You know how your big race goal suddenly feels way out of reach?

Thought so.

You heard about a race, got excited, and pulled the trigger.

Entry paid and confirmation email posted to Facebook.

Boom. Time to start training.

First week goes great. You’ve dusted off the trail shoes and purchased a shiny new handheld bottle.

Week two just as good. Mileage picks up and you can’t stop picturing yourself blasting across the finish line.

Week three, happy hours start looking a little more appealing, and by week four…well maybe you can restart the training in a few months?

That story, or at least a version of that story, happens to the best of us. You set your sights on some big, massively exciting goal. It’s going to make you a running superstar.

Then you get crushed by the weight of the nitty gritty.

Well I’ve got news for you:

A big running goal isn’t going to make you a better runner. In fact, it might end up making you quit.

I’ve written a lot about setting big goals on this site, so if you’ve been a regular reader, I bet you didn’t see that coming.

But here’s the thing: It’s the tiny, seemingly non-existent goals that end up changing your running completely.

That’s right, there’s an easy way to becoming a better runner, and it doesn’t require going all-in on some breathtaking goal.

Small Goals and The Compound Effect

I recently heard a quote from James Altucher on the Tim Ferris podcast:

“I try to get this mindset that I want to improve one percent a week. It seems like a small amount but if you do that, it results in enormous improvements over the course of the year.”

I love that idea.

That by just focusing on a 1% improvement per week, you can see enormous growth over the course of a year.

It’s called the compound effect or exponential growth. I’m not one for math, and my eyes have been known to glaze over as soon as a number is spoken, but let’s see if I can explain this:

Simply put, every time you improve by 1%, you’re not improving on the starting point, but on where you were the previous week.

Over time, that 1% improvement happens on something much greater than the starting point.

In theory, if you improved 1% each week, by the end of week 70 you will have improved 100% over the starting point.

100% in just over a year? Now do I have your attention?

Alright, before too many tomatoes are thrown my way, I should be very clear. Improving 100% in just over a year makes for a sexy headline, but chances are you aren’t going to double your speed.

What you can do, is improve yourself as an all-around runner, which will help with speed, injury prevention, and endurance.

What a 1% Improvement Idea Means For Runners

If you’ve been listening to the new Trail Talk podcast, this is all starting to sound familiar. I discussed the idea in a recent episode.

Listen to it here:

In that episode, I mentioned a new weekly challenge we’re having in the private Trail Runner’s System member group.

The group is made up of members of all levels and trail running experience, but we can all come back to this one challenge.

A mini goal each week.

Each Monday, members announce their goal for that week. These goals aren’t to PR a race or set off on some epic adventure. They’re small. Approachable.

A 1% kind of goal.

To give you an idea, some of the actual goals have been:

  • Take care of my feet and nurse my blisters
  • Reduce stop time during training runs
  • Follow all the runs on my training plan

As runners, we’re often so focused on that finish line or finish time that we forget about all the steps it takes to get there. These steps are important, and when ignored, can cause enough setbacks to keep us from even getting to the starting line.

Ideas for How You Can Improve by 1%

A small 1% improvement focus each week sounds pretty easy, right? After all, 1% isn’t very much.

But when runner’s come up with ways to improve, many of the obvious ideas require much more than just 1%.

It’s time to shift focus.

Ask a runner what they should do to get better, and they’ll probably start with increasing mileage. I agree, increasing your mileage is a good way to improve as a runner. The more you do something, the better you get at that activity.

But simply increasing mileage isn’t going to cut it. A mileage increase before you’re ready can lead to injury and burnout.

Instead, let’s get out of the mileage box. Let’s think about other, tiny adjustments you can focus on each week that will lead to you improving as a runner. If you keep up these tiny, 1% improvements, the additional mileage will naturally follow.

Here are a 10 examples:

  1. Add 1 additional hill to your standard route.
  2. Spend the first 5 minutes of each run working on cadence.
  3. Add just 5 minutes of dynamic stretching to the end of every other run.
  4. Foam roll. Just once per week.
  5. Pay attention to your breathing during easy runs.
  6. Make a point not to miss a scheduled run for the week.
  7. Don’t stop to take any photos.
  8. Stick to 10 minutes of scheduled warm-up before starting your workout.
  9. Just examine your form during an entire run. Don’t even bother trying to change it just yet.
  10. Follow your post-long run nutrition schedule

Are you getting the idea? Every single one of these feels doable.

Soon, you wont even remember that hill wasn’t part of your typical route, and stretching will just become part of the routine. Not to mention focusing on your form.

Slight improvements in our form will have massive impacts on your overall improvements as a runner.

Before long, after those 1% improvements have compounded on themselves week after week, you’ll become that new runner.

As James said in that quote earlier,

“…it results in enormous improvements over the course of the year.”

That’s what you want.

Back to that Big Goal of Yours

At the top of the post I said that your big goal isn’t going to make you a better runner.

They’re just too big.

Instead, focus on the 1%. It’s those tiny, 1% style victories that you have while training for the massive goal that truly makes you a better runner.

The big goals give you motivation, tiny improvements get you there.

Take Back Your Race Goal

Let’s be honest.

There’s no longer a good reason for that big race goal you’ve been avoiding to be out of reach.

All it takes are tiny 1% improvements to get you there.

The work required to get you where you want to be can feel overwhelming, so keep it simple.

What small thing can I do this week that will make me a better runner?

Start there. And next week, ask yourself that question all over again.

The improvements will continue to build. You’ll continue to grow.

So lace up those shoes and hit the trail.

Because pretty soon, you’ll be looking back on where you were a year ago in disbelief.

Author Doug Hay is the founder of Rock Creek Runner, host of the Trail Talk podcast, and fanatical about everything trail running -- beards, plaid shirts, bruised toenails, and all. He and his wife live and run in beautiful Black Mountain, NC.

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One thought on “Why Big Running Goals Are Bad (And How a 1% Change Makes All The Difference)

  1. I’ve been using this idea since you posted it a few months ago. I just started a blog, and the 1% idea inspired a post of mine! Keep up the great content, I’m doing a 12 hour race in October and need all of the insight I can find 🙂

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