people know my goals, I am going to have to do my best to reach them."