Setting your marathon goals

What is your marathon goal and how do you work it out?

If you’re training for a marathon, you’re probably getting asked two things by friends, family, work colleagues, and anyone else who is vaguely interested (or not!).

The first is probably ‘How far is a marathon?’ To which you respond confidently and knowledgeably, “Oh, it’s 26.2 miles,” without even a whimper of worry in your voice as you think about the distance. Followed by the second question, “How long will it take you to run that far?” This one’s a bit trickier. After a pause to think about the ramifications of your potential to blurt out a meaningless guestimate of a time you settle for the low risk response, “Oh, I just want to get round in one piece and finish”.

Golden Goal: To Finish!

Of course, you’re right, crossing the Finish Line of the virtual Virgin Money London Marathon is your golden goal. It’s your training priority. Your pride, glory, medal and sponsorship money is riding on it! Yet, at the same time, there are many different ways in which you can make it to the finish. Marathon journeys vary a lot. Some of them are significantly more painful, less enjoyable and definitely harder work than others! So, like it or not, as professional as it sounds (it really isn’t) setting some realistic goals for your marathon is important to help you stay motivated, on track, arrive at the big day confident, ready, disciplined and with a target to aim at.

How fast for 26.2?

We’re all agreed that everyone’s target is to finish the marathon so how do you go about establishing how fast to try to run it? Firstly, think about your race day aspirations. Do you plan to run the entire way, do you plan to run sections and walk sections from a particular point (eg halfway) or if do you plan to adopt a run-walk strategy right from the start? There is no single right way to complete a marathon and everyone will approach it differently.

There are however a few things that are the same for everyone:

The race is 26.2 miles.

The pace that feels easy (when you’re bouncing along chatting and laughing) for the opening few miles is certainly going to feel very different for the final few miles (less bounce more drag!).

Set a finish target for your marathon goal that is both realistic for you but ambitious and challenging enough to keep you motivated.

A realistic-for-you goal is affected by all sorts of things, for example, your health and fitness background, your natural ability, your time (family, work, social) constraints, and if you’re planning to wear a giant rhino costume.

A goal that is ambitious and challenging enough to keep you motivated definitely doesn’t mean biting off more than you can chew. Rather it means setting a target that is on the edge of comfort, achievable but only just, a little unknown and unsettling (as 26.2 miles generally is!).

For some of you this will be breaking a marathon personal best, for others it’ll be achieving your marathon first time finish, running all the way without stopping, bagging your marathon debut in under five hours or beating the time your mother did back in the 1980s!

It’s important when setting a marathon goal to understand the hardest thing about a marathon finish is the distance. You have to respect this – 26.2 miles is a very long way.

Your ability to finish the last few miles is directly influenced by the effort you put in for the first few miles.

Go blasting off at a super-charged pace and you’ll certainly feel the burn in the second half, probably ‘hit the wall’, and could even jeopardise your ability to finish.

With this in mind, working out a target time for race day that matches your personal aspirations and motivation really helps you have a much better race day experience.

Start by establishing a target finish time you’d be happy with (for example four hours 30 minutes) then work out what pace (or ‘mile split’) you need to run at to hit that time (a 4:30 marathon is 10 minutes 18 seconds per mile). The best marathons are run at an even pace – that is, starting off controlled and feeling good and trying to hold roughly the same mile split for each of the 26.2 miles.

  • 6:00hr marathon finish = 13 minutes 44 seconds pace per mile
  • 5:30hr marathon finish = 12:35 per mile
  • 5:00hr marathon finish = 11:27 per mile
  • 4:30hr marathon finish = 10:18 per mile (this is about the average for Virgin Money London Marathon finishers)
  • 4:00hr marathon finish = 9:09 per mile
  • 3:30hr marathon finish = 8:00 per mile
  • 3:00hr marathon finish = 6:52 per mile (this is for the speed snakes at the front of the field!)
  • 2:04hr marathon finish = 4:43 per mile (this is pace the winner is likely to do! Leave this well alone!)

To really understand what it feels like to run at your target marathon pace you need to practice this in your training. Remember, marathon pace should feel easy and conversational. It’s the distance rather than the intensity that will get you! The longer you run, the harder it becomes to maintain this pace. That’s the point of your training over the next few months, to make the it easier to maintain so you can metronomically tick off the miles when you take them on.

What now? My dream goal.

Start to get your head around three potential marathon target time finishes.

A dream goal would be if everything went super well in training and on the day of the Virgin Money London Marathon.

A happy goal is something you’ll be really happy that you achieved. You’d probably dance on some tables for a while after the race if your legs would let you.

A satisfied goal is when a few things don’t go quite to plan, but you’re still super satisfied with your achievement and won’t take your finisher’s medal off for weeks.

Five tips for great marathon target setting

  1. Be realistic. Understand yourself and what you’d like to achieve within the constraints in which you work.
  2. Be flexible. Targets can change. Roll with the ups and downs and be prepared to adjust your goals. As you go through training, you may find you respond really well and get fitter and faster than you thought you would. Conversely, injury or illness can hold you back so be prepared to change your targets.
  3. It’s all about you. Targets are personal and individual. Take ownership of your own goals and don’t be influenced by others.
  4. Be specific. Make your marathon goal something tangible that you can relate to in training and planning. For example, a target finish time (eg under five hours).
  5. Be patient. Take time to work things out as you progress and your running improves.