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The Science Behind Setting A Marathon Goal Time

  • By Jeff Gaudette
  • Published Jul. 29, 2013
  • Updated Jul. 30, 2013 at 11:03 AM UTC
Selecting a goal time before your training starts will keep you on track for a successful race. Photo: www.shutterstock.com

Come up with a realistic number at the start of your training and work towards it.

Proper marathon training begins with having a realistic, reachable goal time that corresponds to your abilities and current fitness levels. It doesn’t matter how great your training plan is or how dedicated you are. If you have an unrealistic goal, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

Selecting your goal time is critical because every run in a training plan has a specific purpose. To maximize the effectiveness of each run and to make the absolute most out of every mile, it’s important that you train the right energy system and work at the right effort level.

For example, proper marathon training is designed around improving your aerobic threshold (the fastest pace you can run while still efficiently burning fat as a primary fuel source). Aerobic threshold correlates pretty closely to your marathon pace. The more you can improve your aerobic threshold in training, the faster you’ll be able to race the marathon.

To improve aerobic threshold, you need a steady diet of runs that specifically target this energy system. Since aerobic threshold is correlated with marathon pace, if you select a goal pace that is too fast, your workouts won’t properly target this system and won’t be as effective. Sure, your overall running fitness will improve, but your marathon specific fitness won’t, which means you may run some of the best workouts of your life in training, but you’ll crash and burn on race day.

Moreover, if you pick a goal that is too fast, you become more susceptible to injury since you’ll be running too hard. Your muscles, tendons, and ligaments might not be capable of handling the stress of those faster paces and you’ll need more recovery time between hard workouts.

RELATED: Marathon Training Center

The Problem With Finding The Right Goal Time

Unfortunately, determining what your potential goal time should be is difficult, especially for beginner runners. In my experience, most runners choose an arbitrary goal that is based on a finishing time they would be happy with, which has no correlation to what they should expect based on their previous race finishes. Often, it’s based on their Boston Qualifying target time, regardless of how far a reach that time may be.

What makes selecting a goal most difficult is that there is no exact science for how much you can or will improve during a training cycle. If you’re newer to running, you may improve much faster than someone who has trained for years — or you may not; there is no way to predict.

So, How Do You Select An Appropriate Goal Time?

The first step in choosing the right goal time is removing any notion of what you’d like to do or what you think your goal should be. For the purposes of training, your goal time should be based on the physiological realities of your fitness.

Second, you’ll want to find a good performance equivalent calculator. Both Jack Daniels and Greg McMillan make good calculators. I find the Daniels calculator to be more accurate of you’re predominantly a 5k or 10k runner, with the McMillan calculator being better if your strength is longer races.

RELATED: 3 Tips For Strategizing Your First Marathon

Enter your most recent race time that best represents your fitness level into one of these calculators and it will tell you your performance equivalent for the marathon — this will be your goal time. I find it works best to use a race time as close in distance as possible to the marathon. For example, using a half marathon time is better than a 5k.

If you’ve never run a race before, I suggest you find a local race as soon as possible. This is very helpful for establishing your current fitness level.

Adjusting Your Goal During The Training Cycle

Now that you have a goal time based on your physiological fitness, you can work through the first few weeks of your training plan knowing that you’re targeting the right energy systems and making the most of your workouts.

After three to four weeks, if you think you’ve gotten fitter or you want to measure your rate of improvement to determine if you’re making progress towards your ultimate goal (like qualifying for Boston), run another race. Try to keep the race as integrated with your training as possible (for example, run the race in place of a hard workout) so you don’t impact your long-term progress.

RELATED: Coach Culpepper: Try Some Tune-Up Races

With the new race data, you can plug your time back into the performance calculator and see how much your goal pace has improved.

Using this strategy, you’ll always be training optimally by targeting the right energy system and effort levels. You’ll reduce the risk of injuries and increase your chance of success on race day.

FILED UNDER: Training TAGS: / /

Jeff Gaudette

Jeff Gaudette

Jeff has been running for 13 years, at all levels of the sport. He was a two time Division-I All-American in Cross Country while at Brown University and competed professionally for 4 years after college for the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project. Jeff's writing has been featured in Running Times magazine, Endurance Magazine, as well as numerous local magazine fitness columns.

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