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.