Process To Outcome, Part 1: Goal Setting In Training And Racing

Stay the Course

[Editor’s Note: This is the first article of a three-part series. Check out the second and third articles, too.]

We’re already midway through the year, into the sweet spot of our outdoor and running adventures (in the Northern Hemisphere, at least): warm weather, melted snow, and–if you’re lucky–dwindling mosquito swarms. Those of us planning epic adventures, ranging from trail races to fastpacking outings, are in varying stages of training and preparation, hoping we’ll have what it takes to achieve our goals.

For long trail adventures, goal achievement may mean covering the distance. And even when it is a high-country 100 miler, this in itself is a hardy goal. In race events, goals may include time, place, and distance.

The exciting–if not frustrating–part of it all is that seldom are our goals entirely in our hands. If we finish, and in what relative time and place, may depend on what nature, the competition, and the deep innerworkings of our body and mind (that often lay indiscernible until we begin to dig deep) have in store for us, when the time comes.

As such, performance outcome often seems utterly random. Sometimes we do everything right, yet we fall flat on our face. And other times, when all metrics point to failure, we triumph.

Therefore, what exactly it takes to maximize performance–let alone basic goal achievement–remains quite elusive. Perhaps this is why many budding and even experienced ultramarathon runners seek out coaching services. Yet the employment of a coach is no guarantee of success: runner surveys conducted at Western States have found that those who employ coaches actually have worse finishing and sub-24 outcomes than those who are self-trained! While this may be an aberrant statistic, there may be some oblique truth therein: that how we train and race may be too arbitrary–based on someone else’s recipe–and may lack individualization.

Perhaps the key to goal achievement is the delicate balance of filling of a runner’s finite capacity for activity with the requisite specifics for optimal performance: ‘the big rocks first.’ The proverbial jar can only hold so much. Thus, the experienced runner–or the discerning, experienced coach–must be able to gauge both needs and, more importantly, abilities of the runner for any given event.

This is a difficult task. That so many elite runners continue to under-perform, blow-up, and–saddest of all–fade away in burnout speaks volumes about the difficulty of ‘filling the jar.’ Thus, it may take something more than arbitrary measures of distance, pace, and elevation to strike that optimal balance.

***

For the first time in over three years, I am in the midst of 100 miler preparation, for the Superior 100 Mile. I’ve attempted only three 100 milers, finishing two, and they were all the same race, Western States. Since that last attempt, a DNF, I’ve confronted the same hard truths about balance in my own running. Moreover, I’ve begun coaching a small group of ultrarunner clients, and the lessons learned about balancing those runners’ needs and abilities are pervasive in my own preparation.

With the old playbook out the window, how does one prepare to successfully complete 100 miles? Rather than rely on arbitrary performance our outcome objectives, I find myself driven by ‘the process.’

In training and racing goal setting, performance and outcome goals are easier to set because they are easily measurable: run X miles in Y time, finish in Z place. While these goals are easy to measure–especially in the days of ubiquitous GPS technology and social-media training forums–just how those measured goals mesh with our internal abilities seems increasingly arbitrary. How do you know that your body can handle X miles at Y pace? Moreover, the outcome of finishing Z place often rests in the preparation and execution of the rest of the field.

With all the advances in technology, comparison media, and coaching expertise, the old-fashioned ability to ‘listen to your body’ is becoming increasingly elusive. Yet that discernment may be the only way to determine real capacity to train and race.

Enter process goals. A process goal is a subjective, qualitative measure of how something is done, rather than how much or how fast. Examples of process goals might include how a run feels (the goal to ‘find ease’) or how the body moves (biomechanical goals such as ‘quick feet, strong arms, and forward lean’). Sometimes the processes are analog: ‘go run’ or ‘go to sleep now.’ But built into each process goal is both an execution–do or do not–and a feel. And because they are feeling goals, they are best suited to measure the internal balance of ability and adaptation. More importantly, a process-oriented preparation and race strategy best maximizes training volume and intensity, and extracts the best possible performance outcome.

Thus, the mantra for myself–and the athletes I coach–this year is, “Focus on the process, and the outcome will happen:”

  • Sustainable training will develop the system, yet leave it in optimal health and rest come race day.
  • Process-oriented training, perceiving rest and resilience, will inform the runner when to push harder and farther, or when to pack it in and rest (for the day, week, or the training cycle).
  • Finding ease on race day will ensure relaxed, even output of effort with the least amount of strain.
  • A process-oriented running-mechanics focus keeps the body moving in the most biomechanically efficient way, for the longest possible time and distance.
  • Process-oriented execution keeps the focus on sustainable fueling, hydration, and pacing while incorporating both the experience and intuition of listening to the body’s needs.

Thus, focusing on the process–optimizing ease, efficiency, speed, and momentum, while heeding the body’s variable needs–will always lead to the best possible performance: obtaining the maximum-available output of the system, taking only what it is willing and able to give.

Call for Comments

With this article, we have discussed process-oriented goal setting. Over the next two columns, we will outline what a process-oriented approach looks like for both training and racing. In the meantime, I encourage readers to ponder how they train and prepare for races:

  • Is your approach based on any metric–internal or external? How arbitrary are your measures of ‘easy’ and ‘hard?’
  • What factors–both internal and external (friends, training partners, coaches, the internet, books, social media)–impact how you prepare for an ultra-distance event?
  • How important to you is the idea of sustainable running, and what strategies do you employ to ensure that how you train and race is sustainable?
Joe Uhan

is a physical therapist, coach, and ultrarunner in Eugene, Oregon. He is a Minnesota native and has been a competitive runner for over 20 years. He has a Master's Degree in Kinesiology, a Doctorate in Physical Therapy, and is a USATF Level II Certified Coach. Joe ran his first ultra at Autumn Leaves 50 Mile in October 2010, was 4th place at the 2015 USATF 100K Trail Championships (and 3rd in 2012), second at the 2014 Waldo 100K, and finished M9 at the 2012 Western States 100. Joe owns and operates Uhan Performance Physiotherapy in Eugene, Oregon, and offers online coaching and running analysis at uhanperformance.com.

There are 19 comments

  1. Andrew

    I have done a few ultras and have been considering a coach for my next adventure. Interesting you mention the survey from WS. Think I will save my money now
    I haven’t used a coach to date but my brother has and he gave me some tips re speed workout and fast hill reps. This definitely helped me in my last race making me stronger climbing.
    I do what I do when I can. What I fine interesting is that if you follow the training regimes in such books as Byrons and Hals then to do a 100 mile race you need to be doing big miles and long runs each week
    Speaking with an ultra runner/coach here in the UK he wouldn’t do more than one long run a month and mostly only 20 milers. The key for him is speed and strength and consistency
    So I have no idea what the answer is?

    1. Jamie

      The WS surveys don’t support any conclusion about the efficacy of coaching, at least not from what I have seen of them. I haven’t seen any info on who chooses to have a coach and who doesn’t. If the “coached” group is disproportionately made up of slower or inexperienced runners, and the “uncoached” groups contains a disproportionate number of highly experienced front-to-mid packers, then that could explain the results. (Of course, we also don’t know whether the “coached” group is making good choices about who their coaches are. Having the right coach might be more important than having a coach.) Anyway, unless you can make sure that the two groups are roughly equivalent in talent, experience, etc., it is not safe to conclude that coaching is responsible for the difference in performance between the two groups. It may well be that the people in the coached group would have done much worse, as a whole, without their coaches. (I say this as someone who is not a coach and has never seriously considered getting one.)

      1. MikeH

        Agreed, Jamie — Joe was uncharacteristic (he’s generally very scientifically detailed) in the conclusion he drew about coached vs. uncoached outcomes: correlation vs. causality. Still, the comment that coaching is ‘not a guarantee of success’ is true and the data are interesting perhaps because it suggests a selection bias of those that have a coach specifically within the WS100 cohort.
        Realistically, I think we can appreciate several distinct subgroups, and various characteristics, within both coached and uncoached runners. Results are then specific to both the particular coach (or self) as well as the particular runner.

      2. OOJ

        I completely agree there’s no conclusions (causations) drawn from the WSER survey. Only noteworthy because of its findings contradict conventional wisdom!

        My point is that runners often get into trouble “doing what others do”, rather than using their internal compass.

  2. Andrew

    In my head I am looking at goals for next year

    I would love to do Ronda Del Cims and then Tor Des Geants – only problem is they would be only about 8 weeks apart and both extreme.

    Good or bad idea?

    (Please note – only reply if you think it is a good idea)

    1. Sierra Rasten

      If you make your goal for the first one to run in such a way as to make successful completion of the both possible … And your overall goal is to complete both (not necessarily blitz it in both)…. Then very possible and definitely a good idea (assuming your training is at a point where completing one is realistic and you can live with a dnf in either)

  3. Jason H

    I’m a sucker for metrics. Addicted to the gps watch. Love to see the numbers stack up. Miles, climbing, hours. That said, I have a job, a big family, and other interests. I get distracted when someone (AJW!) mentions that his friend ran over 120 miles and some crazy 26000′ of climbing and start to question what I’m doing.. but I’ve noticed that on my trails I average 1000′ climbed per hour of training, and sustainably can only manage 12-14 hours of training per week, 12-14000′ climbed, and 70-80 miles (with occasional 60+ recovery weeks etc).

    I want to be competitive.. and I am on certain races. But as I progress into my 40’s I am thinking that I don’t want to be a cadaverous middle aged runner, and I think that super high running totals does that to people. Much better to run sustainable numbers all year and ramp up just a bit for focus races than to ramp way up to months of huge totals and then have to take huge time off due to injury or just burn out. This leaves energy for other pursuits as well. Like some time weight lifting!

    There are definitely external factors that affect how I train. Strava shows us how people succeed or fail during training. When someone underperforms during a race, but Strava shows huge numbers and big long runs it says something. When someone kills a big race on more modest numbers it also confirms something. I tweak a bit based on that stuff, but mostly look for affirmation that what I’m doing is in the ball park!

    On coaches: Really for an experienced runner, a coach is someone to take the guess work out of training. It’s not easy to train ‘by listening to your body’ when the majority of what we’re supposed to do (the big rocks in your bucket analogy) take a runner to a place of fatigue and discomfort. Like back-to-backs or six hour training runs. We know how to keep going… but should we? The inverse is true also.. we know how to rest.. but should we?
    Working with a coach takes that guess work out. Do what they tell you to do! Unless you feel injured or truly not up to it. I’m at 18 days to go before my focus 100 miler. Just raced a difficult 22 on Saturday. Will I benefit from one more long two weeks out? Back-to-back medium longs? Or just rest? Obviously every one of those answers works. Having a coach would make the mental game a bit easier. But obviously they have to be the right coach. Fundamentally agreeing with your ‘style’ of training.

    I like the idea of process oriented race execution. Very very few people, even elites, can run close to all of a mountain 100. Whatever you’re doing out there has to be sustainable (although by all means, ride the highs!). I’ve performed very well on what mathematically should’ve been inadequate training just by listening to the body and staying on top of hydration and calories. I’ve also underperformed a lot by deciding to stop eating in the middle of 100’s. Or by running an unsustainable pace when my body didn’t want to… digging a hole.

  4. Markus

    Thanks for bringing attention to the WS survey, that was interesting to look at.

    That more sub 24h finishers are without a coach is not surprising to me. It seems like that coaches are used my older and more wealthy mid packers from what I can see on forums and fb.

    I think sustainable running is very important, after all you don’t want to ruin your health for just a hobby. So yes that is always a number one priority on my list.

  5. SageCanaday

    In my biased opinion I’d also be quick to question the results of the WS100 survey. Having coached athletes that have placed top 10 at WS100 (not myself though!) I’d say the investment that an athlete makes in coaching, training time, gear etc. might alter their pre-race goals. For example, someone “invested” in 100-mile training weeks, and coaching may want to compete for a very competitive time and place at WS100…therefore they are willing to take some “high risks” during the race. Someone not as invested who trains themselves and runs 50-60 miles a week also wants to do as well as possible, but does not have the backing of a coach that says “go for it!” instead of “just finish.” Therefore the second runner may actually run a more conservatively paced (smarter paced in many cases) race and run closer to their full potential….sub 24 or whatever that is for the individual. The role of a coach is often to hold a runner back from overtraining…but when it comes to race day you have to balance realistic and competitive expectations with a race plan…and sometimes that means letting an athlete risk it all on a huge goal because you also believe in their dreams and growth as an athlete and as a person.

      1. SageCanaday

        Ah, I didn’t mean to convey that sediment…but realize how I kind of came off that way.

        To clarify: I think the literal investment in paying a coach is a big deal. It’s a big deal for a lot of people to pay for a gym membership or pay for a carbon frame bike as well (just some examples). How we choose to spend our hard-earned money and valuable time can be a reflection of our goals, what we value, and what we want to achieve (it may also be a reflection of our job flexibility, free time, and income but that’s another variable alltogether). It doesn’t mean that the person running a 100-miles a week with a coach is “more dedicated” or more “passionate” or “more serious” than the person running 50-miles a week (who may very well have to wake up at 4am to squeeze in a run, juggle family obligations and full-time job and only sleep 4-5 hours a night) without a coach…However, the former MAY be more likely than the latter to take more drastic risks during a 100-mile race like Western States….and therefore also lead to more unpredictable results (despite having a coach and maybe or maybe not training more).

        So yes, what I said was a generalization (just like i think the results of the survey can be generalized too though), and there are obviously a lot of variables at play here so it wouldn’t be fair to jump to any sure conclusions/assumptions. I just think the physiological component/ attitude towards the sport as well as the physical stimulus/progression in the body can change drastically for an individual with a coach, set training plan, feedback, progression and future race goals.

        1. Amy

          And all I was saying was that not everyone that is putting in the training at the top is coached. Being coached is not for everyone, and plenty of “elites” do OK on their own, and perhaps would do worse (become injured, hate to run) under a coach.

          1. SageCanaday

            I agree with you on that Amy….as I coach myself as well… (although I do take strong feedback/guidance from Coach Sandi since ‘self bias’/perspective is also a big factor too! :)

  6. Jeff

    I look forward to reading the next part. Very interesting. I just started running this year and have learned very quickly to listen to my body. I would rather have to take a few days off (even though I hate it) then get injured and ruin the entire plan for the week. I’m still figuring out the balance that works for me. I feel there are times to listen to my body and times to not listen to my mind when it wants to quit.

  7. Ryan

    Joe, I too am training for the Superior 100 and it will be my first hundo. I am fully on board with the process oriented goals. One thing I preach to my XC kids is, “Focus on what you can control, and don’t worry about ANYTHING else.” As you stated, outcome goals are rarely within our control, but process goals almost always are.

    A big part of that for my current training has been focusing more on the recovery process (cold bath, protein shakes right after workouts, elevating / icing legs) more than I ever have. This training block has more miles and vert than I’m used too and I’m pretty sure I’d get burnt out or injured without executing the recovery portion.

    For the race, I’m planning on following a conservative heart rate plan which will hopefully allow the desired result (finish!) to take care of itself.

    Process goals FTW!

  8. Elias

    Man, those comments are even more interesting than the article, sorry, I have to say. Thanks, Sage. I also feel that someone who is investing into a Coach is probably racing less conservatively as he does not want to pay his Coach twice, or is that just my opinion?

    1. Amy

      And I’d guess the 2 are not related. Look at top finishers without coaches (Andrew Miller, me, Jim Walmsley, Sage. Some steady good performances, some less conservative, some even less conservative. I don’t feel that having a coach says anything about how “invested” you are, nor do I feel like it factors into your race day execution. Some people need or want someone to tell them one to do. Some people hate to have someone tell them what to do and prefer to train themselves. Both groups can be (and are) successful. But to me using a coach says nothing about how “invested” someone is, or how much someone cares, and has little or nothing to do with race strategy–if anything a coach is likely going to tell someone to take it conservatively, as they don’t want the runner to blow up and blame them.

      1. SageCanaday

        Amy, again please realize I am using the word “invested” both quite literally and figuratively. Finally in regards to race strategy…I’m going to disagree with you on that. A big part of our coaching besides actual training plans is talking through a race strategy and race goals with our athletes. So, again in my biased opinion, I believe that coaching has a huge role in race strategy/execution. Some coaches may or may not have a “game plan” like that, but in our mind coaching does influence race day choices (and sometimes we make mistakes and let athletes risk too much, but it’s because we know how individually committed they are and what they dream of accomplishing). Again, lots of variables at play here though…

        1. Amy

          And we’ll have to continue to agree to disagree. Just because an athlete doesn’t have a coach doesn’t mean that they don’t have goals and a race strategy. Again, some people like to be coached because they want help with the training and goal setting. Others don’t and like to do it on their own. Personally, I would hate to have someone coach me on race strategy. I’ve been racing for 30 years. I do what I do. Twice, I have tried to use coaches, and generally, hated it, dreaded runs, and had some of my worst injuries. I was called “uncoachable” by the last, so there’s that. :)

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