Outcome and Process Goals

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Reaching a goal is difficult. We start off with the best intentions, highly motivated to reach our goal, whether it involves learning to run, finishing a marathon, or something else. There are times where we lose the fire we had at the beginning and don’t achieve the desired results. Other times, we go into a training plan or on a run without a specific goal, and we wind up doing better than we ever could have hoped. What separates success from failure in our running goals?

Failure to reach a running goal may be as simple as not using goals to their full potential. There are different types of goals, and using the right type for the situation could make the difference between success and failure. This article will discuss two types of goals: outcome and process. The runner who is aiming to finish a marathon or reach a time goal is an example of an outcome goal, which is focused on results. A runner reminding herself to shorten her stride and look up the hill would be an example of a process goal, which focuses on the task at hand.

As mentioned above, outcome goals can be fantastic for getting you started, but they sometimes lack the staying power to keep you motivated all the way to the end or through tougher runs. After all, you can’t always be motivated by the thought of running a longer race if a shorter distance is repeatedly giving you trouble. Meanwhile, process goals may help you stay focused on what you are currently doing but lack the push to take you to the next level. Ideally, we want to use both goal types in combination to suit our training purposes.

Setting outcome goals is easy, but it is important to choose an outcome goal of appropriate difficulty. Many runners have become frustrated (or injured) by setting goals that were too ambitious and not realistically within their reach. An outcome goal should be challenging enough that you see steady progress and stay motivated to keep pushing forward until you reach it. However, finding the correct balance can be tricky and often requires a deeper understanding than many runners, especially newer ones, may possess. Before committing to a big goal, take the time to review your running history. Keeping a training log is a good idea as it will help you identify any past injuries and patterns. Also look at your calendar to be aware of any upcoming time commitments in your life. Finally, consult with more experienced runners or coaches for advice.

Don’t be afraid to be a little bold with your outcome goal, as a little fear that you have bitten off more than you can handle may be exactly what you need to keep pushing. You are capable of more than you think and if you back off the first time you stumble, or the training gets tough, you will have a hard time succeeding. Most importantly, listen to your body and revise your goal if you are really struggling, since slamming your head against a mileage or pace wall will only lead to injury or quitting.

Even with a perfect outcome goal, there are still going to be some days (and maybe even weeks) where you cannot find the motivation to train or to finish your required distance. These situations are where we call on process goals. Process goals tend to be solutions to smaller problems that we are facing at the current moment, like tough hills, bad weather, or a general lack of motivation.

If you find yourself struggling, start working your way out of the problem by looking for ways to solve it. If you are running hills, getting frustrated and saying that you hate hills accomplishes nothing except for making things worse the next time you run a hill. Instead, think of solutions that could potentially overcome your difficulties, such as checking if your running form is correct, using positive or instructional self-talk for how you want to feel, or finding a hill training partner.

In the short term, the mere act of trying to fix the problem can get you moving towards feeling better and more motivated about what you are doing. For example, if you have missed a few runs, thinking only about your outcome goal may actually result in feeling “down” and less motivated because your race seems further out of reach. A process goal helps you get moving again, since worrying about how far a marathon is does not get you any closer to your goal, but the act of running does. In this way, your outcome goal is the dream to start you and guide the way, while your process goals help you to keep putting in the kilometres.

Nicholas Larade has a Master’s of Science in Exercise and Sport Science, centered on Sport Psychology, and is the manager at the Fredericton Running Room.

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