How to Customize a Running Program to Fit Your Goals

Whether you've recently decided to take up running, or have spent years racing, setting realistic goals is key to your personal success.

As an 11-time IRONMAN champion, I've found there is certainly a science to successfully setting and meeting realistic running goals.

1. Start small and work your way to the top

If you're new to running, it's important to set achievable goals.

Start with a 30-minute walk/run, alternating between jogging for 30 seconds and walking for a minute and a half. You'll be surprised how well this will develop your endurance as you gradually increase your running time and decrease your walking time. You'll notice you'll go from running 15 minutes straight, to 20 minutes and eventually to a full 5K.

2. Be realistic

The biggest mistake you can make in setting a goal is picking one that's not realistic.

A lot of people say they want to complete an IRONMAN or win a World Championship, but don't realize how difficult it is to train for one. While it's not impossible, a lot of sacrifice is needed to complete such a goal. I make sure to put my athletes' goals in perspective to make sure their expectations are achievable.

This may mean completing a 5K, then a 10K and moving onto a 70.3 before completing an IRONMAN.

3. Determine what you want to accomplish most

When I'm coaching a runner, I ask what goal they ultimately want to accomplish. Do they have a specific PR in mind? Do they want to finish an IRONMAN?

Once they set their goal, I look at their lifestyle and training level and build a plan around it. For example, if I have an athlete with an injury, I'll create a program that allows me to minimize the activity that stirs that injury and maximize other aspects of training. If their goal is to compete in an IRONMAN, then I know I need six months to train them--using the first three months to get them fit and ready to train.

Identify your big goal, and then consider the ways you will get there.

4. Keep yourself accountable

I tend to coach a lot of executives who work long hours, so I advise them to train early in the morning.

If you have a full-time job, whether you're a CEO or a teacher, chances are there are a lot of other things competing for your time once you get off work. Training is an outlet for many people and can be the best part of participating in a race. Use that as motivation to stay on task.

5. Track and evaluate your progress

I am a believer in perceived effort and doing the best that you can, but I also look at numbers and stats, like MPH and heart rate. GPS wrist devices--like the Polar V800 and Polar M400--can keep you on track because you can visibly see when you are not running fast enough or going hard enough.

I look at my run sessions on Polar Flow and chart progress by looking at my speed. If my speed is not improving over a few weeks' time, then I have to look at whether fatigue or illness is suppressing my progress. I don't waver from my goal because I know that anything can happen on race day, and special performances can happen in a race environment with the right amount of adrenalin, passion and determination. But I might modify my time-based goal a little bit and set a bigger range for success.

Avoid evaluating your fitness too often. Some workouts should be "evaluation" or "simulation" sessions, and they usually happen every three or four weeks after a solid block of training.

6. Your health always comes first

Early in my career, my goals were to swim, bike and run the best that I could--and ultimately be faster, stronger and fitter.

I set goals during every session, and although I always wanted to win, my personal health, fitness and performance is what came first. As I got older and injuries came to the forefront, I shortened my distances, decreased my sessions and focused on getting to the finish line as healthy as I could--hoping that my talent and experience could make up for the lack of training that my body couldn't handle anymore.

Whatever your goals may be, approach them logically and with a health-first mindset.

Lisa Bentley raced for 20 years as a professional triathlete. In the course of her career, she has won 11 IRONMAN races, 11 IRONMAN 70.3 races, several top five finishes at the IRONMAN World Championships, represented Canada on multiple National Teams and at the Pan American Games and was ranked top five in the world for a decade.

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