How to Set Challenging But Attainable Running Goals


Whether you’re a new to running or a season 5K runner looking to tone up for the next race, setting tough but realistic running goals will be a major key to success. But for many runners, goal setting may not be as easy as it sounds.

Just because you were one of the fastest kids in school doesn’t mean that you can just train for a few weeks and ace your next 5K.

How to Set Challenging But Attainable Running Goals - Step-by-Step

As you prepare for a 5K one of the areas that many runners overlook is actually setting a goal. In many cases a time or distance goal. We break down how to set challenging but attainable running goals

So how do you set goals that excite, challenge and push you to achieve massive improvements as a runner while also remaining highly realistic about what your body can actually do?

Below I provide a solid framework on how to set challenging but attainable running goals for your next 5K.

This is the exact process that I go through when setting a goal. 

Start Small, Work your Way Up

Running and being active all work to improve your health and performance as an athlete over time. But the keyword here is over time.

Don't put too much pressure on yourself. 

The importance of starting small cannot be overstated, especially for new runners. Often times new 5K runners jump straight into long distance running and expect to see changes instantly.

Sure, many parts of your body will change as you go through your fitness journey, but it may end up working against you in the long run (pun intended).

Having an idea of what kind of goals to set as well as which of them are realistic is really not that hard to do right?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s perfectly okay to have long term goals. Lofty goals are more than fine, they’re great; they give you something to look forward to at the end.

But it’s the smaller goals along the way that will give you a sense of accomplishment and give you a realistic view of what you can truly achieve. 

Otherwise, you’ll just end up in frustration as you continually chase that never ending long-term goal.

Appreciate Small Wins

This was an area I struggled with as I consistently focused on the one big goal. Small wins are simply those short term yet highly achievable goals that force you to remain focused on the training process. 

These are all the daily actions that will improve your fitness and speed while preventing injuries. In addition to your performance oriented goals such as running a certain distance every day, small wins are all about the dreary elements of training for your 5K. Even if it is just crossing the finish line.

Speed workouts are tremendously beneficial for the process

Your short term goals may include small mileage or even simply participating, make sure complete them every day to achieve a small win. These running targets or small successes will build up and become larger wins later on.

Other more minor elements of training that you should focus on include getting enough sleep every day, warming up and stretching before and after training and even running at a leisurely pace during recovery days

Trust me; it works wonders for your training.

-You may Like: Beginner Runner Tips from 30+ Run Bloggers

Benefits of Small Wins and Short Term Goal

First off, these small goals are designed to be easy to accomplish. 

Whether new or experienced, any runner can focus on them without any disruption to their current training. Shorter goals are not as intimidating as long-term goals, and they give everyone a fair platform to start out.

They also help make you a better runner. By getting more sleep, you recover faster and adapt better to training.

Over time, the small wins will compound and add up to quite the substantial advantage. 

You can expect to be stronger, more athletic, well rested with very little risk of injury; all very essential factors if you expect to even make it halfway your next 5K.

Set Stretch Goals (Long Term)

After focusing on your smaller goals, you will notice an improvement as the days and weeks go by. 

Soon enough, you’ll be more than confident enough to start envisioning some of your long-term pursuits. Now that your small wins are adding up, it’s time to set big, aggressive, bold but highly realistic goals. 

Since we’re all training for the upcoming 5K, I’ll go ahead and give relevant stretch goals for the race. Understanding your pace is a huge part of the process

Stretch goals for running your first run could include things like finally cracking that half hour mark or breaking a specific time mark within 6 months.

(Mine us the elusive 21 minute mark) More experienced runners will need challenging goals like making the 5K in under 20 minutes or even finally finishing in the top 10 positions.

However, do not make the mistake of falling into the same trap that many athletes find themselves in.

And that’s being too aggressive with your long term goals. Your stretch goals need to be as realistic as possible and based on your current fitness levels, physical and mental capabilities as well as the will to put in the work.

For example, if you run a 5K in around 35 minutes and finished your last one in 38 minutes. You’d be better off training for trying to break the 30 minute mark as a long-term goal.

While you won’t get your results as fast, it will be far less frustrating and will help you improve at a healthier pace.

Be Realistic and Keep Yourself Accountable

There’s a reason why being realistic and keeping yourself accountable go hand in hand.

You’re the one who will be setting the goals, so it makes total sense that you are accountable for each and every one of them.

This is why it’s very crucial to base your goals around your actual fitness levels. Never make the mistake of basing your training on a world famous runner or a program, especially not if you’re new to running.

If you overestimate your abilities, you will found out the hard way how tough it is to train like a pro.

With realistic goals, keeping yourself accountable will be much easier. So even if you have a job that is taking up most of your time, you will have already planned a training schedule around your job.

This way, you won’t feel as if you should be training for a 5K when you should actually be working.

Someone’s still got to pay the bills.

Things to Consider When Setting Running Goals


I don’t care how strong-minded you are to win; no race is more important than your health. Most people want to run faster, swim further, be better and beat the best. 

As a result, you end up training as hard as you can without considering what your body is going through. More often than not, overworking your body always leads to injuries and other issues.

Track Your Stats

Using monitoring equipment will be the best coach you ever had. Not only will the stats help you keep up, but they will also show you that you are not running as fast or working as hard as you should.

Monitoring your sessions is without a doubt the ultimate way to set realistic goals and give you accurate numbers on what it is that your body can achieve. Staying motivated because of seeing improvements in your stats is a HUGE WIN. 

• Enter a Race

Just because you are training for a particular 5K running event doesn’t mean that you have to wait for it. Common sense dictates that you do some practice runs to see how well your training is coming along.

Whether it’s just a local community race make sure you sign up and put your skills to the test. 

• Have Fun

This may sound like a worn out cliché, but I’ll go ahead and say it. Running offers so much more than a challenge or competition; it can be an excellent opportunity to literally get away from it all.

So while you are training, make sure you have as much fun as possible and keep thing interesting.

Running Goals - 16 Ideas

16 Running Goal Ideas (for Beginners to Advanced)

1. Run a mile without walking.

A running goal for beginner runners who are just starting to get into the sport is to be able to run a full mile without having to stop and walk. A helpful way of progressively getting better at running, especially when it comes to distance, stamina, and cardiovascular fitness levels, is by using the run-walk method.

After you gain confidence in the run walk method, begin to shorten your walking sections and running for longer durations of time. The first time you are able  to run an entire mile without needing to stop and walk is a significant accomplishment for any beginner runner – no matter how long it may have taken!

2. Break A Certain Time in the Mile

Every runner, whether experienced or a beginner, can benefit from setting time-based running goals. Examples of such running goals include beating your personal record in the mile or running a 5k in a certain amount of time.

If you want to be a faster runner, set time-based running goals for yourself that gradually get harder. You can use your current abilities as a baseline and try to improve from there!

3. Stretch Before & After Each Run

Stretching is very important when it comes to running, as it helps your muscles stay warm and flexible. Stretching before and after each run will help you prevent injury and become a faster, stronger runner over time.

Before each run, focus on dynamic stretching that gets your body moving and ready for the workout ahead. After each run, focus on static stretches that help your muscles cool down and recover.

4. Finish a long run without walking.

After you've been running for some time, it's easy to get hooked on the progress. There is nothing like feeling accomplished after finishing a run faster than last week or further than you've ever gone before.

Even though long runs are common in most training plans, many runners take their pace lightly during these endurance sessions.

This running goal is tough for beginners. Although it's enticing to take breaks during long runs for food and water, most runners don't do this on race day. If you want to use your time more efficiently, set a goal of finishing one run without stopping to walk.

5. Complete a 5k race.

Some other running goals that beginner runners may want to consider are working towards running your first 5k. 5k races are extremely popular – they can be small, local crowds for a specific cause or large scale events with thousands of people in attendance.

However, the distance is always 3.1 miles no matter what race you sign up for which makes the 5k running goal both challenging and possible realistically achieve.

In addition, signing up for a 5k is also an excellent way to maintain long-term motivation as well as providing excitement and endorphins on race day. After all, this website is called Train for a 5K for a reason 🙂 

6. Try Pilates or Yoga to Increase Flexibility and Endurance

Yoga and Pilates are great workouts for runners of all levels. Not only do they increase flexibility, but they also help improve balance, decrease the risk of injury, and build overall strength.

There are many different types of yoga and pilates that you can try depending on what your body needs. If you need a little extra stretching, try a gentle yoga class. If you need a little extra strength and core work, try a power yoga or pilates class. And if you’re looking for something more intense, try an advanced vinyasa or HIIT Pilates class.

7. Finish a 30 day running streak.

A consistent running goal will help you stay on track when life gets busy. A common way to maintain consistency is by committing to a "running streak," which means running at least one mile every day for a set amount of time. For example, setting a goal to complete a 30-day streak can help you stick with your runs during especially challenging seasons.

8. PR A Race

Even if you've only completed one race, there is always room for improvement. A popular running goal is to obtain a PR in a distance you’ve already run before.

Training to enhance your velocity not only improves your physical fitness, but it's also gratifying.

If you need some inspiration for a running-related goal to keep you motivated throughout an entire training season, then attaining a PR should be at the top of your list! Make speed workouts part of your weekly routine – whether they last for 1/4 mile or several miles.

Related: The Benefits of Interval Running

9. Address Injuries(or taking time off if necessary)

No matter how much you stretch and strengthen your muscles, injuries can still happen while running. The most important thing to do when dealing with an injury is to address it immediately. This means taking a few days off, doing rehab exercises recommended by your doctor/physical therapist or investing in different gear to provide the support you need while running.

It is also important to listen to your body and take time off if necessary. If you’re feeling unusually tired, sore or unmotivated, it might be a sign that you need to rest and recover in order to avoid potential injuries. Taking time off does not mean that you are giving up on your running goals; it simply means that you are taking the time to heal and be ready for your next race.

10. Complete an Odd Distance Race

If you're feeling like you've seen it all when running, don't worry, it's completely natural. The good news is that this may be the perfect chance for you to run a new distance and set a brand-new running goal. By doing so, not only will you accomplish something different from before, but also get a personal record (PR).

11. Sleep at least 7 hours per night

Getting adequate sleep is important for optimal running performance and recovery. Unfortunately, many of us are getting less than the recommended 7-9 hours per night due to our hectic schedules.

Therefore, a great running goal is to make sure you’re getting at least 7 hours per night to ensure that your body is adequately rested and ready for your next run. This running goal also ensures that you’re not getting too caught up in the “more is better” mentality when it comes to running and training.

So take the time to make sure you are sleeping enough, as this will help you reach your running goals faster and better!

12. Cut back on alcohol (wine too)

Listen, I like wine too.

Alcohol consumption has been linked to an increased risk of injury. In addition, it can also prevent you from recovering properly and reaching your maximum potential during training. Therefore, cutting back on alcohol consumption is a great running goal – not only for improving your physical performance but also for your overall health and well-being.

Set a running goal to cut back on your alcohol intake and stick to it. This may mean limiting yourself to only a few drinks per week, or cutting out alcohol entirely.

Regardless of the option you choose, setting this running goal will help you achieve better results from your running program and keep you feeling healthy and strong in the long run.

Running Goal - Complete and OCR

13. Complete An Obstacle (OCR) or Themed Race.

If you're looking to mix things up and add some excitement to your running routine, consider signing up for an obstacle or themed race. These races can be a great way to challenge yourself physically and mentally, while also providing some much-needed inspiration. With so many different options available, there's sure to be a race that's perfect for you. So set a goal and sign up today!

14. Cross train twice a week.

Any runner, no matter their training goals, should cross train at least twice a week. Cross training involves activities outside of running itself and can help with overall health, strength and injury prevention.

Some ways to cross train might include regular dog walks, trips to the gym or lap swimming in a pool. As long as you're getting active outside of your runs themselves, it counts towards cross training!

15. Complete a week of technology-free running.

The glorious thing about running is its easy accessibility and lack of requirements - all you need are good shoes.

However, a lot of runners get so caught up in the "extras" like watches, headphones, etc., that they forget why they started running in the first place. Make it your goal to finish one week worth of runs without any technology whatsoever.

You'll be surprised by how much more Zen run becomes when you don't know your pace or heart rate; didn't have anything playing except for the sounds of nature around you.

16. Try Trail running once a week.

We all find ourselves getting into routines and sticking to them, but by doing so, we miss out on some of the best opportunities that running has to offer: exploration. A great way to get outside of your comfort zone is to incorporate trail running into your schedule once a week.

When in doubt, use the SMART acronym for goal setting: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. 

Do a little brainstorming and choose something meaningful to you, and if you need us to give you a head start, you can take a look at our training plans!

Setting Challenging But Attainable Running Goals - Final Word

There you have it; all you need to know about setting challenging but highly realistic and attainable running goals. It’s always better to be absolutely honest with yourself about what you can really do. Stay consistent and set goals that you want to reach. 

In my mind, we’re all the epitome of fitness and great shape. But the track has a way of showing us otherwise. Make sure you are real with your workouts and that you do not set yourself up for failure or injury.

And most importantly, remember to have as much fun as possible with your training; it’s never that serious.

Hi, Jeremy Here, 

I am the the guy behind Train for a 5K. On this site, I share everything that learned along my running journey. The content I create is the running training I wish I had before we started this journeyAbout Jeremy. 

I have run over 250 races including the California International Marathon, Clarksburg Country Run, and various other 5K & 10K races throughout the United States. I am a former Athletics department employee at University of the Pacific and Shoe Consultant with Dicks Sporting Goods