Make Both Performance and Process Goals to Achieve Running Success

Healthy athletes aren't afraid of setting both performance and process goals. Image via Flickr user, SD Dirk.
Healthy athletes aren’t afraid of setting both performance and process goals. Image via Flickr user SD Dirk.

This week I begin a 15 week training cycle for the Marion Rotary Marathon For Shoes, to be held on June 14th, 2015 in Iowa. I happened to stumble across this marathon when doing a Google search for “spring marathons in Iowa.” Why Iowa? A good friend of mine lives there and I thought it would be nice to come visit and run somewhere new. This will be just the third year for the race.

After a little research, I noticed the times for the last two years were on the slower side. In 2014, the women’s winner went 3:23 and last year, 3:21. On top of slower times and a small field, there is also prize money. Like, good prize money. We’re talking $700 for first place.  I reached out to the race director and asked if the course was terribly challenging or just small. He replied that not only is the race a tad hilly but the last two years it has rained during the race. They moved the race to June in the hopes of having a better turnout.

My outright advertising of what seems to be a diamond in the rough race isn’t the smartest move if my goal is to win. What?

Win, you ask? Your 5k PR is 21:35. How do you expect to win a marathon? My desire to win is what we call a performance goal. Granted it’s a bit of a dreamy performance goal but realistically, it’s not impossible for me to run a 3:20 marathon in my racing debut. Many of my PRs in other distances give me a range of being able to run anywhere between 3:19 and 3:30. Now, that’s also quite a range in pace yet the point is that I’m not dreaming too far outside the box given that the winning times in the previous years have also been in that range.

Performance goals are fun, motivating, and exciting. They are concrete and help us follow our training plans. But too much focus on a performance goal and we soon risk becoming burned out or injured. How does this happen? We end up spending too much of our training time thinking that it has to go perfect, we have to hit every pace, and run every mile or else, we won’t ever reach our goal. In reality, we can do everything nearly perfect but come race day, we can’t control the weather or the competition. For instance, I understand that if Iowa native and Olympian Lisa Uhl shows up on race day that my chances of winning significantly decrease but hey, it’s the marathon, you never know what could happen! So what’s a dreamy gal to do? Enter, process goals.

Process goals focus on, well duh, the process. But this can be a huge challenge for the results oriented runner. It is difficult to see the bigger picture when you can dream a big goal and yet know deep down that big goals often take years. How do we find the balance between what our heart wants and what our head knows?

Set them both.

By setting a couple performance goals, you create energy and motivation. You also provide yourself a track to stay on during a training cycle. In the “I Believe” Training Journal, Ro McGettigan-Dumas instructs to “give yourself the freedom to dream without regard for what is or isn’t possible – there will be time to sort out the details.” The time to do so happens as the training cycle evolves. This is where it becomes important to focus on the process and still set some realistic performance goals.

  • Performance goal:

1. To win the Marion Rotary Marathon for Shoes. Given the information that I have (previous years’ times), this is a realistic goal.

  • Process goal(s):

1. To train smart

2. To be a competitor during the Marion Rotary Marathon for Shoes

Notice that the process goals are a bit more vague. To be a competitor doesn’t necessarily mean that I am striving to win. I could be wanting to just compete with myself. Either way, going into the race with a healthy dose of competition can set me up nicely to achieve that process goal and as a bonus, the performance goal. This article from provides a helpful vignette of two runners with the same goals but who take different routes and experience different outcomes. The realistic runner ends up reaching her goal when she focuses more on taking her time and being honest with her fitness rather than trying to run too fast too soon.

Visualize them both.

Visualization is a tool that can be used with both performance and process goals. If you’re in the mood to focus on a performance during a training run, imagine yourself running the race. I recently filled out the Dare to Dream exercise in the I Believe Training Journal on page 21 after visualizing this scenario during a run:

What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail? I would attempt to win this June marathon. I would run my own race, go out easy and controlled, not paying attention to other competitors. I feel relaxed for the first 13.1 and find myself approaching the first woman around mile 17. It is then I start to compete. I let the desire to win push me closer. I take over the lead around mile 23 . I see James cheering for me and running alongside the crowd as I move swiftly. I see Emily, Rick, her mom, and kids cheering. I feel strong, tough, and like a champion. I secure the win around mile 25 and eventually cross the finish line in 3:23 with tears down my face. I call my Dad and tell him I qualified for Boston. 

I didn’t initially plan on sharing this excerpt from my journal (IT’S MY DIARY FOR CRYING OUT LOUD!) but it is a good demonstration of a visualization exercise for performance goals. With process goals, visualize yourself as being strong and supple during your runs. Picture yourself being healthy and balanced with your training even when you are not training. Alternate these types of visualization exercises during your training and you will be sure to keep the motivation going strong. It also helps if the race you are running has a video of the course route. This marathon happens to have a video so I recorded a version for my tablet and will break it out on many of my treadmill runs.

Achieve them both.

These are my affirmations for my upcoming training cycle. I put them throughout the house in an effort to motivate and believe.
These are my affirmations for my upcoming training cycle. I put them throughout the house in an effort to motivate and believe.

The lesson here is that while you may not reach both types of goals at the same time, if you stick with them, you more likely than not will eventually achieve them. Often runners will find that if they are heart struck on the performance goals they lose sight of process goals. To prevent this from happening, make a coexistent goal statement:

Yes, I want to win this marathon but if I do not…

-I will have learned something new

-it’s not the end of the world

-I will have raced my first marathon

When making any kind of goal statements, you know, like the ones you put on colorful sticky notes and paste all over your house (hint: do that now!) make a mix of both performance and process statements. I found that I was apprehensive to state, “I will win this race” but as I started to write more affirmations, my motivation became stronger and eventually I wrote a couple statements about winning.

Whatever your goals may be, taking the time to set both types will help your physical and mental training. Goal setting doesn’t have to be scary either. Don’t be afraid to say what you feel. By letting out our big dreams, we create the space for them to develop. And while this doesn’t guarantee that they will all happen, it does ensure that we will have enjoyed the process it took to get where we were ultimately meant to be.

What are some of your upcoming performance and process goals?

I write about mindfulness, mental health, and the professional sport of running with the occasional poking fun at the sport. When I am not running, I'm either helping people as a counselor or trying to make them laugh as an amateur open mic comedian.

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  1. Love this post!
    I recently ran the Augusta GRU half, inspired by the same reasons you’re running Iowa— a visit with a favorite relative and a first-time-offered prize purse for the top three finishers ($1200, $700, $350). Based on last year’s times, I thought I might be able to make the top three. It was fun imagining myself atop the podium with a check in hand. Long story short, it didn’t happen, but I ran an 8 minute PR on a challenging course and got 7th place.
    Performance goals for the next couple years include running a 3:00:00 marathon and racing as an elite master at least once (I hear there are elite-only bathrooms at races–no lines! Wouldn’t that be a treat?) My stomach knots with nerves as I read what I just typed. I’ve got a long way to go, but it’s fun to dream big as I work on the process: eating clean and getting lots of rest, pushing through the pain, (I think mental prep might be the most important part of training), and leg turnover/speed work.

    1. Awesome feedback, Amy! One of my favorite quotes is, “shoot for the moon and if you miss, you still land amongst the stars.” Your experience demonstrates just that! And I agree, mental prep is often the most important. Best of luck reaching your goals. You got this!

  2. Your goal setting technique is much like mine. I have my performance goals and then my mental goals. My performance goals are based upon what I know I can do if I give my best performance. Then I have what you called process goals such as thinking positively in the later miles (something that always slows me down). The mental goals are achievable even when things happen that are out of your control (like when it’s 80 degrees on the day of your winter marathon…It happened to me!)