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Why We Race, Part Three: Expectations

Photo: Montreal Endurance
Photo: Montreal Endurance

Last week we examined the reasons for racing and the reasons we feel nervous before a race. One of the reasons we covered was fear. The other reason we tend to get nervous before a race is our expectations. I sometimes hear from runners that they are afraid they will let people down; maybe themselves, a parent, teammates, friends or their coach.

As far as I’m concerned, expectations are a good thing. We need to expect more out of ourselves or we’ll remain stagnant. That said, if these expectations are creating too much anxiety, they can hamper our performance, which is not fun. This feeling of letting people down, I believe, comes from unrealistic expectations.

Obviously, expectations will differ depending on the race and depending on the individual’s goals. I frequently encounter runners, for example, who seem to have a goal of running all the races in the local series but also a goal of running a PB every time out. There are several problems with this. One is that often these goals are not stated openly. The expectation of a PB is just there and, when it isn’t achieved, that creates disappointment and anxiety the next time out. This is compounded by the idea of racing every weekend or very often. If you don’t run a PB one week, what do you expect to change in seven days that will result in one? It’s possible that if you take an easy week, you might rest up and be able to run faster. Of course, that is not what most people do. Most runners react to a disappointing race by piling on more training, which may or may not be the best idea.

So, you can see how unreasonable expectations can create anxiety and hamper performance. It is not so much the expectations themselves that need fixing (it is probably quite reasonable to want to race a lot and run PBs) but that the expectations are not examined. The assumption is that “if I train, I will get better,” and “if I train harder, I’ll get even more better.” However, timing is everything in training and this is where examination comes into play.

Runners need to set goals by writing them down and sharing them with the coach at the outset of training. They can be malleable but they should still be set. You’ve probably heard of “SMART” goals:  specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, time-bound. These are good criteria for running goals but just the process of setting goals will help so much with how you approach a race.


Here I want to share a very controversial idea: I have a few benchmarks in mind that will guide expectations for beginner runners. You may notice these benchmarks are set fairly low at first. Progression and timing is important, though, and I do think that using these as a guideline for expectations in racing is a very wise choice. Here’s the deal: until you can race a 5K in 30min, do not race a 10K. Until you can race a 10K in 60min, do not race a half-marathon. Until you can race a half-marathon in 2:00, do not race a marathon.

I realise that this may cut off a large chunk of many road racers but I wonder if it would not also make many people more satisfied with their running careers and, as a result, give them longer careers. Again, it is all about expectations. Running a marathon, with consistent training, is a doable proposition. But if your goal is to keep running long term and use running as a part of your life then the marathon can wait. You can let your friends go ahead and run that 26.2miles but, when you debut at 4:00, you’ll have a lot more fun, you probably won’t walk, and you’ll feel a great sense of self-satisfaction. If you go into marathon training (or 10K or half-marathon training) without having hit some benchmarks, your expectations are not going to match your performance, and you might not have as much fun.