Why You Should Focus On Process Based Running Goals

While running a race last year, I realized I enjoy training for races more than I like actually running them. Races give me a structure and a focus to my running, but race days are filled with high expectations, crowds, stress, traffic and parking issues.

Especially now that I write race recaps, I feel the need to set specific race goals, even though I know accomplishing that specific goal (or not) will, in no way, impact how I feel about the race.

For me, no race is the ultimate goal. Every race is a checkpoint on my progress to my real goal – being a healthy person and a lifelong runner.

These are decidedly un-SMART goals, but ultimately, they are the things I care about.

Outcome Based Running Goals

Outcome goals are what you likely think of when you think of goals. They are something specific to work towards, something that one day will be completed (or not).

Outcome goals are what productivity-gurus usually talk about. ‘They’ say goals should be SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time bound).

I love setting goals, but the more I consider goal setting for running and personal development, the more I hate outcome-based SMART goals. They may have their place in the business world, but for running, they are terrible.

Sure, SMART goals are easily measurable (either you ran your 5k in under 30 minutes or you didn’t), but other than that, they focus on the wrong things and measure the wrong things – focusing on what is easily measured, not what’s important.

The Problem(s) With Outcome Goals

When runners set goals, they are often outcome based. Some common running (or wellness) outcome goals:

  • Run a marathon in under 4 hours this fall
  • Win my age-group at next-month’s 5k
  • Lose 10 pounds by the end of the month

These are all SMART goals, and yet…

Success, Happiness And Satisfaction Are Delayed

You may tell yourself, “I’ll be happy when…” or “I’ll feel like I’ve accomplished something when…” with the sense of satisfaction or completion being put off one, two, or six months down the road until the end point of your goal.

It May Not Be Under Your Control

You can’t control your competitors and you can’t control the weather.

You can run the best race of your life, but if an (even more) amazing runner registered for the same race, you may not win your age-group. If a heat wave arrives the same day as your marathon, even the most perfect training cycle won’t result in a 4-hour marathon.

And while this may only be true in our current environment, race-focused outcome goals require races.

Something we’ve always taken for granted, but something we now know we can’t control.

You Focus On What You Don’t Yet Have, What Is Missing, Or What You Want to Change

If your goal is to lose weight, you automatically (maybe unconsciously) put yourself in the mindset of being unhappy or dissatisfied with your current weight.

Focusing on a 4-hour marathon makes you focus on how you’ve always fallen short of that time.

They May Inspire Unsustainable Actions

Severe calorie restrictions will lead to weight loss. Insane hours spent doing all-out killer track work will lead to faster race times.

However, neither of these are sustainable in the long term. Once the goal is accomplished (or not), you can’t maintain the behaviors.

They Force a Focus On What Is Measurable

“We mistakenly think the factors we can measure are the only factors that exist. Just because you can measure something doesn’t mean it’s the most important thing. And just because you can’t measure something doesn’t mean it’s not important at all.”

James Clear – Atomic Habits 

Your marathon finish time may be easily measurable, but that doesn’t mean it’s what you truly care about.

Process Running Goals

While outcome goals focus on the eventual outcome, process goals (not surprisingly) focus on the process – the actions you take every day.

Trusting the correct actions will eventually lead you to the right place.

You still have a destination in mind, but it’s likely fuzzier and maybe not as specifically measurable as outcome goals.

Process goals can include:

  • Do one speed work session, and three strength training sessions a week
  • Monitor and record my running cadence for every run
  • Eat no refined sugars and eat 5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day

These process goals may very well lead you to running a faster 5k, finishing a 4 hour marathon or losing 10 pounds, but the focus is on taking the right actions today.

The Benefits Of Process Goals

Celebrate Everyday

You don’t need to wait one, two, or six months to celebrate victory.

You’ve succeeded every day you’ve made progress.

They Focus On the Present

With process goals, what matters are the choices you make today.

When you only focus on the finish, you may not notice the joy of the journey, the amazing runs, the great scenery. With process goals, you’ll become more mindful of the actions you take each day.

The focus is on the journey, not just the destination.

They Avoid Setting Arbitrary End Points

Not everything you care about can be easily measured in a data field.

Not every goal should end.

I want to be a healthy, lifelong runner. That goal doesn’t (and shouldn’t) have an end point.

They May Create Broader Positive Impacts Than Intended

Even with a process goal, you have an eye towards an ultimate destination.

If the process goal is to eat no processed sugar and more vegetables (with an eye towards ultimately losing 10 pounds), you may, or may not, ultimately lose weight for any number of physical or metabolic reasons.

But if you stick to the process, even if scale never changes, you’ll be in a better place. Your clothes may fit better, or you’ll have more energy.

So What Does This Look Like IRL?

There is no single way to set goals, but I’ve used three basic methods when setting process based running goals.

Set An Outcome Goal With Process Goals Attached

“I will run a 4 hour marathon this fall by doing one speed work session and three strength training sessions a week, improving my fueling plan, and documenting my running cadence after every run.”

Set the goal, determine what you need to do to accomplish that goal, then forget the ultimate goal.

Focus on the actions you determined you needed to take to get you where you wanted to go. Trust the plan you put in place and take the right steps each day.

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Focus Only On The Process

“I will eat no refined sugars and have 5 serving of fruits of vegetables a day.”

Maybe you’ll lose 10 pounds, maybe you won’t, in either case, you’ll be healthier.

Have a general destination in mind, but focus on your behaviors and actions.

Leave Your Goals Vague

“Eat healthy.”

For me, these are the most effective, but also the most difficult to accomplish.

They require regular (weekly, if not daily) check-ins. They require you be honest with yourself about what you wanted to accomplish and what you actually did accomplish.

Chances are, if you are honest with yourself, you’ll know if you did your thing or not. But being honest with yourself is hard.

With vague goals, check-ins are critical to success. Since you don’t have any specific measures, you can be more flexible with your methods and your process. However, you need the check-ins to ensure you stay on the right path. Otherwise, it’s just an empty platitude.

I’ve had a vague goal for years: Do My Best

That it.

That’s the goal.

It can be applied to anything. Did I do my best during my workout this morning? Did I do my best using my time effectively?

It’s the least-SMART goal ever, but when combined with my nightly journaling/review process (where I consider my day and do some honest self-reflection) it is shockingly effective.

I always know when I’ve done less than my best and I’ll never be done trying to ‘do my best.’

And that’s the point of the process goal.

It’s the journey, not the destination that’s important




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