If we’ve learned anything from New Year’s resolutions, it’s that setting realistic goals is deceptively hard—usually because we go into it with an elevated sense of optimism. Don’t get me wrong, optimism is great, and you’re going to need it to accomplish any goal. But sometimes we get so excited that we take on way too much, way too fast, and our goals sink like a stone.

Before I get into how to choose reasonable goals that you can achieve in this lifetime, I want to touch on why you should have goals at all (i.e. what’s in it for you).

The benefits of setting running goals 

Without diving too deep into the science, it’s worth noting that research has proven the power of goal setting. Goals keep us accountable, give us purpose, and demand our concerted effort and commitment. They serve as a reward system—both while we’re trying to accomplish them and after we accomplish them—and help us reinforce positive habits and behaviors, which, in turn, encourages us to grow. 

Goals allow us to turn the swirly, twirly thoughts in our heads about who we’d like to be into tangible actions. Running goals, in particular, give us a clear-cut reason to push ourselves—and that, ultimately, is the only way we can improve. 

Like I said, defining these goals is no easy feat. These three pieces of advice have completely changed the way I approach choosing and achieving running goals.  

Don’t let outside expectations and pressure define your goals.

In order to set specific, sensible running goals, you have to know yourself very, very well. There are a lot of predetermined, arbitrary benchmarks in the running world, and it’s easy to confuse what goals you think you should have with goals that make sense for you.

With races and events constantly reaching new levels of prevalence and difficulty (ultra marathons, 100-mile races, obstacle courses, etc.), there’s a lot of pressure on runners to always be leveling up and bracing for the next challenge. For some folks, that’s great. But for other runners, including myself, running something like an ultra marathon would probably take much more out of me than it would give. 

So when you sit down and consider your goals, put everything and everyone else aside and take a look at who you are. Based on your anatomy, fitness level, schedule, injury history, and resources—what do you think you’re capable of? Don’t sell yourself short, of course, but you have to know yourself now to know where you can go. If you hate long-distance running, there’s no reason why you have to run a half marathon. You have nothing to prove to anyone. Outline goals that are going to make you proud and that, based on what you know about you, are challenging but feasible. 

Set progressive goals

The best metaphor I’ve come up with for progressive goals is a flight of stairs. (Bear with me.) Your goal sits high above you, a flight or two up from where you are. You’re standing on the ground floor. There’s some distance between you and the goal—that much is clear—but you put the goal up there in the first place because you think you can get to it. And you can… but you have to take the stairs.

This has become a daily reminder of mine (“you have to take the stairs”), because if you’re working towards a substantial goal—running a marathon, losing weight, cutting down your race time, anything like that—there will be milestones you need to hit on your way there. You have to be able to run 13.1 miles before you can run 26.2. To lose 50 pounds, you have to lose 10 first. When we’re in that initial buoyant state of mind, we’re not only susceptible to unrealistic goal-setting, but we’re also likely to make an unrealistic roadmap. We say “I’ll run 20 miles this week and then 50 next week,” or “I’ll run a 5k this week and 13.1 in two weeks.” Sure, you’re taking the stairs, but you’re skipping steps as you go. And speaking from my own experience, that’s not going to work. You won’t get there faster—you’ll just get injured, burn out, or give up. 

Instead, establish your large goal first, and then chart smaller goals in between. Not only are you more likely to hit your goal because your strategy was sustainable, you’ll also build your confidence as you rack up small wins. Humans love winning; it’s positive reinforcement 101. We all want to hit our goals ASAP because we crave that victorious, I-did-it feeling, but there’s no shortcut to the top. Take my advice: take the stairs. 

Find a way to stay accountable

There’s no shame in admitting that self-accountability is hard and that most of us respond well to external validation. Think about it—when you do something right and someone praises you, you feel proud and the endeavor feels worth it. And when someone tells you to do something and you know they’ll be checking, you feel more inclined to get it done (think your boss, trainer, doctor, etc.). While self-accountability is a skill we should all work to cultivate, runners included, there’s nothing wrong with enlisting a coach, a friend, an app, or a community when you’re working towards a goal. 

My best friend lives in a different city and we often train for races “together” from afar. It’s comforting to know that I can text him after a run for a quick congrats or before a run when I need a little kick to get out the door. I also find a lot of satisfaction out of logging my runs in the Runkeeper app—what can I say, I’m a sucker for those little notifications that say “This was your longest run ever!” and looking at how many runs I’ve done gives me a boost of confidence to keep going. If you can motivate yourself to get out the door every single day and give every run your best effort, that’s wonderful. But if you work better with some support, seek it out!

Runners are as guilty a party as any when it comes to setting unrealistic goals—but with a few mindset tweaks and a well-thought-out plan, I have no doubt that you can set (and crush) some inspiring, attainable goals.