How to Use SMART Goals to Be a Better Runner and Writer

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Now that I’m finally back to running after almost a month, I’m having to look at and readjust my training plan. I know better than to step right back into 40 mile weeks. I’m easing back in by running for time rather than distance for a couple of weeks while I figure out how to adjust for a potential 50K trail race in October. 

I’m going to have to set goals a bit differently with summer coming to an end as well. Last fall, I took advantage of the preschool hours and got lots of trail miles in at nearby Cherokee Park. When I originally made my 50K plan this past spring, I thought I’d be able to use the school hours in the same way. Then, pandemic. I had been ignoring the looming changes in our schedules, but, as well all know, that doesn’t make it go away.

It’s currently the end of July and my daughter is getting ready to start kindergarten online in August. At the same time, my husband will hopefully be going back to work. All that means is I will have less opportunities to run going forward than I had in the first half of my training cycle. I have to admit, I was lucky to have my supportive husband at home and be able to get out whenever I could.

Of course, I also have to balance planning the fall writing classes I’m teaching while finishing up teaching a summer course as well as my freelance writing clients. To say I have a lot going on is a vast understatement. Trying to figure out when to get any of it done is intimidating, but I do thrive on being busy.

While I was switching tasks to do some course planning, it hit me. Why not apply SMART goals to my running? I use them for my students when developing course assignments for my classes, and I help clients use them planning content strategy. I can certainly use them for my own running and writing; they are both just processes after all. This post will cover how to develop and apply SMART goals to your running or writing routine to put you in control of your path and increase your motivation.

S is for Specific and Small

Specific goals are always easier to meet. You know exactly what you’re aiming for when you say you want to run a 30 minute 5K, complete a marathon, or finish a book of poems. I want to add another S to this, small. Small and specific goals are more immediately attainable.

If you have a larger specific goal, try to break it down into smaller pieces. That 30 minute 5K? Set a goal for a single mile at the pace you have to keep for the whole 3.1 miles, 9 minutes and 40 seconds. Then, after you achieve that, you can work on two miles at that pace. You can even set a goal as small as “I want to run a ½ mile without stopping.” Once you do that, move it to “I want to run 1 mile without stopping” and keep building.

The same goes for writing. Instead of focusing on the whole book, focus on poem by poem or section by section and focus on draft by draft. Saying “I want to finish my book by the end of the year” gives you plenty of time to slack off, ignore it, and get distracted. Instead, set a goal for when you want to have first drafts of a section or chapter done.

If that’s too large a goal, go with a smaller word or page count. Just get it done. Again, these smaller goals are easier to achieve, giving you the satisfaction of meeting and setting new goals more quickly as well as helping you manage your time with more immediate deadlines. Break down your long term dreams and goals into smaller bits to keep focused.

M is for Measurable

Running is a sport that’s all about measurements, distance, time, splits. We obsess over VO2 max, lactate threshold, heart rate, cadence, and training paces along with keeping a close eye on outside temperature and humidity percentages. The recent Garmin outage shows how obsessed many of us are over these kinds of statistics. The statistics driven nature of the activity makes it easier to set measurable goals but also easier to get bogged down in numbers.

Don’t think “I want to be a better runner,” think “I want to run my easy pace with a lower heart rate” or “I want to increase my cadence by 10 steps per minute.” The important thing to keep in mind is that they won’t happen right away. Don’t get sucked into the “every run has to be better than the one before” mindset. Set your measurement and look at your stats related to it once a week. 

With writing, focusing on drafting stages or sending out to a certain number of publications can be a great way to set measurable goals. It’s easy to see if you have sent poems to 5 journals a week or sent a draft to a reader by a certain date. Putting numbers to writing, even though we often hate it, can help make the process more data driven and give us something more tangible to focus on.

A is for Achievable

Notice that breaking down goals into smaller chunks has the end result of making them more achievable. Achievable goals will keep you from getting discouraged by being unrealistic. If you’ve just started running or are coming back from months off, aiming for a marathon in 3 months probably isn’t the best choice. If you’re currently running a 12 minute per mile pace, a 10 minute pace isn’t the best choice. Those can be longer term goals, but setting them as a SMART goal would be discouraging. 

Instead, set smaller goals throughout the year or even training cycle. It could be as simple as “Run 5 miles for the first time” or “Run 4 days a week.” After you achieve that goal, up it to running 7 miles or running 4 days a week for 4 weeks. The thing about goals, is you can always adjust and change after you meet them. In fact, with the satisfaction of meeting your smaller goal, you’ll be more motivated to set the next one.

With writing, don’t focus on publication, which you have limited control over. You can’t be sure when and where a piece will get accepted or published, so that isn’t as readily achievable. Focus on setting goals related to drafting, revising, and sending out, things you do have control over. You draft, polish, and send out enough, publications will happen. Focus on carving out smaller bits of writing time consistently; you’re more likely to actually do it. 

R is for Relevant

Make sure your goals will help you achieve your end result and not work against it. This is where FOMO comes in, that fear of missing out. It’s totally okay to miss out on a group challenge or specific workout when it’s not for you. I’m a runner who came to it later in life, and while I love watching other people have run streaks, where they run every day, my body couldn’t handle that. 

For example, if your goal is to increase distance, focusing on pace can be counterproductive. If your goal is a faster 5K, 15 mile long runs probably won’t help. What is your longer term goal? How can you break it down into smaller pieces? Set goals that will help you achieve those, slowly extending your long runs or starting speed workouts once a week. 

Again, the same goes for writing. Focus on what will help you at the moment. Working on a better cover letter doesn’t help if you haven’t started a draft. Again, how can you break it down into smaller pieces? Maybe it’s something as small as writing 10 images or lines of dialogue in your working notebook or file. You can quantify that and pull from those throughout your drafting and revising stages. 

T is for Timely

This brings me back to the beginning and the importance of setting smaller goals. If you set smaller goals, you instantly make them more timely. As we have all seen lately, things change and they can change quite rapidly. Smaller goals can be reached more quickly, keeping them timely. It also enables you adjust the next one to any changes, be it from injury, work, or even weather. 

Some run coaches send out training plans to their clients by month or even week, keeping them focused on the smaller goals. Whether you’re crafting a training plan or writing schedule, do it by 3-4 week block, setting a SMART goal for the end of each. This lets you constantly revisit how you need to adjust to meet your larger goal throughout the entire process, even if your larger goal will take a year or more to meet like for many ultra-runners.


Think of it like units in a class, smaller chunks with a specific goal of an essay, test, or presentation at the end of each unit. Setting small SMART goals within your running or writing routine puts you in control of your path. As you reach each goal, you’ll feel encouraged to reach for the next one.

For me, I’m working by time. I’m going to run 45 minutes for short runs and 90 minutes for long runs for a week or so before getting back to 60 minute weekday runs and 2 hour plus long runs. I’ve made peace with the fact I’ll have to dig my headlamp back out and wake up pre-dawn. I also have a loose schedule of tasks per time of day, like grading in the morning and writing in the afternoon, something I can stick to, with smaller, more specific lists of tasks per week for each class and client.

How can you break things down into achievable and manageable chunks? What Think of it like units in a class, smaller chunks with a specific goal of an essay, test, or presentation at the end of each unit. As you reach each goal, you’ll feel encouraged to reach for the next one. And it’s easier to stick with, which is the secret of any process: just do it!

What SMART goals can you set in your life? If you’ve already used them, how did it go? Tell me in the comments below.

Published by Sarah White-Thielmeier

Writer and college writing teacher who runs, a lot, offering writing services via blogging, copywriting, and content strategy.

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