Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Evolution of a Distance Runner: Systems & Process Goals

I wrote a few weeks back about how I'm not really hitching myself to a particular time goal in this race. I've done that lots of times in the past because it's a very bloggerly thing to do ("My A/B/C/D goals for xx race next week are this/that/the other thing!") and because if you're not setting goals how will you ever make any progress ("goals are dreams with deadlines" or some such). Regardless of whether I achieved the goal or not, though, something about defining things that way always felt kind

There could be a lot of reasons for that. This research, for example, that found that stating a goal publicly can actually make you less likely to achieve it, because "announcing your plans to others satisfies your self-identity just enough that you’re less motivated to do the hard work needed." And if you set a goal and then don't achieve it, how do you understand that? Or this bit from Scott Adams' Secret of Success: Failure:

    "If your goal is to [accomplish x], you will spend every moment until you reach the goal—if you reach it at all—feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary. If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize that you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you, or to set new goals and re-enter the cycle of permanent presuccess failure."

Then recently I read this post by James Clear (thanks Mario Fraioli via The Morning Shakeout, btw), which is about that exact thing--about why setting goals the way most of us tend to (run xx:xx time, run y miles in z year, qualify for this/that/the other event, finish in the top x, etc.) is maybe not the most productive and effective strategy. Of course, there's nothing wrong with having a dream, an achievement that drives you to work harder and give more, but just saying, "My goal is to run a xx:xx marathon" or "My goal is to BQ" or whatever it is doesn't make it any more likely to happen.

Instead, Clear talks about focusing on systems:

    "What’s the difference between goals and systems? If you’re a coach, your goal is to win a championship. Your system is what your team does at practice each day. If you’re a writer, your goal is to write a book. Your system is the writing schedule that you follow each week. If you’re a runner, your goal is to run a marathon. Your system is your training schedule for the month. If you’re an entrepreneur, your goal is to build a million dollar business. Your system is your sales and marketing process. Now for the really interesting question: If you completely ignored your goals and focused only on your system, would you still get results? For example, if you were a basketball coach and you ignored your goal to win a championship and focused only on what your team does at practice each day, would you still get results? I think you would."

What Clear and Adams call "systems," I've been calling "process goals," something I've gotten more and more interested in in the last couple of years. Essentially, you consider the thing you want to achieve (run a certain time, qualify for whatever, etc.) how close or far you are right now, what your timeline is, etc., and then come up with a list of behaviors that support that achievement (the "system"). The behaviors, the habits that support the dream, become the goals.

In the past couple of years my process goals have usually been things like "Strength train 2-3x per week," "Sleep 7-8 hours/night," things around nutrition, etc. In 2014 when I DNF'd the Santa Rosa Marathon and took a long hard look at my past marathon training cycles, I made some process goals around running that included things like "Base train at least 40 miles per week at an appropriate heart rate for at least 6 months" and "Strategize/rearrange commitments ahead of time to minimize missing runs/mileage." The idea is that if you get the systems/process goals right and then meet those goals, the "outcome" goals--the achievements, the dreams--tend to take care of themselves. (Well; to the extent that they are reasonable, anyway.)

When I started training again in June, it seemed logical to look back once again over my past marathons and how I trained for them & see what process goals might come to light.


Friends, let me take you on this same little journey I undertook before starting this training cycle, of looking back at my previous marathons and thinking about what I could/should be doing differently. I think you'll find it amusing.

    #1: CIM 2011
    • Total mileage: 542.7
    • Average mileage: 30.15
    • Highest mileage week: 55.5
    • Longest run: 20 miles
    • 16+ long runs: 3
    • 19+ long runs: 1
    • Notable circumstances: Sick with asthma the prior week
    • Weather: Perfect

      Result: Couldn't breathe for most of the race, but still ran 3:47

This race gave me such a false sense of my own abilities! Basically, I finished going, "Meh, I barely trained for this race AND I had an asthma attack! Imagine how fast I'll be when I actually train hard & don't get sick!"

    #2: CIM 2012
    • Total mileage: 394.8
    • Average mileage: 21.9
    • Highest mileage week: 40.8
    • Longest run: 21 miles
    • 16+ long runs: 5
    • 19+ long runs: 1
    • Notable circumstances: "pineapple express" super storm & 30mph headwinds in the forecast
    • Weather: Torrential rain + 20-40mph headwinds

      Result: The timing mat near me malfunctioned due to flooding so I didn't get a chip time, but gun time = 3:55

Credit for this amazing photo, as always, to hmgiraffy

Final thoughts as I crossed the line: "F--- this race and the horse it rode in on." Except for the marathon, 2012 was the year I PR'd every major distance, so between that & my first marathon, I went into this race absolutely convinced I would waltz my way to an effortless PR. Instead I left feeling like I'd gotten robbed by the weather. My memory was that I trained super hard that year (because how else so many PRs??), but seriously. Look at those numbers. Pathetic. The hard truth is I didn't *remotely* earn a fast race & it's probably actually a miracle I managed the time I did, considering the weather.

    #3: Mountains 2 Beach 2013
    • Total mileage: 495.3
    • Average mileage: 27.5
    • Highest mileage week: 48.3
    • Longest run: 20 miles
    • 16+ long runs: 2
    • 19+ long runs: 1
    • Notable circumstances: I badly strained a muscle in my right leg about three weeks before the race, spent that time getting PT & cortisone injections instead of running, & almost didn't even bother starting
    • Weather: Bright, sunny, & 80F+

      Result: Ran a 3:36 (huge PR!), but also further strained said muscle so badly I had to walk most of the last 3-4 miles, went home in a wheelchair, & was on crutches for a month.

Again, considering it was 80 degrees and I walked a lot of the last few miles of this race and STILL set a 11:00 PR, my memory was like, "Surely I trained stupid hard for this race?" Um, no. Sure, I ran over 100 miles more than I did for CIM '12, but 2 long runs? One 17?? and one 20?? Da fuq?

    #n/a: SRM 2014
    • Total mileage: 441
    • Average mileage: 29.4
    • Highest mileage week: 52.2
    • Longest run: 20 miles
    • 16+ long runs: 3
    • 19+ long runs: 1
    • Notable circumstances: Still having problems with my right hip
    • Weather: Perfect

      Result: DNF at mile 14 due to hip pain

I always knew this race was a long shot. Coming off of a stress fracture in fall 2013, my spring training was pretty low mileage/intensity, & then I went to Italy & mostly sat around eating pasta & drinking for 3 weeks. I only had 15 weeks, not 18, & had clearly just not done the work yet to get my hip better. I gave it a shot but honestly was not surprised when I had to quit because I was really worried about another M2B situation, and I knew I honestly didn't have the training for a fast time anyway.

    #4: NVM 2015
    • Total mileage: 566.4
    • Average mileage: 30.4
    • Highest mileage week: 50
    • Longest run: 20 miles
    • 16+ long runs: 4
    • 19+ long runs: 1
    • Notable circumstances: I base trained only for this & ran it at an easy, comfortable pace
    • Weather: Warm-ish & sunny but not *too* hot

      Result: 3:52 & felt really strong & good start to finish

Clearly I did the volume for this race, but my long run game was still pretty weak. At that point I was just glad that my hip finally seemed 100% and was pretty pleased to find that my 6 months of base training had made 26 miles at easy-but-not slow pace feel like a cake walk. Hence getting super excited to train for...

    #n/a: SRM 2015
    • Total mileage: 253.7
    • Average mileage: 24.6
    • Highest mileage week: 44
    • Longest run: 22 miles
    • 16+ long runs: 5
    • 19+ long runs: 3
    • Unfortunate circumstances: Felt really strong until ~3 weeks before the race when I got a stress fracture
    • Weather: No idea, I wasn't awake

      Result: DNS

I feel like I can barely call this a training cycle. I only actually trained for like 8 weeks before I ended up with a stress fracture. Again my memory was sort of like "But I ran so much that summer??" No; no, I really didn't. In fact I apparently took like an entire month off after NVM. In retrospect maybe the stress fracture was not surprising given how I did two 21 mile runs & a 22 after only about 5 weeks of less than 40 mpw?

    #5: Eugene 2016
    • Total mileage: 478.3
    • Average mileage: 29.9
    • Highest mileage week: 44.2
    • Longest run: 20 miles
    • 16+ long runs: 5
    • 19+ long runs: 2
    • Unfortunate circumstances: Started the training cycle pretty much 100% detrained from the stress fracture, & most of the early weeks involved lots of elliptical & not much actual running.
    • Weather: Warm-ish & sunny but not *too* hot

      Result: 3:53

I knew this would not be a fast race for me, but I was at peace with it, & just tried to run the best I could & enjoy the ride.

So yeah--looking back at these statistics left me scratching my head. Wait, I trained really hard for that race...Didn't I? Ha! Apparently not! Face to face with the actual numbers, it's like, Well what did you expect? Sure, I've had my share of bad luck with illness, injury, & weather, but still. That 3:36? In retrospect, it seems like an absolute miracle from the gods as I really, really do NOT feel like I earned it. Looking back at the numbers, my mindset suddenly switched from, I don't know what else I can possibly do to Uhhhh idk but maybe start running actual marathon training volume consistently, and also maybe like do long runs more than 3-5 times a cycle or whatever, just a thought.

Therefore, some process goals for CIM 2016:

Before jumping into the training plan:

  • Establish a solid base of 40+ mpw of easy running for at least a couple months before jumping into marathon training.
  • As part of that base, work up to 16 mile long runs so I can START my training cycle with a 16 mile long run.
  • Hit the gym for 2-3 hours a week consistently so I can get everything strong while I'm not under the stress of mileage & tough workouts.

During the training cycle:

  • Do not not NOT miss a run if there is any way around it! Do risk planning at the beginning of the cycle & of every week, & move things around as needed. Always be planning.
  • NEVER miss a long run. If all else fails, DO THE EFFING LONG RUNS! (Again...planning.)
  • If injured, do time/effort equivalent cross-training. No copping out.
  • Attempt every workout. Plan A: Do the whole thing as written. Plan B: Do the whole distance as close to written as I can manage. Plan C: Do the whole distance at any pace possible. Plan D: Do as much of the distance as possible at any pace & cross train the rest. Plan E: Cross train @ time/effort equivalent.

(Obviously this excludes being sick/injured/any days when I'm getting those srsbzns red flags from my body.)

Have I been perfect? No. But I've been pretty darn close. How does training for marathon #6 stack up to the first five?

    #6: CIM 2016
    • Total mileage: 760
    • Average mileage: 42.2
    • Highest mileage week: 57
    • Longest run: 22 miles
    • 16+ long runs: 13
    • 19+ long runs: 4
    • Notable circumstances: None so far (fingers crossed)

I'm not going to pretend to know what these numbers portend. I'm not going to make the mistake of saying "Well I ran x time on y mileage, so I should run z time this time around" or feeling like I've earned a certain time or I'm entitled to it because LOOK AT ALL THE TRAINING!! or like the universe "owes" me a sub-whatever whatever because numbers.

But, the truth is, when I look back at those numbers and at how hard I worked during this training cycle, I kind of feel like I already won? I set the process goals, and I met them. I ran more and more consistently and hit higher mileage and more and longer long runs than I have in *quite* sometime, AND even managed not to injure myself! Now THAT is a victory. I'm excited for CIM and to see what all this crazy (for me) mileage produces, but even if I have a horrible day and run a completely mediocre race, I still feel so thankful and proud for having been able to do the training and meet my process goals. No matter what happens, I still feel like I'll finish out this year feeling like I'm on the right track.


  1. Wow, this is fascinating. Way to go! I'm not a coach, nor do I pretend to be one, but if I were, I'd say that consistently getting in your long runs this time around will make a huge difference (because #volume). Have a blast out there. You've done (most of ) the hard stuff already. Smile big and cheesy for the cameras!!!!!!

  2. Ha. I chortled at your comparison charts. You've put in some SOLID training this cycle, and it serves as black and white motivation as I stare down my first full in three years. I kept telling myself that if I was going to dedicate the time and sacrifice the happy hours for a full, I better damn well do it right. So... here's to a process-oriented 2017!
    I'll say best of luck, because at this point, luck is the only remaining factor! -Hillary

  3. This is such a great analysis. I love the idea that the system should be the focus, not trying to hit he bullseye of a particular time. I had a pretty strict goal (BQ with cushion) for my October marathon, but since then I switched my goal to a loose "get faster at shorter distances", and man am I loving the process!

  4. You had me at the bar graphs. {insert googly-eyed emoji}
    Seriously though, this is somewhat like the post I'm about to write, except much more well-stated and thoughtful (as usual), so I will be referencing you (as usual). The significant increase in the number of long runs is the most dramatic to me. Plus you're *healthy*! Amazing!! Can't wait to celebrate our process/systems on Sunday. :)

  5. This. This is what they mean when they say the hard work is done before you even get to the start line, and that getting to the start line is a triumph in itself. Those were some great process goals, both for before and during the training cycle, and my absolute favourite is 'do risk planning at the beginning of the cycle and every week'. SO important!