New Runners: How To Pick A Race Time Goal

You've signed up for your first race, now you've got to pick a training plan. But how do you pick a finish time goal to aim for?

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Perhaps it was after months of contemplation, or maybe it was done on a whim. However it happened, you’ve hit the “register” button on the website, and you are officially signed up for your first race.


Now comes the hard part: the training. In most cases, I absolutely believe in the philosophy that race day is simply the celebration of months of hard work put in to achieve the goal. For many runners, though, how quickly they reach the finish line after starting the race is the focus of their goal. And so there needs to be a specific goal to build training around.

Let me start by saying that simply finishing your first race is a fantastic goal to have. Cross that finish line in one piece, uninjured, and with a smile on your face. You are already a winner. That certainly is enough of a goal to begin with, and there is nothing wrong with making that your sole goal, no specific finishing time attached.


Some of us, myself included, are naturally competitive—even if only with ourselves—and having a specific time goal can be an incredible source of motivation when it comes to training.

So how do you pick a time goal, if this is your first race?

There are a few options, some of which are slightly more advanced than others. If you are running a shorter distance race, such as a 5K, there is always the training option of running a few “practice” races of the same distance and picking a time goal closely based on how fast you were able to run in practice. At what pace do you feel comfortable? What pace do you feel you can sustain, realistically, for the duration of the race? Keeping these numbers in mind can help you come up with a realistic time goal.

But if you are looking for something slightly more scientific, here a couple of other options:

McMillan Running Calculator

The McMillan Running Calculator can use shorter distances, such as an 800-m or 1-mile time, to estimate a longer distance race finish time that you should be capable of. Keep in mind that this is simply a tool and not exact science. Just because the calculator says you can finish a race in xx:xx doesn’t mean you actually will. It also doesn’t mean you can’t run that race even faster. But the calculator gives you a general idea of what is realistic based on your current capabilities.

The Magic Mile

Olympic runner and coach Jeff Galloway has come up with a similar formula (and also a handy online calculator) that allows you to pick realistic race goals based on a 1-mile training run. The idea is to run as hard as you can (without puking—that is an actual disclaimer on the website) for one mile. This, of course, is after a thorough warm-up. Take your mile time, and do the following:

  • Add 33 seconds to your magic mile for your pace for a 5K
  • Multiply your magic mile time by 1.15 for 10K pace
  • Multiply your magic mile time by by 1.2 for half marathon pace
  • Multiply your magic mile time by by 1.3 for marathon pace

Again, this is a calculation and not a guarantee, but it gives you a great starting point when picking a time goal.

However you choose to make your time goal, the most important thing is to make it realistic. Yes, it’s good to “reach for the stars” and set big goals. But when it comes to your first race, the most important thing truly is crossing that finish line, hopefully healthy and uninjured. Everything else is icing on the finish line cake!