Incremental Gains with Goal Setting & How The Process Sets You Up For Success

I have always been a goal oriented person. So much so, that I often have layers of goals, meaning that I have already set goals that are not relevant until I reach some other goal that is laid out before me first. In general I believe this is a healthy beneficial process. However, it can go bad and that is what I want to discuss. Specifically, I want to help you avoid obsessing over outcome goals, including performance goals, which can sometimes act as a saboteur to your improvement as a runner. Obsess is a strong word that might not even apply to you, but one can over-emphasize without truly being obsessed and still see negative consequences.

Let’s start with some real life examples. Before we do that we’ll need some quick definitions:

Types of Goals

Outcome Goal: A goal that is focused on a particular outcome such as winning your age-group, finishing in the top 10, or beating your neighbor. These goals are about comparing yourself to others and hopefully beating the pants off them.

Performance Goal: A goal that is focused on achieving a particular performance such a personal record time, finishing a marathon, or hitting a qualifier for Boston. For running purposes these are usually going to revolve around the clock and getting the best out of yourself on a particular day.

Process Goal: A goal that works toward making you a better runner and therefore more likely to achieve outcome and performance goals. Often they are directly related to performance and outcome goals and could be hitting a particular split in a race, or drafting off of that neighbor for the first 3 miles of a 5k. That is arguably a jerk move but it would be a process goal. These can be long-term or short-term in nature and might include running 1000 miles this year, sleeping 8 hours each night, or stretching and foam rolling thoroughly after a hard workout.

Goals vs Results – They don’t always align

Example #1

My first example is a friend, personal training client, and a runner I coach named Joslyn. Coming into the 2018 Boston Marathon she was in the best shape of her life. She had run 3:31 to qualify for the race back in September and then caught fire. All of her workouts were better than ever. Her mileage was higher than ever. Her love and fire for running were more than ever. She had run big PRs at 5 miles and the half-marathon in her only two races in between Boston and her qualifier. Her training partner had just run 3:23 a couple of weeks earlier and there was no reason to believe she wouldn’t run a similar time. She had a performance goal of 3:25 (although we were hoping for more of a 3:20), and an outcome goal of being the fastest female finisher from Kentucky.

Then the weather intervened. The 2018 edition of the Boston Marathon was one of the coldest, wettest, windiest days in the long history of the race. The attrition rate was huge among the masses and the elites alike. The weather was so bad that Joslyn’s faithful husband had a bone fusion in his hand break loose just from exposure as he stood for hours waiting for his wife to finish. She did finish which was a monumental task in and of itself. She even ran a respectable time considering the conditions and the fact that she stood in a starting corral for an hour before running 3:45 in a wintry rain storm.

An objective observer can see that Joslyn should be proud of her performance but she saw it as a failure since she didn’t achieve her performance or outcome goal. The race sapped her physically but also emotionally in a way that can be avoided. Joslyn’s pride, love and vigor in running all took major hits that day when they should not have.

Example #2

In my second example, Sherry had come to me with one simple goal. To finish her first marathon. While this is a performance goal, I must give her credit, she had a great process leading up to it. Before coming to me she had run a PR of 2:19 for a half-marathon. We broke down her running and her strength training and made consistent incremental improvements to both. Very quickly she dropped her half time to 2:11. Sherry looked poised to not only finish but to run around 4 hours and a half.

It had been a warm fall but that came to an abrupt end as Sherry stepped onto a very cold Indianapolis start line. She pulled a muscle in the first 5k, but instead of dropping out she limped to a 5:46 finish. I can’t blame her for staying in the race. In fact I applaud her toughness to limp 23 miles of a race and still finish. However, achieving her goal did have a price. It took months for her to fully recover physically and she immediately lost any desire to run future marathons. Sometimes one has to consider whether achieving a goal, particularly outcome and performance goals, is worth the sacrifice, which in this case was probably future marathons that were more enjoyable and faster.

Example #3:

My final example is a young Jamie Ness. One of my main goals as a young runner was breaking 16 minutes for 5k. I came within inches of doing so in my junior year at Berea College when I ran 16 minutes, 0 seconds and 5 hundredths of a second. In the following 4 years, breaking 16 became over-emphasized and you might say I obsessed over it. There were times I was fit enough but managed to over-train and race too aggressively. There were times that I wasn’t fit enough but still insisted that a race time that started with a 16 wasn’t acceptable.

Throughout that 4 years of constant disappointment I failed to realize two things. The first thing was my best races in that span were definitely those in which I didn’t obsess over the sub 16. The second thing was that in my best effort that came just inches short, I wasn’t nearly so performance focused. Sub 16 was a goal, but I had spent that whole winter injured and understood that my track season was going to be a process. I was relaxing and enjoying training and racing while focusing on getting better rather than specific times. The result was the best season of running of my life. Had I maintained that focus on getting better and fixing issues in my preparation and race execution rather than the arbitrary time, I firmly believe I would have run much faster than the sub 16 minute goal.

Trying to Control Goals and Results

Outcome and performance goals are a necessity. They give us something to strive for and a great deal of joy and satisfaction when they are achieved. Unfortunately they can come with baggage, just like a cute kitten that tears up your couch and pees in your shoes.

You don’t have full control over outcome goals unless you are legitimately the best in the world. You can run the best race of your life and get totally smoked by someone you never expected to even show up. You don’t have full control over performance goals either. If someone tramples you on the start line or a heat wave moves in, your ability to run fast is going to be hampered. I have also seen great performances called into question based on the length of the course, which is not in the runners control. The lack of full control in these types of goals makes them dependent goals, meaning they depend on a certain set of circumstances for achievement to be possible.

When you over-emphasize outcome and performance goals it can lead to unrealistic expectations. You simply are not going to win every race or set a personal record every time you finish. If those are your only measures of success then you are setting yourself up for failure and disappointment.

Most importantly, it is easy to say I want to win, or run a sub 3 hour marathon, but the goal itself does nothing to address how to achieve it. This is of course where the process comes in.

Goal Setting Takeaways

Everyday is an opportunity to get better and everyday should have goals. Your goal today might be to do an easy 7 miler and actually keep it easy. It might be to get a full 8 hours of sleep rather than a full 3 hours of Netflix. It could be to run even splits in this race instead of being that guy that was in front for a quarter mile, but where did he finish anyway? It might be to drink 150 ounces of water to make sure you’re fully hydrated after running in the heat, or stretching and rolling that tight hamstring before it becomes a problem, again.

The point is to focus on the individual components that will make you a better runner rather than just wishing it would happen. These short-term goals can feed into longer-term goals such as running 6 days this week, staying injury free for 6 months, or averaging 40 miles per week for a year.

Set yourself up for success. Give yourself lots of little short-term process goals that feed into bigger long-term process goals. The small short-term goals are easy to achieve and can be a constant source of positive feedback, but beware they are also easy to ignore and write off. Lots of tiny improvements added all together and amplified over a long period of time will result in a big improvement. When you do this right the improvement will likely be more than you originally imagined. Just remember that the big improvements do require a lot of small improvements over time. The best part of process goals is they are independent, meaning normally nothing can prevent you from achieving these goals if you choose to pursue them.

My friend Shawn is a great example of how well this can work. He, like me, had a long term goal of running a sub 16 minute 5k going back about 15 years. Ten years ago he ran 16:03 without really expecting to put up such a time. He had been focused on the process. This was followed by many, many years of over-emphasis on the performance goal and many disappointments. This year was different. He again focused on the process of making himself a better runner. He cleaned up his diet, dropped some weight and became a vegetarian (which I’m not necessarily advocating but it works well for him), he started stretching and rolling regularly, sleeping more and he got a coach. The coach keeps him accountable to not just doing his training, but doing it as prescribed. The result was a 15:48 5000 meter run, a 15 second PR ten years after his last PR at the distance and about 15 years after originally setting the goal.

Use the process to enjoy each day and work toward those oh so satisfying performance and outcome goals.

Jamie Ness is a coach with Team RunRun. To learn more about him or to work with Coach Jamie, check out his coaching page.

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Photo: 2016 5k on the Runway, Lexington, Kentucky