Process Goals in Depth

In my previous post on process goals, I spoke about having process related goals for every time you go out for a run, whether that is an easy day, a workout, or a race. You need to have goals that you are in control of that are not time related. Things like form cues or racing tactics or a cool down routine are good choices for process goals. A simple one is a set strength workout that you do after every run or a warmup routine that you stick to prior to racing. I am going to talk about why this works and some more ways to incorporate it into your training. Let’s dive in.

Why is this a smart thing to do?

1. Process goals motivate us to accomplish things better than a results goal. When we are in control of something, we are more motivated to accomplish it. If all the tools are at our disposal we feel more empowered than if we need a bunch of external factors to go our way. This stems primarily from a psychological construct called self determination theory. Daniel Pink talks about this, in a work context, in his book Drive. He says that intrinsic motivation, doing something because you find joy in the process rather than chasing the outcome, leads to better outcomes. The more that we focus on the end goal the less likely we are to actually do the hard work that it takes to get there. It seems counter intuitive but it makes sense. If all you are concerned about is running a certain time you will do anything and everything to get that time. The problem is that running a certain time is not completely within your control. If you focus in instead on doing the work, training hard, being honest with your coach, and taking your recovery seriously, you’re more likely to be successful and become a better runner. You may end up hitting that time or you may not. What I can guarantee you is that you’ll be more satisfied with yourself because you invested emotional and psychological energy into something you had complete control over. Weather, competitors, course conditions, and other elements can easily derail a good race result. Nothing can stop you from doing the right things in training on a daily basis. Heidi Grant Halvorsen also speaks about this in her book Succeed. She classifies goals as “get better” goals and “be better” goals. Getting better is a process goal while being better is a result. Getting better goals lead us to focus in the details and specific actions that we ned to accomplish our goals. Strength work, form cues, warm ups, and proper sleep are among the details we need to pay strict attention to as runners.

2. Focusing on the result can easily turn into fantasizing. Matt Fitzgerald has a whole chapter on this in his book How Bad Do You Want It.  In chapter 4 of his book he talks about triathlete Siri Lindley’s failure to make the US Olympic team because she spent so much time fantasizing about being on the team and not enough time focused on the specific actions she needed to take to get her there. Yes, a big ambitious results based goal is useful, but once you set it take the time to map out the steps you need to get there. These steps will be process goals and the elements that you need to devote your attention to on a daily basis. At the end of the training cycle you will have accomplished a great deal more than simply qualifying for a specific race or running a specific time. You will learn more about yourself by getting fully committed to the process of training and not be seduced by the romantic notion of one day of glory. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about this in his book Flow. One of his eight components of Flow is the ability to focus on the task at hand and not be distracted by external factors, like the result. If you are more engaged in the present task you will perform better at that task. One of the things Jack Daniels preaches is for the athlete to always focus on the task at hand. Sounds simple, but it takes tremendous focus and practice to do it successfully. I want to qualify for Boston as much as anyone but to do that I need to put that goal on the shelf and concentrate on executing my training each and every day.

3. Process goals are a hell of a lot more fun. Results are mostly binary, Either you made the time or you didn’t. Either you made it on the podium or you didn’t. With a process goal there are almost always degrees of success. Maybe you didn’t pass 10 people in the last mile but you passed 8. Maybe you didn’t do the full strength workout this week but you got in 8 of the 10 exercises. Maybe las month you were only able to get 6. The process goal allows you to define your success and can give you a clear indicator of where you have improved and where you still need to put in more work.  Our minds love accomplishing things and receiving validation. Its better to get that validation on our own terms through process goals than outsource it to external factors we cannot control.

How to incorporate this into your training?

Process goals are a bit of a mind shift and I recommend doing it slowly and gradually. There are three areas that immediately come to mind when I think about integrating this practice into your training: season goals, daily training, and running identity.

For your season goals set a big race goal and then spend serious time detailing how you will get there. If this is difficult for you enlist the help of a coach who can break the goal down into manageable, tangible milestones. Then make those milestones your focus. Set your season goal on the shelf for a while and concentrate on hitting those process based milestones.

In daily training make process goals the center of your routine. Your warm up can be a process goal. Try to use words to describe your effort levels rather than paces. Paces are results that you cannot control but you are completely in control of your effort. Use words like easy, comfortably hard, and steady. When you want to pick it up tell yourself to just go a little faster. Find breathing rhythm that you can go to to shift gears. Paces, just like race results, are dependent on a host of external factors. Mastering the feeling of your running efforts will go a long way toward mastering your craft.

All of us who call ourselves runners deal with running identity. Am I really a runner if I only run 3 times a week? What if I really have no desire to do a marathon/ultra/5k? What if I can only run 10 minute mile? Social media has made it almost impossible to not compare ourselves to others as we we read their seemingly daily highlight reel of PRs and successful workouts. Know and relish in the fact that your identity as a runner does not stem from your race results; it is a product of the daily commitment that you make to training.  The day in day out, week in week out grind of training says more about you as a runner (and a human) than any race result ever will. Your life may not allow you to train like an elite but you’ve made a commitment to the process and that is what matters. Process goals will enable you to accomplish a lot in running while still maintaining your sanity and being in control of your emotional health.

Your identity and as a runner does not stem from your race results; it is a product of the daily commitment that you make to training. Click To Tweet


Process goals are another element in the mental game that can help you continue to improve as a runner. Take some time to develop some simple process goals that you an focus on in your training. Remember that this will take time to get proficient at and it will bring incredible value to your training and racing. Let me know how things are going and if you need some help mapping out some process goals let me know, I can help.

Enjoy the Run.

Further Reading

Drive – Daniel Pink

How Bad Do You Want It – Matt Fitzgerald

Succeed – Heidi Grant Halvorsen

Flow  – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

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