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

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.

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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.

Benefits of Having Stretch Goals

Stretch goals are pretty exciting; they force you to think about the future and imagine your potential as a stronger, better and faster runner. Simply put, if you’re focused on what’s ahead of you, it won’t matter if it’s sweltering hot or freezing cold.

Your goals will wake you up and get you straight to work. If training is a road trip, then stretch goals are definitely your destination. Just make sure that you do not overdo it with the stretch goals.

Pushing yourself too hard could put you at risk of injury, fatigue and mental burnout.

By striking a healthy and productive balance between small wins and larger, long-term goals, you will be setting yourself up for success in your next 5K.

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.

Not only does this give you an idea of how your training is coming along, but it also lets you know which training elements to improve on.

Not to mention how it provides you with a realistic measure of what you can achieve as of that moment. So don’t be too scared to sign up for random races, it helps.

• 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.

Try running over different routes, terrains, events and pretty much spicing it up as much as you can. You’ll notice significantly more improvement if you enjoy your workouts.

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 Me.