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What are the best ways to progress your running using realistic goals?

Right now, I am a pretty slow runner and can just barely squeak out 3 miles at a 11 minute mile pace. However, I love trail running and want to up my game!

I am really inspired by my friend Molly; she is an amazing runner and all-around athlete.  Last summer, Molly ran the Wonderland Trail in 3 days and also ran the Enchantments in a day. This summer, she challenged herself to a 70 mile run, the Fat Dog in British Columbia with 19,000 feet of elevation gain in only 23 hours. Her next big challenge in 2020 is a 100+ mile run, perhaps the Cascade Crest 100 or the Fat Dog 120.  To make all that happen, she often sets a daily goal of completing a very early morning and a late night run almost every day. When I asked her where she gets her grit, she said “it runs in the family due to her stubborn mother.” I love it. 

Molly’s goals are slightly more lofty than mine! And I find I can easily get frustrated when I set my goals too high…so, I need some help setting realistic, attainable, and FUN running goals that will help me improve (knowing I’ll likely never be at Molly’s level!). Please, advise away, I’m all ears!

Molly in her natural habitat!Molly in her natural habitat!

At REI, we believe time outside is fundamental to a life well lived.
9 Replies

Kara: I am a recreational runner who wanted to increase my output when I got back into running 8-9 years ago. I have no idea if this is what "real runners" do, but here's something that worked for me. I broke my goals down into frequency, distance, and speed. I spent the first month trying to run more often. That was my only goal: run more often. The next month I tried to run further for my regular distance. If I would normally run two miles, that month I ran three miles. And for the third month, I focused on speed. I pushed myself to run faster. The amount of time focused on each may vary for you, but focusing on one variable at a time allowed me to increase them all by the end. I was running faster, further, and more often at the end of three months. Circle back and do it again for continuous improvement. You may also want to consider a running partner or identify a race to participate in to keep you motivated. Jeff

Hi @jeffreylcohen

I am just getting back to my running goals and revisited your tips.  Thank you, this is very helpful.  I love the goal setting model of focusing on frequency, distance, and then speed.  What a great way to organize progress! The weather is great this week and I am excited to hit the trails.  

Take care!


At REI, we believe time outside is fundamental to a life well lived.

I find multiple things help me process gradually - I joined a local running group that has regular group runs and activities, I sign up regularly for races of different distances, and I follow the training schedule guidance of the Hal Higdon guides online. Starting where you are I'd begin with aiming for a 5k race, and then another - try to beat your first time and get a PR (personal record). Then once you are comfortable with the 5k distance, try training for a 10k. Then 10 miler. Then half marathon. And so on. You may find that it's not distance you're interested in but speed - that's ok too! Speedwork can be a lot of fun, I personally just started to incorporate speedwork into my workouts and I've become so much faster.

Overall I think the key to sticking with running and getting better is to get out there regularly, find friends and groups to run with, and set goals that are within each if you just push yourself a little harder. 

A running training app might help, there are several out there. I use one called Train As One. The reason I like it is that it varies my workout for me so I don't have to think about/plan that.

@JennR !  Good call, I downloaded the Asics running app and have liked it but I will give Train as one a shot to compare them. 

Thanks and Take care!


At REI, we believe time outside is fundamental to a life well lived.

I forgot to mention that Train As One (TAO) isn't a smartphone app, it's a Garmin app. I get an email (or use the website) telling me my run and the data uploads automatically from my Garmin Vivoactive HR.  Because my Garmin model doesn't have sound to tell me when to switch to the next step of my run (for example from warmup to running, or from interval to rest), I also connect it to Racefully on my iPhone.  The workout downloads into Racefully automatically, and Racefully enunciates the workout transitions at the right time.  Sounds complicated, but it works great.

Racefully, on its own, is a running app that allows you to run with other people while not being physically together. I have not tried this feature, but it sounds like the perfect way to do a group run in the Covid-19 era.  There are runs to choose from at any given time, or you can organize one of your own.  Thought I'd throw it out there as another way to get motivated to stay on a program - good luck!

May I suggest - don't concentrate on goals at all?  Enjoy the activity on a regular basis and your times, pace, and distances will improve.  There will be times when everything clicks and you feel great, with times to match.  There are other times as well, when running will be a chore.  For whatever reason, things just don't mesh'

Some times the sun is shining and sometimes it rains cats and dogs.  Both,in their own way, are good for you.

Mix in other activities as well.  For me, cycling,mostly commuting 5-10 miles one way, worked out well with a noon run. mix in some gym workouts that concentrate on building strength. Do a hike on the weekend.

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@REI-KaraS Kara,

11 min miles are OK, you have to be pleased with your self. Unfortunately this is a bit long... Background: old guy, former competitive runner/coach who had to quit running fifteen years ago due to multiple injuries and age (then the weight piled on). Fortunately we started a health transformation program in Aug 2018, dropped 70 lbs/10 inches and many other things got back in line as well. Now I'm able to run again.  For starters: REI has several good short video clips (as you know but I want to plug them...) for folks who are just starting out or are coming back to our sport. Overall Goal: enjoy injury-free running for a life time! So lessons learned the hard way that are current mentoring points:

1) Develop a plan focused on gradual increases, Only focus on a single increased performance at a time (Distance, Speed, Frequency, Terrain) Under 40-max increase in a single focus area should be no more than 5% from what you were doing the previous week. Coming back from an injury, more than 24% BMI or over 40-consider no more than a 3% increase in a week. The cardio vascular system improves first, then the muscles will strengthen, ligaments and bones take longer than muscles to adjust/strengthen/heal. 

2) Add strength and flexibility training into your daily routine. I only run 3-4 days/week (5-10K) a week now, vice 50-100 miles/wk. Strength & flexibility is my daily workout - Running is my TREAT! 

3) LISTEN TO YOUR BODY! If I had. it would have eliminated most injures and several surgeries.

4) Spend part of each run focused on your running form. Are you running as quietly as possible-listen to your foot fall-if you are slapping the ground you are NOT absorbing the impact correctly. (For trail runners this means you are also missing out on the more timid wildlife!) Is your upper body relaxed or tight? How is your posture? An old trick to improve both is run with your hands in a relaxed cupped position like you are holding a small bird but have your palms facing forward and your thumbs point out-not up. When your foot is pushing off the ground, focus on pushing off with the big toe and the second toe. 

4) Record everything about your run - this is your treat for yourself-re-live it! Record how you felt, what you saw, how wonderful the day and the scenery... Then use this record to plan your next week according to the areas you want to focus on.

5) Share- I've been running with my son and he keeps me accountable to my plan and it is just flat more fun! Have some one you can talk to while you are running.

Know this is long-sorry. My goal is for those of you who are reading this to enjoy having a injury free running lifestyle. Consistency is the key. Enjoy!


Hi @TDD!

All of this is incredibly helpful, thanks so much for taking the time to provide this information! I have had a history of back, neck and knee issues - so staying injury free is my hope now that I am in my mid-40's.  

I especially appreciate the reminder to focus on form.  I always jokingly say that my running name should be "Bag of bricks" b/c I am not very graceful for the most part! But, to your point - when I am intentional about my movements and how they impact my body I am able to improve my form and feel way better after a run.  

With my first grader at home, we have been doing strength workouts together a few days a week. I need to try to sneak in some more difficult workouts when she is busy with her homeschooling.  With everything going on, running, and any solo time outdoors, is MOST definitely a big treat for me.  I have been using cycling and walking (usually with my kiddos) as light cross training as well.

I really want to get back to fitness level I attained a few years back- and your gradual approach to continuous improvement is my best bet.  

Thanks again!

At REI, we believe time outside is fundamental to a life well lived.