Goal Setting for Middle Distance Runners

Posted by Scott Christensen

Udpated June 17, 2024

Humans are the only animal species known to set goals. The process of establishing goals is higher order of thinking based on motivation, self-image, and an intrinsic reward process that no other animal species comes close to. Humans are certainly not the strongest or fastest animal species on Earth but their understanding of cause and effect, as well as personal strengths and limitations, have made them the only species that sets goals and purposely conditions their bodies before embarking on a long term physical activity.
Athletics is a great example of an activity in which humans set goals. Unfortunately, many of these so-called goals are nothing more than unreachable dreams that the athlete soon realizes are unattainable so they lose motivation for the activity. One of the most important roles that a coach has in athletics is to direct and help their athletes set goals for the sport. This is a dicey proposition when addressing goal setting for middle distance runners because virtually all the goals are quantitative rather than qualitative. Setting a goal of “feeling better” while running is much different from a goal of 1:54 for the 800 meter race.

As the middle distance coach sits down with their athletes to work the psychological aspect of training, it is important to establish many goals that are measurable. There should be data goals for the journey as well as the destination. The long-term goals help the coach set training for each athlete while the short-term goals are used to motivate the athlete each day.


Resource:  Speed Development for Distance Runners


When goal setting for middle distance runners, it is recommended that all athletes write their goals down on paper. This helps them set a contract with themselves while also serving as a constant reminder as to why they are training so hard. There should be three categories of owned by each runner: 1). attainable goals, 2). pinnacle goals, and 3). process goals.

Attainable goals are usually determined by the historical performance profile of the runner. However, novice athletes with no training age have little to go on. Instruct the runner to set performance goals based on the experience of the coach. An 8% improvement during the season in the middle distance events is not unthinkable for novice runners, while emerging and experienced runners usually aim for a season long predictive improvement of 5% or less.

Establish attainable goals along the course of the macrocycle that match the training of the runner. Goals for novice runners should be heavily skewed toward attainable goals. Experienced runners may have an attainable goal of just matching last year’s time performances.

Pinnacle goals are more common and relevant in emerging runners with a training age of 2-3years and experienced runners with a training age of 4 years or more. These sorts of middle distance runners have a well established historical performance profile that usually produces a predictable pattern for future improvement. Pinnacle goals need not be all measured by the watch. They nay constitute place on the team, a scholarship in running, or a notable finish such as earning a conference or state championship title to their name.

Pinnacle goals can be problematic because the motivations and desires of others must be factored in to the equation. The coach needs to be frank and honest with the athlete rather than just having them chase a goal the runner has very little chance of achieving.

Process goals are crucial in the coaching of novice runners through experienced runners. These goals require a strong buy-in by the coach, individual runner, and the entire training group. Process goals help set the culture of the training group as well as shaping the individual runners “athletic lifestyle”. Ideally, these goals should also be empirical to be effective. Rather than saying “get more sleep”, the goal should be to go to bed at the same time ever night. Rather than say “run more in the summer”, establish the goal of 30 miles of running per week in the summer.

Process goals include off-season training, sleep routines, nutrition, hydration, and other related issues that affect training. Coaches should advise their athletes to not establish very many new process goals each season. Two or three new process goals plus carrying over previous goals is realistic.


Training Resource: Training Model for High School Middle Distance (800-1600)


Examples of attainable goals:

  • “I want to break 2:00 in the 800 meters this year”.(Runner has a PR of 2:03 for 800 meters)
  • “My goal is to be one of the four runners on the 3200 meter relay”. (Was 6th fastest 800 meter runner on team last year)
  • I want to run the last 400 meters in 58.0 in the 1600 meter race”. (Can run 51.8 in open 400 meters)
  • “My goal this season is to run under 5:00 in the 1600 meters”. (Was 5:19 last year in the first season of running

Examples of pinnacle goals:

  • “My goal is to win state this year in the 1600 meters”. (Was 4th at state last year)
  • “My goal is to qualify for USATF Junior Nationals in the 800 meters this season”. (Missed by 1.7 seconds last year)
  • “I would like to win three state titles this spring”. (Was in top four in three events last year)
  • “My goal next meet is to break 6:00 in the 1600”. (First year runner that ran 6:19 in first race)

Examples of process goals:

  • “I want to go to bed at 9:30 every night I can this season”
  • “I want to quit drinking soda pop this season”
  • “My goal is to eat four palm-sized portions of red neat each week during the season”
  • “I will do my homework immediately after dinner each night of the track season so I get it done and go to bed”

Separate goals from dreams with your middle distance runners. Do not discourage wild dreams, but keep the runners focused on the tasks at hand. Help the athletes set narrow and measurable goals in writing, and encourage them to refer to them needed to be successful.




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Scott Christensen - Scott Christensen’s teams have been ranked in the national top 10 eight times. He won the 1997 High School National Championship and his squads have captured multiple Minnesota State Championships. Scott has coached 13 Minnesota State Championship-winning teams and 27 individual Minnesota State Champions. He was the USTFCCCA Endurance Specialist School junior team leader for the World Cross Country Team in 2003 and the senior team leader in 2008. Scott is a 14-year USATF Level II endurance lead instructor.

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