A lot of times we approach goals in either an extremely broad ("get healthy," or "get faster"), or extremely specific ("break 2 hours in the half marathon") way. Often times, we think about objectives which will lead to the ultimate goal. Objectives being shorter term and measurable achievements that we believe will help us accomplish our larger, overarching goal. Objectives might look like "run 5 days per week," or "strength train for 60 minutes per week." This is an extremely useful way of measuring progress and very helpful in building effective habits to accomplish big goals. It is also useful to think about these objectives more amorphously as part of your process, rather than explicit stepping stones to achieving a longer term goal.
Instead of objectives leading to goals, we can think about both process and performance orientation. We can set parameters for what we want to accomplish based on what we wish to do via the process, and what we wish the outcome of our process to be. Essentially, we set both outcome goals, which may be performance related, as well as process goals. One is not better than the other, they are finely intertwined.
Outcome goals: This is the way you interpret a performance through a social framework, or how what you do relates to other people, how others see what you do. An outcome goal might be related to getting on a podium. We have the least control over outcome goals, and therefore it is most advantageous to spend the least amount of energy focusing on this.
Performance goals: This type of goal fits under the umbrella of outcome goals, however instead of relating to others, it more specifically relates to you. You are your own biggest competition. This type of goal might be a specific finishing time during a race. Performance goals are also heavily influenced by external factors, meaning we do not have complete control over our performance, no matter how much we like to convince ourselves we do.
Process goals: These are the goals you have the most control over. Process goals are less results focused. These are the things you absolutely can do, both during a race and during training. Most of our focus is ideally directed toward process goals. This might be figuring out your fueling strategy, mastering your mindset, or establishing a consistent routine.
Remember that this is kind of like the fountain effect or trickle up economics. You're supporting the largest base, checking the big boxes that are kind of easier to accomplish and have the largest impact overall, and this will overflow and fill up the higher level, specific performance goals. But we don't START with filling our tiny performance goal cup because then it will just over flow way too fast and splash around and won't fill the buckets below but make a giant mess. By pouring the most into your process goals, it puts you in the best position possible to achieve your performance goals, and maybe nab one of those podiums spot outcome goals you're vying for.
Pour the most time and energy into your process goals. This is where your power lies. Thinking about outcome and performance are important, but at key moments. Most of your time and energy should be spent on process goals, creating a sustainable training plan and staying accountable. When we over emphasize the performance goal, we are living in the future mentally, and unable to be present in what we are doing. We end up thinking and feeling in the future rather than being engaged in our current workout, current run, and giving ourselves the opportunity to enjoy the flow. During a race situation, this may lead us to make fueling errors, start mentally spiraling, and lose our grounding in our individual needs and instead focus on others. Being too performance focused all the time, leads us to be incapable of being mindfully present, which allows us to feel at ease, minimize anxiety, and enjoy what we are doing.
This is also unsustainable. Being focused on the A goal is impossible to do 100% of the time. It is draining and ends up taking away from the moment. It is like a Chinese finger trap and the A goal is to get free. But if you yank, and yank, and yank...nothing changes. You don't get free. You're just tired and frustrated. You have to relax into the situation, ease into the pressure to let yourself free of it. Lean into what you're doing and the ability to let go leads you to flow towards your goals with less resistance. It is mentally unsustainable to be focused on the performance and outcome all the time. This is something to be saved for the very end of a training cycle, right before your race. The outcome isn't important in the build. When you're climbing a mountain, you aren't visualizing the summit from the beginning of the trek...no. You are watching your step, taking in the view of each switchback, noticing the plants and trees and flowers and critters, being mindful of your footing and the ground beneath you. You are present with where you are. Process goals help ground you where you are, meet yourself where you are, do the best with what you have in the place where you are at. And that allows for a beautifully organic progression to where you want to be.
We know that being mindful, being present is incredibly helpful in improving mood, clearing our mind, and allowing us to be engaged and find the joy in what we're doing. In art therapy (my other professional training), we have known focusing on process over product is where our attention must lie to mitigate anxiety, depression, negative affect, ruminating thoughts, and move through trauma. This is how we heal. And now more specifically in sport, we know that focusing on the process over outcome is helpful in minimizing performance anxiety and improves our ability to show up on race day with a clear mind.
The process goals are those that strengthen your mental tools for when you really need them. Your process goals allow you to hone these skills under manageable stress (workouts), which strengthens their ability to be utilized in situations that may be a slightly higher level of stress (races). Honing these mental skills during your process is like sitting by the fire, every night, sharpening your sword. Preparing your mental weapon for battle. Except the mental weapon isn't used against anyone else, it is used to slice through the negativity that may arise when things get hard.
Setting goals is a very thoughtful thing. Sometimes we have impulses to do something and decide, "I'm going to do that some day!" That is awesome, but WHY? The things you want to accomplish that require consistency and time and effort and energy and commitment to do, must have a reason for you. Your goals must be specific to you and who you are, what you value. In running, your goals must be connected to your why. If they aren't, why are you going to commit yourself to accomplishing them? What do you care about? What is important to you? What gets you excited? What are you passionate about?
Something that a lot of runners commit themselves to is getting that BQ. Why? Why do so many of us see the Boston Qualifier as the thing that needs to be done? Yes...Boston is a historic race, the pinnacle of marathons, and a world major. It represents a certain caliber of athlete because of the standard necessary to qualify, and the limited number of bibs in each age group. But it's more than that, I think. Boston isn't just a big deal to runners. It is a big deal to everyone. The majority of people hear about the Boston Marathon, and they know what you're talking about. It is a connection to non-runners. It is meaningful to every American, every person in the world really. You may talk about running and your family or friends might be like yea, yea, yea going on about running again. But as soon as Boston is brought up, people get it. They see what you're doing and that it is important and you've worked hard and you're good at this. They finally see you. They see you as strong and capable...and able to do hard things. And maybe that is the why for most of us...maybe that is a big part of why we set goals and what drives us to accomplish them. We believe ourselves capable of doing hard things, big things, meaningful things. And running allows
us see the truth in that belief.