Are time goals for races a help or a hinderance ?

 In Motivational

Is setting a goal time and then working out splits to achieve along the way the best way to approach a race? Is time the best means of measuring your success?

A goal can be defined as “the object of a person’s ambition or effort; an aim or desired result”. Is the finishing time really the object of your ambition or desired result?

If we set a time goal and for the sake of putting it in context lets say a goal of breaking 14 hours for a 100km trail race; are there conditions where not achieving this goal could still result in a successful race ? Could you finish faster than 14 hours and be disappointed?

What if you had one of those races where everything went right , you felt great all day and nothing went wrong , you crossed the finish line 100% spent unable to go a second faster but the clock said 14.20 . Should you be disappointed you didn’t meet your goal time?

What about if you crossed the line in 13.30 but spent over 45 minutes at checkpoints , had a crook stomach for a third of the race, and crossed the line feeling like you could have gone much quicker . Is the fact you went sub 14 enough to give you that post race glow of a job well done?

Time goals are merely a rough guess that hide far more significant and meaningful goals. If you tap into these you will increase both your performance and enjoyment of races.

Whats wrong with time goals?

There are many problems with setting time goals and clinging tightly to those goals not only sabotages your efforts to perform at your best but decreases your enjoyment of the process.

For anyone that hasn’t done a particular race before a time goal is a guesstimate of what the individual believes they are capable of . The degree of accuracy one can determine a time goal for a long trail race is the biggest problem with setting time goals.

In a road marathon there are few variables that can make a big impact on the eventual finishing time – weather and the sheer volume of runners and the main ones. Everything else is effectively the same as in training and under your control. If you have trained well for a road marathon you will know what kind of pace you can maintain comfortably for 30+km , there are numerous split calculators than can predict your marathon pace based on your half marathon , 10km times and the experience in running one marathon allows you to make better estimates of pace in subsequent marathons . Your estimated finishing time or goal time can be determined with a relatively high degree of accuracy .

Contrast that to a 100km trail race.
In a marathon your longest run is around 32-38km so its not a big jump to 42km ; in a 100k race your longest run is 40-60km leaving a massive jump up to a 100km and with the big jump comes some big assumptions or guesses on time.

In a marathon you can train on essentially the same terrain as the race ; in a trail ultra often you haven’t set foot on the course before .

In a marathon – the road conditions are essentially the same , in a trail ultra the trail conditions can range from muddy to sandy and everything in between which can make a big difference on time.

In a marathon you can look at your watch and aim to keep running at a certain pace to ensure you make your time goal; in a trail race if you have a goal of 14 hours for 100km thats averaging 7.14km per hour but when should you run at that pace – the ups , the downs , the flats ? Pace tells you nothing – to average 7.14 you’ll be going much faster on the downs , faster on the flats and slower on the ups so what pace should you run at ?

In a marathon you know with some confidence what heart rate you can maintain for the duration of the race ; for a 100k race your heart rate will vary enormously and may climb very high during some climbs but not be a problem since you have a long downhill to recover. Your heart rate will also gradually decrease throughout the race but by how much ? Should you try and keep the heart rate up or by what level is it acceptable to fall?

In a marathon the weather conditions are rarely extreme – most marathons are run in good running conditions and as such the effect of weather will be in the region of minutes; in a trail ultra the weather can range from snow and ice to 40+ degrees and sometimes even in the same race . This can effect final race times by hours.

There are so many variables in a trail 100km that clinging onto the goal of a time makes no sense unless you have run the course many times before and even then there are problems using time which I’ll discuss later.

We often pick times to aim for because a buckle is a reward for making a certain time or a mate has done a certain time and you are certain you are better than them but are they really accurate ways of measuring your ability and basing a race plan on that ?

Why not use time as a rough guide ?

The problem with using time is it can effect our mental state during the race. If you know you are falling behind the split times required to finish in 14 hours then mentally you start thinking you are having a bad day out . The thought process makes things even worse as a positive mindset means your perceived rate of exertion is lower which is critical to achieve your best performance.

Even for those that have run the same race before, time isn’t a great way to plan your race. If you get to the half way point 10 minutes faster than last year is that a good thing or a bad thing? You might say good but what if you have gone out too hard and the 10 minutes saved in the first half turns out to be an hour lost in the second half ? Conversely what if you arrive at half way 10 minutes slower than last year? You may start thinking today is not your day but if you weren’t taking notice of time then you’d realise you are feeling great at half way and those 10 minutes lost in the first half may result in an hour gained in the second half.

My own experience of this was at the UTMB. I had analysed the splits for 30,32 and 34 hours and used one of those splits calculator that some excel guru always does up for these types of races. Throughout the first half of the race I was getting further and further behind in my splits and had moved from targeting 30 hours at the initial checkpoints to around 33 by half way. Realising this information wasn’t helping me I threw away my splits chart and just ran. The result – a finish in 28.45. Ever since then I haven’t used split times to plan my race or measure the success of my race .

If we don’t use time what else do we use?

Time is something that happens as a result of other actions we take. You have no direct influence on time. You do have direct influence on a lot of other variables though and thats where your focus should be. Time in an ultra is something that tells you what happened in the past not whats happening now. When you get to a check point and see your split thats a measure of what you have already done, you cant change it. That information doesnt help for the future either – if you are behind your splits do you speed up or keep going the same pace ? This decision must be based on something other than time as time doesn’t take into account how your body is feeling.


What can you control ?

You can control your pace – your experience will help guide you as to when to push harder when to back off.

You can control your hydration and nutrition.

You can control your state of mind and stay positive and in control of yourself throughout the race or you can let the race control you . Its your choice .

Those are the things you can control so they should be your focus during the race not split times.

What about goals ?

Whilst its nice to have a time goal and then breaking that time goal is that really the best measure of your performance?

Using the example above we could be ecstatic with a time of 14.20 but be dissappointed with 13.30 depending on what happened during the race.


So if time shouldn’t be our main goal then how else can we measure our success and give us somethign to aim for?

If you really think about it most people have three main goals

– finish
– enjoy the race
– compete to the best of their ability

If you do those three things then the time is really immaterial and shouldn’t be used to determine if the race was a “good” race or not .

The goals I have for most races are

1. Stay positive and in control, don’t let myself get swept up with fatigue.

There are times in most ultra where the overwhelming fatigue takes control and dictates what you can do. But if you stay positive and in control, your mind can be the one in charge instead of your legs. That doesn’t mean you can override completely shot legs . What it means is instead of resorting to the mindset of “ I’m spent , I’m just going to walk most of the last section and finish , I’ve had enough , I just want this to be over now” your thoughts are “ ok so legs are tired but lets just keep running to the next bend and then we’ll walk for 1 minute and then run for 1 minute and we’ll keep pushing like that all the way to the end”. There is a big difference between the two.

2. Keep energy levels as consistent as possible

Paying careful attention to nutrition to ensure your energy levels are consistent , never dipping too low but also not eating too much and upsetting the stomach . If you can do this you greatly increase your chances of a good run.

3. Not listen to my ego.

I try and ignore my ego and everyone else in terms of deciding how fast to run and whether I am running well or not . Its not easy though . We all tend to judge others and rank them according to our perceptions of their ability . If someone who looks like they should be slower than you is ahead of you then our ego tells us to get in front of them . But in the first 10km of a 100km race that is not a good basis for determining your running pace. Ignore your ego and everyone else and focus on yourself

4. Give out lots of positive energy

I aim to make sure I say thanks , smile or say something positive to every volunteer that I have interaction with and give encouragement to other runners when practically possible. I find the more energy I give out the more I get back .

5. Push to my potential
I aim to push as hard as I feel I can – but listening to my body and making sure I am not letting my ego dictate the pace.

6. Embrace fatigue as a long lost friend
I aim to embrace fatigue with both hands and savour it as a necessary part of the race and one that enables me to perform to the best of my ability and therefore  is a good thing  not something to label as negative.

All of these  I have complete control over  anything else is just luck and out of my control so no point worrying about it.

I know if I focus on all of the above then I will have the best race I possibly can on the day subject to race conditions and my current fitness level and thats all I can ask of myself.

Is there any reason to map out split times at all then?

The only reason to work out approx split times is for planning your food , water requirements and to tell your support crew roughly when you’ll be at an aid station . These should be ball park figures and your crew should be encouraged not to place any judgement of how well your race is going on whether you come in ahead or behind these goals – they don’t know how you are feeling , only you do!

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Showing 5 comments
  • Rob

    Brilliant article, Andy. Love it. So much of what you have written resonates with my experience in goal setting for races.
    Some great insights, thanks for sharing.

  • Matt

    great article. Being a competitive guy – and new to trail running – I definitely fall into the trap of setting time goals for events that I enter.

    Thanks guys.

  • Margaret

    Thanks Andy. great time to post this excellent piece.


    Quality read Andy, thanks for the the link Scotty! Alpine challenge is looking easier now 😉

    • Andy DuBois

      Thanks for the comments Patrick Good luck on the weekend

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