Goal Setting and Training Blocks

Here is my take on how to set goals for athletic performance and how to work your way toward that goal. A good goal is based on the “SMART” goal building format with an underlying “Why”. A SMART Goal is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely. To set a time-based goal, you need experience in the race first. If you are running your first 5k or first marathon, your goal should be to finish. From there, you can build time-based goals. Check out the previous post on how to start a running program.


Specific: Use action words to say what you want to do. Who, What, Where.
Measurable: A specific number to work towards and a clear definition of accomplishment. Data!
Achievable: This defines how intense the goal is going to be and how to shape training blocks. The goal should be almost out of reach. This takes time to learn how to set goals that will be hard but not too hard.
Realistic/Relevant: Now evaluate what kind of time and commitment you can honestly put forth to achieve the goal. Is the training required to get there within your capability?
Timely: Deadline.

Good vs Bad Goals:

Faster 5k

Bad Goal: I want to run a faster 5k.
There is nothing here to work towards or build a training plan from. A goal like this means you probably run a couple of times per week with no structure.

Better Goal: I want to take 3min off my current 5k best.
Here we have a measurable goal. However, it’s hard to tell if this is achievable or if you have the time needed to get there and there’s no deadline.

Best Goal: My Current 5k PB is 21:05 and I normally run 4 times per week. On March 22nd, 2020, there is a local 5k and I want to run under 20min for the first time.We have a specific goal, to achieve on a specific date. We can build a training plan around this goal very easily and work towards it. It’s not too far out of reach and we have enough time in our current training calendar to work towards it.

First Marathon

Bad Goal: I want to run a marathon

Better Goal: I want to run the Chicago Marathon at some point

Best Goal: Today is December 12th and I won a lottery entry to the Chicago Marathon for October 11th, 2020. I want to finish the race.
We know how to enter, know the race date, and have plenty of time to build a training plan to work towards this goal. Although there isn’t a specific time, we do have a metric to measure success, “Finish”.

Why Set a Goal?

A good goal will drive your training plan until race day. Write the goal down on a sheet of paper and keep it next to your bed. On a cold, rainy Tuesday morning, you can look at your goal when you are about to hit the snooze. Keep a goal sheet in the car to remember why you don’t need fast food on the way home. Goals should be an accomplishment that take extra amounts of work. Completing the goal should lead to a healthier way of living, a new consistent activity level, and potentially a new group of friends or community to encourage you to your next goal.

Training Plans

I am not going to claim that I know everything about training plans. I still think beginners just need to get outside, run consistently, and enter a few short races to get an idea of their time commitment and race pace. After a year of consistent running and a few races, you can use a well-structured goal to build a training plan. The plans are highly individualized based on your goal. I am not going to say you need to do a certain amount of work at different zones or distances. Training plans should not go more than 4-6 weeks in the future. You are always developing and changing. A 12-20week program is a massive block to start. Instead, do a 4-week session, test yourself, and build the next 4-6-week session. The SMART Goal you built will guide your long-term training. There are several fundamentals that you should consider incorporating that are consistent in most training programs.

  • The Long Run/Ride:
    Regardless of the race you are training for, you need to train for the distance. If it’s your first 5k, first marathon, or Century Ride, you need to add long sessions to your training. The long session is relative to you. Maybe 3miles is a very long way to run for you, so start at a half mile and build by 10% each week. You should be able to run at least 85% of the race distance in training. The Long Run/Ride should be the slowest paced session of the week.
  • Benchmark Workouts:
    Also called “test sets”. This is a consistent workout you do once per month to see how your training is progressing. This is a great way to measure if you are over trained or on track for your goal. Use benchmark workouts to cap the ends of your training blocks. More about benchmark workouts below.
  • Race Pace Work:
    It’s important to feel what your race pace is. Do a warm up like the one you will do before your goal race. From there do intervals at race pace and recovery. This could be 1min at race pace, 1min recovery or 800m at race pace, 100m easy jog. The interval choices are up to you but try to keep the session to les than an hour of work. Then cool down.
  • Volume Training:
    Learn to love Zone 2. Best way to tell if you are in zone 2? Nose Breath. If you can breathe through your nose while working, you are probably in the volume building zone. This is very important to your training base. It’s not easy, boring work. Your volume is where you focus on form while running or position on the bike. Use this time to drill proper form. Eventually this will feel like recovery and prevent your body from being tight or over trained. Volume training should make up about 60-75% of your total training. I have always found it best to work dynamic stretching in right after a volume session.

Benchmark Workouts

This is the core of my training. I have been doing test sets since swimming in 8th Grade and hated every second of them. However, these are the best session every month. Think of them as mini races where you go all out. If you have 4 or 5 months between races, these sessions are even more important. A benchmark workout is normally an interval session at race pace. They are designed to bring confidence to your training and keep the fir going. Lionel Sanders, 2nd Place Ironman Kona 2017, has talked about benchmark workouts several times. In 2018 he had 3 workouts he wanted to hit to know he was ready for Kona: 1000-yard swim holding 1:12/100, 4x30min bike holding 380w, 4x5k run holding 16min. He probably started the runs at 1x5k holding 16 or maybe 2x5k holding 16:30. However you do it, each session should build on the previous session to show development over a 4week period. If you miss your goals, then it’s a perfect time to reevaluate your training. Maybe you need to add or remove some pieces.

Example 4-week Block for Running

Goal: My Current 5k PB is 21:05 and I normally run 4 times per week. On March 22nd, 2020, there is a local 5k and I want to run under 20min for the first time.

Session 1 Session 2 Session 3 Session 4
Week 1 Volume:
1mi jog, 1 mi walk
4×400 RP CD
2mi easy
Long Run: 4mi
Week 2 1.5mi jog, 1 mi walk WU
2×800 RP CD
2.5mi easy
Long Run: 5mi
Week 3 2mi jog, 1mi walk WU
6×400 RP CD
2mi easy
Long Run: 6mi
Week 4 2.5 mi jog, 1mi walk WU
3×800 RP CD
2.5mi easy
Goal: Race Pace, short rest
  • NOTES:
  • CD = Cool Down. WU = Warm up. RP =Race Pace
  • Volume should be easy, don’t need to push it. Focus on good form, run with a partner and have them tell you if something looks out of balance or have them record 200m.
  • Long runs should be within 2:30/mi of your goal pace. In this case goal is 6:25/mi so long run should be no slower than 9:00/mi.
  • Race Pace 400m will be based on the 6:25 goal pace. 400 is a quarter of a mile so 6:25 divided by 4 is 1:35.5. Take enough rest to ensure each repetition is at or faster than 1:35.5. The 800 repeats should be the same with a goal of 3:11.
  • Benchmark: This is the best time to evaluate your 4-week block. Each 1k (about .6mi) should be under 4min. and with short rest (1:00 – 1:30). In 4 weeks, do 4x1k.
  • From here we can build the net 4-week block. Do you have time in the schedule to add volume? Did you hit the goal times for the race pace sections? Were you getting enough recovery to feel good during the race sessions? The next 4 weeks should build on top of this in both volume and speed.
  • Start and end training block by looking at the goal.

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