Creating Positive Race Goals

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“How fast did you finish?”

“Did you beat your personal record?”

“Man, my mile splits were so much slower than normal!”

photo (62)

Look, it’s pretty easy to get wrapped up in time-based race goals.  Time is quantifiable and simple to compare. And it’s really, really fun when your times go down!  I’ll never forget how great it felt to take a half hour (yes, a full thirty minutes!) off my marathon record.  It was evidence that I had worked hard and kicked butt. 


The title of this post is “Creating Positive Race Goals,” but it’s not that time-based goals are inherently negative.  I just think it’s far too easy to feel like a failure if you don’t reach your time goal.  And there are MANY factors that can influence your time – weather, crowd, course layout.  You could just have an off day.  The worst feeling is to walk away from a race and be disappointed.  I don’t know about you, but I never want to feel like a loser after a race; after all, I just did something great for my body and mind.




While reading my triathlon recap, you may have noticed that I had lots of race goals, and not all were about time:


  • “My personal goal for the swim was to swim in a straight line.”


  • “My game plan for the bike leg was … take it easy and don’t crash.  Hah.  No, really.  I’ve always been weak at the bike but after only riding three times in the past year (I do NOT recommend this training ‘technique’), I just wanted to get through the 17 miles.”


  • “My technique for transitions was to take it really, really easy.  I knew that I would place in the back of the pack in my age group regardless and didn’t want to rush through transitions when I could use them to recover a bit.”


A lot of people think racing is just about endurance and speed.  Go balls to the wall and run (or swim or bike) hard.  But there are so many other important elements to racing.  Strategy, technique, skill, form, mental toughness.  You can work on many different areas of fitness beyond finishing time during a race, and the more varied your race goals, the higher the odds that you’ll walk away feeling proud and happy.  So consider this my plea to set a bunch of different race goals. 


Here are some ideas for positive race goals beyond your finishing time:


Have enough gas left in your tank so you can sprint the last 500 yards.

Smile at and thank every volunteer you pass.

Pace yourself at the start so you don’t burn out.

Keep your thoughts positive the entire race.

Be smart about hydrating and fueling.

During a triathlon, sight during the swim so you don’t go off course and swim longer than necessary.

During a triathlon or bike race, be smart about shifting gears to make climbing hills as easy as possible.

Find another racer who looks really down and encourage them before going on your merry way.

Maintain good running form the entire time.

Have enough energy to run up a big hill.


And when I do set time goals, I usually set A, B, and C goals – my “A” goal is my dream goal.  It’s achievable, but all the stars would have to perfectly align for me to hit that goal.  My “B” goal is more realistic but still requires me to work very hard.  And my “C” goal is usually just to finish, which is an accomplishment in itself (I talk a lot about smart goal setting in the Healthy Tipping Point book, if you’re interested in learning more).

I’d love to hear your non-time race goals, too! 



  • Hillary August 30, 2012, 8:24 am

    I love your “cheering on another racer” goal. During my first half marathon, I did exactly this, and it felt surprisingly incredible. Maybe not as good as finishing did (haha!) but definitely great.

  • Claire @ Live and Love to Eat August 30, 2012, 8:25 am

    My goal for my first 10k this month is just to not walk – but I love the ideas here about thanking volunteers and encouraging others. It will be a great distraction if I start to struggle! 🙂

  • Tiff @ Love Sweat and Beers August 30, 2012, 8:25 am

    Even if I just say I’ll take it easy, my mind always thinks about, “but what if I could finish in X.” So, since I can’t avoid it, I set three goals for myself. 1) an attainable but worthy goal, which is usually just to finish 2) a goal that is challenging but very in-line with training and 3) a stretch goal that I know I probably won’t attain but can’t help but consider. Many sales managers and such set “stretch goals” they don’t expect their teams to attain, but it can be very motivational. I just have to not be bummed when I don’t get that one! haha

  • Angela @ Eat Spin Run Repeat August 30, 2012, 8:27 am

    These are great Caitlin! This summer I ran a half marathon after having had Achilles tendinitis and not being able to run AT ALL until 3 weeks prior to the race. I didn’t want to set myself up for feeling disappointed since I knew I probably wasn’t as fit as I was when I ran my previous PR, so my goal was to cross the finish line pain-free and smiling. Smiling I was, but unfortunately mid-race I managed to somehow sprain my SI joint. Luckily, it didn’t hurt too much until I actually finished the race and started walking instead of running, but I was happy to have finished at all given my previous injury. I actually surprised myself and managed to run a 1:33:58, which was only about 56s slower than my older PR!! It’s amazing how taking focus away from the numbers can work in our favour!

  • Army Amy* August 30, 2012, 8:28 am

    I love goals like this! I hate finishing a race and feeling like crap because I didn’t finish within a certain time. That’s why other kinds of goals are great. I also like to high five a certain number of spectators (if there are any/depending on the size of the race) and cheer on a certain number of other racers (again depending on the size of the race).*

  • Suzanne August 30, 2012, 8:46 am

    I ran my first 5k last weekend and my goal was simply to have fun and finish. I ended up placing 2nd in my category and 24th overall! It was a pleasant surprise and took the stress of ‘winning’ off!

  • Mary August 30, 2012, 8:47 am

    I’ve always wondered about cheering on others during a race. I want to but at the same time I don’t want anyone to be annoyed with me. Also, Ive wondered if I could make them feel bad about their race because maybe they are doing their best and then someone cheers them on and they take it the wrong way. Instead of encouragement they think that they look like they’re failing in the eyes of other racers.

    So I’m general do people like to be cheered on? I would love some feedback on this. I always feel conflicted.

    • CaitlinHTP August 30, 2012, 9:05 am

      It is funny you mentioned this because on my tri, I had like… 40 people ride by me and say, “Good job, keep it up!” It was nice the first 20 times but the second 20 felt patronizing. I wanted to yell, “I KNOW I’M SLOW!” LOL

      • Ashley August 30, 2012, 12:29 pm

        Funny story…

        So my dad is running a half marathon last fall. It’s late in the race and he’s struggling up a hill. He decides to walk the hill. As he slows to a walk, a twenty-something year old girl bounds by him and says “c’mon! You can do it!” He said he wanted to throttle her…but he couldn’t catch her!

        I have a theory about this. People doing the passing don’t mind hearing cheers. If you pass someone and they say good job, you feel good. You passed someone AND got recognition for it. But people don’t like hearing ‘good job’ from someone who passes them – theoretically, ‘doing better.’ It can seem patronizing, especially if (as Caitlin said) they have heard it often.

        • CaitlinHTP August 30, 2012, 12:54 pm

          This seems like a good potential blog topic!

        • Sarah August 30, 2012, 1:50 pm

          I did this biathlon once where the first part was rowing on an erg (rowing machine) and the second part was running. I’m a rower so obviously the first part was my strong suit. I was the first person to be done on the ergs and was SO PROUD of myself for PRing on that portion. The running did not go as well (as I expected). People kept saying “Great job on the erg!” when they passed me running. I was not a happy camper.

      • Mary August 31, 2012, 9:35 am

        Thanks, i guess you have to be careful about the delivery. Maybe
        If you decide to run with them and push through it together it would be better. I think a lot of it has to do with the mindset of the racer.

  • Cindy August 30, 2012, 8:50 am

    I did a 10K earlier in the year that I was in no way ready for. I ended up walking most of it and was fine. I just wanted to finish. That was my goal, and I achieved it. (It was pouring and I was weighed down in a sopping wet sweatshirt.) One of these days I will learn not to wear heavy cotton to a race!

  • Molly @ RDexposed August 30, 2012, 8:59 am

    Race times are tricky. I just finished a Madison half 2.5 minutes slower than my Chicago half. Such different terrains! I had to really force myself to drive this point home to myself to not be unhappy with my Madison time.
    Also during my Madison mini, I realized that the race wasn’t all about me. It’s also about the volunteers and spectators!

  • Erin August 30, 2012, 9:09 am

    My goal is to run a ‘smart’ race. This means
    1. having fun
    2. not starting out fast (I’ve made this mistake before)
    3. fueling the body properly
    4. not feeling miserable
    5. staying positive during those low periods – it’s always around the 60% mark for me for any distance
    6. adjust to the conditions as needed
    7. Understand that not every race will be a PB. Sometimes you know at the start line you just don’t have it in you THAT day. The stars just won’t align for a PB. It’s okay to readjust and just enjoy the run

    I also like to thank the volunteers and those cheering. This is a sign I’m relaxed and not miserable.

    • Lauren August 30, 2012, 9:39 am

      I could not have said this any better!

  • Valerie August 30, 2012, 9:20 am

    I can appreciate your tip on “Making sure you have enough gas left in your tank so you can sprint the last 500 yards.” When I ran my first 5k I went out too fast and by the end of the race I was barely jogging across the finish line. In fact I think I almost crawled! I learned a valuable lesson that day regarding pacing!

    Now when I train I make sure to start slow and work steadily to increase my speed so that by the end I can sprint the last half-mile or so if need be!

  • Amanda August 30, 2012, 9:33 am

    Look awesome the WHOLE time, not just when cameras are pointed at me. Pretty hard goal to accomplish when your lungs are on fire and you’re sweating profusely… 🙂

  • Aundra Weissert @ Fit for Life August 30, 2012, 9:37 am

    Thank you so much for this post. I find it’s harder to chat with non-runners about racing because many of them ask “so did you win?” Sometimes, even runner friends ask how fast I ran something.

    But speed isn’t always my goal. Sometimes, it is! For my most recent 10-mile race, I just wanted to run up all of the many hills. And I did!! I ended up running the whole time, too. So I felt like I succeeded even though my time was speed racer time.

  • TiffanyS August 30, 2012, 9:49 am

    My motto this year has been to train smarter not harder. I’m still working on this, but if I can make it through my second half marathon in October without getting bursitis in my knee, I’ll know I did something better this time and met my goal. Other goals I look if it is my first race of a new distance or a new variety (like Ragnar or the Paddle, Pedal, Run mini tri in my hometown) is to complete the challenge in one piece. So, that would be my C goal. B goal is to do better than I did the time before if I’ve done that race previously. A goal is my high level option of a PR. My kids always ask me if I win, and I say ‘Yup’ cause each time I cross the finish line is a win in my mind.

  • Teresa August 30, 2012, 9:54 am

    This post is just what I needed! I’m signed up for a tri relay team. I’ll be doing the cycling leg of an Olympic tri this weekend. I’ve never done a triathlon before, but have always thought it would be fun, so I signed up. I don’t have a road bike, just a hybrid bike, but I didn’t think it would be a big deal. However, since signing up, I’ve read a few tri blogs and discovered that my best times for the distance are way slow. I probably wouldn’t have signed up if I knew that! So I’m a little terrified right now. But maybe setting a different goal — like trying to keep upbeat — will make it more enjoyable.

    • CaitlinHTP August 30, 2012, 11:44 am

      No worries 🙂 Part of the reason your times are slow is because of your hybrid so definitely don’t compare yourself to riders with road bikes. Just have fun! Good luck!

  • Courtney August 30, 2012, 10:00 am

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I have got my very first race, ever coming up and this was very helpful. I am getting nervous about the small things…like race etiquette, running with other people as I am used to running by myself, and if my technique is good enough. I think this race will break me in and I have also set small goals for myself, three of them, just in case. Great post!

  • Whitney August 30, 2012, 10:12 am

    This was great! I’ll never be a fast runner, nor will I ever win any sort of award in a race. It is just the way it is. The prize for me is the challenge in and of itself! I ran my first 10K in June and finished. That and maintaining a running form were my goals. I did it! I ran a trail 10K a few weekends ago. My goal was to finish! Very simple goal, if you ask me. But I did it! And I had fun and will do it again.

    Participating in the challenge and throwing away doubts and fears sets me up for success from the moment I confirm my registration. The race itself is secondary 😉

  • Colleen August 30, 2012, 10:22 am

    I am doing my first 10k next Saturday and I just want to finish it & have fun. If finishing it means walking some that is fine with me.

  • Joanne August 30, 2012, 10:31 am

    It’s tough to not have a time goal since during training, we do some speed drills, etc. But last years Boston Marathon forced most of us to let those goals fly. It was too hot and dangerous. Since I knew I could finish but not in the time hoped, my goal became “Enjoy the Experience”. It’s WONDERFUL to achieve a goal. I completely enjoyed enjoyed the race. There was so much to see and take in. It would have all been missed if my mind was focused on a timely finish.

  • Amber @ Busy, Bold, Blessed August 30, 2012, 10:36 am

    I ran the Broad Street Run (10 miles) in Philly last spring. It was my first double digit race and I really loved cheering for everyone around me. It pumped me up to pump everyone else up 🙂

  • Stellina @ My Yogurt Addiction August 30, 2012, 10:37 am

    Great post! I have been thinking a lot about race goals etc since I am doing my first half marathon in October. I would say my goal is to finish in one piece and still feel GREAT!

  • Lindsey Gail August 30, 2012, 10:48 am

    I ran one of my favorite races- it was my 9th year running it- this past August. I knew I wasn’t about to PR for this race, but I didn’t expect to finish with the absolute worst time either. I wanted to finish with a smile on my face and injury free, and ideally somewhere in the middle of my previous race times. About 4 miles in (of 8.4), there was a runner down on the side of the trail; he was receiving some assistance from one of the bikers who patrols the course. He was shaking pretty badly, and I expected this was the end of this race for him. I guess it hadn’t quite registered that it was a little warm for a Saturday morning in August, and definitely warmer than it had ever been for this particular race. So, mid-race, I had to change my mindset and really committed my goal to finishing without medical attention. Part of this meant finishing comfortably (well, without extreme discomfort), and the other part meant that I would not be suffering for the rest of my day as a result of my race exertion. I “allowed” myself to walk more, and made a point to snag water at every water stop, even if I didn’t feel like I needed it. And I met ALL of my goals- even the time one. I finished with a smile, injury free, without medical attention, exactly in the middle of all of my previous race times, and I could continue to smile about it the rest of the day (although I did require a nap later). Personally, I tend to think of time goals last. I don’t run with a Garmin, and races are the only times that I really have much of a clue about mile splits.

  • Anna August 30, 2012, 10:50 am

    I am awesome at the whole negative talk so my number one goal would be stay positive. I always thank volunteers, it`s really not that hard to say a little “thanks”.
    I dislike the fact about my first Half Marathon that I have planned for in about a week that the cut-off time is 2.30. To many people that time would be a joke but for me it just seems to be stuck in my head. I guess I am just worrying too much. I`ll take you as an example for further goals!

    • CaitlinHTP August 30, 2012, 11:45 am

      That’s a pretty intense cut off time. Which race is it?

  • Gillian Forsyth August 30, 2012, 10:56 am

    Non-time based goals:
    – maintain great blood sugar levels
    – ride/run pain free
    – smooth fast transitions (yes this is sort of time based but I have notoriously bad transitions and don’t really count transitions as an athletic part of the race 🙂
    – smile and enjoy the ride (i have this written on my road ID)

  • Maddie August 30, 2012, 11:39 am

    Great post Caitlin! I love the ‘think positive throughout the entire race’ goal…I did that for my first half marathon this past May and I honestly surprised myself. Not one single thought was negative and I honestly think it was a major motivator for me throughout the race 🙂

  • Sam @ Better With Sprinkles August 30, 2012, 12:02 pm

    I love the idea about encouraging others in the race – I know if I was struggling and another runner gave me a few encouraging words I would feel a lot better.

  • Jenni August 30, 2012, 12:31 pm

    Hi, Caitlin! I have have been reading your blog for some time on my flipboard. Recently, I was approached by a friend to help start up a Girls on the Run council in my area. Because of your work with the organization, I knew exactly what it was and was happy to commit. Thank you for your work and for writing about it!

    • CaitlinHTP August 30, 2012, 12:55 pm

      Yay I hope you have fun!

  • Ley August 30, 2012, 12:39 pm

    I just signed up for my second half marathon and while I have a very concrete time goal, I also have a more positive goal of just giving it my all. I loved the experience of my first half but I was so concerned with pacing myself and not going out to strong that I held back too much. I crossed the finish line feeling like I could run another mile or two, not out of breath not red faced just ready for breakfast. I’m okay with that- it was my first one and I recovered so easily that I got to go out that night and celebrate but this time I want to push with all I have. I want to fall across that finish line a hot sweaty mess who just pushed herself to her limits. Knowing that I did my absolutely best will make the time goal significantly less important.

  • Dani @ Dani, Redesigned August 30, 2012, 12:48 pm

    I try not to make ridiculous race goals that I know I’m not going to be able to accomplish. I all too soon get caught up in everything and get way ahead of myself…I want to be able to run 10 miles by tomorrow! 🙂

    Speaking of races, since you’re in Charlotte now, there’s a charity 5K coming up called the Isabella Santos Foundation 5K on Sept 22 I believe. I’m going to register for it next week, I should be far enough along in my Couch to 5K training to give it a good college try.

    If you or anybody else on here in the Charlotte area is interested just for the fun of it, here’s the site:

  • Stephanie @ Steph's Miles August 30, 2012, 12:56 pm

    I think an important factor of running in a race which you mentioned is to keep smiling and enjoy it! Use those endorphins to push yourself just a little bit further at the end. I remember when I finished my first half I just started crying because I was so proud of myself for doing it for myself!

  • Kendra @ My Full-Thyme Life August 30, 2012, 1:03 pm

    Race goals are as follows:
    1) have my baby in January – pretty awesome goal huh?
    2) get cleared by Doc for exercise
    3) start the 5k to couch program
    4) don’t die from starting 5k to couch program
    5) sign up for a race to motivate me to complete 5k to couch program
    6) run my first 5k ever in the spring
    7) finish the race

    I think I can, I think I can!

  • Dory August 30, 2012, 1:19 pm

    Thank you for this! One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from yoga is that the “race” (whether it be a degree, a sporting event, ect) is with yourself. Kind of like life is a race and the only results that really matter are your own. I feel like every 20 something friend I have that goes to races has a really aggressive or negative stance. My goals for my last 10k were to (a) challenge myself and (b) have fun. Challenging myself doesn’t have anything to do with a time or place. I also am not a super fast runner, so maybe that is why I have this perspective, but I always come away feeling good about myself. A lot of my friends dont, which makes me wonder why they do it.

  • Rachel August 30, 2012, 1:21 pm

    Great post! I hate feeling like I’ve failed even if I’ve just done something amazing!
    The only 3 triathlons I’ve done so far have ben un-timed events where the goal of the race is to just “Tri for Fun”. I feel really lucky to have started my tri experience with these events because time was so far from the focus. For the first one, I just wanted to finish. Next, I wanted to swim in a straight line, push myself harder on the bike, and not sprint too early at the finish. I am totally in love with triathlons now, partly thanks to the focus on having fun and discovering the sport in a no-pressure situation.

  • Bari August 30, 2012, 1:29 pm

    I love the idea of non-time related goals for racing. At my first triathlon this summer, I definitely had a set of A/B/C goals related to time, but I also had goals of not crashing, smooth transitions and the like.

    I’m coming off a very serious injury and running is REALLY frustrating right now. I have my first running race this weekend (a 10k shhh…don’t tell, it’s a secret) and my goal is to simply finish without significant pain or injury. Not needing to walk would be awesome, too, but it’s hilly and has some trails so walking is probably going to be necessary. I’m needing to really fight the desire to attempt a PR or beat my husband. I love the idea of thanking the volunteers. That will be an easy goal to accomplish during this race.

  • Annette@FitnessPerks August 30, 2012, 1:41 pm

    I def had the goal to pass a few people near the end of my half ironman 😉 But I also had the goal not to walk (even though you’re tempted to after racing for 6 hours! hah)

  • Amanda August 30, 2012, 1:52 pm

    For one of my recent 5ks, my goal was to not take frequent walking breaks. I took two 10-second breaks, and I ended up with a PR that I didn’t expect at all!

  • Jameil August 30, 2012, 1:52 pm

    I’ve been racing so little time that I still expect to PR at every race. I also want to be strong enough pass people at the end. BUT I really really hate seeing people on the race course who don’t smile or acknowledge anyone, even little kids cheering for them on the course. After witnessing this at my first 10K, I decided when I can’t enjoy it enough to show basic human kindness, I’ll stop racing. I also LOVE encouraging people having a hard time and thanking course volunteers and people cheering on the side lines. I’m the nut smiling and waving the whole race. LOL

  • Abbey August 30, 2012, 1:53 pm

    Great post and great timing! I’ll be running in my first race — a 5k — Monday and have been stressing about timing, since on my own I don’t think I run very fast. But I’ll have to think of some other non-time related goals! 🙂

  • Ali August 30, 2012, 2:32 pm

    This has nothing to do with goals, but I saw a shirt at the expo of my last race that said: I may be last, but if it weren’t for me, you’d have nobody to pass!

    I loved that because I knew I would be slow and I did not care! I just wanted to get through it and know that I finished!

  • Jenny August 30, 2012, 3:07 pm

    I am running my first race (5k) next Saturday and my main goal is to finish with a smile on my face. If I do it in under 40 minutes then I will be a super happy camper, but honestly that’s the last thing on my mind. I chose a color run because I figured the atmosphere would be light and exciting and I didn’t want to put too much pressure on myself since it’s my first time. If I end up catching the racing bug then I might make more specific goals later, but really I just want that sense of accomplishment.

  • Chelsea @ One Healthy Munchkin August 30, 2012, 7:29 pm

    My goal is to actually DO a race. I’ve been running for almost 4 year and I still haven’t entered a race yet! 😛

  • deb August 30, 2012, 11:31 pm

    I’m running my first ever 5K in Oct (1st one as a mommy too!) my goal is to finish and give DD a big hug when I’m done. And to smile across the finish line 🙂

  • Claire August 31, 2012, 10:30 am

    I ADORE this post. I recently ran my first half marathon after a painful back injury that sidelined me for months. It was my slowest race by far, but a PR in terms of fun! My goal was to be smart in the heat, stick with my best friend, take it as a training run, and not die! I had the best time ever and finished with a smile and happy tears in my eyes.

  • Harry August 31, 2012, 6:26 pm

    Very inspiring goals.

    You may want to check out GoalsOnTrack, a very nicely built web app designed for tracking goals, habits, and todo lists, and supports time tracking too. It’s clear, focused, easy to navigate, and most of all, really works!

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