Focus on the process, not the outcome

IRON Tips -

Focus on the process, not the outcome

If you've entered a major event this summer, I'm sure you've already started to think about 'what time' is achievable. Maybe you're running a marathon, an ultra event or taking part in an Ironman triathlon, but at some point, you've probably considered a finish time you would like to achieve, should everything go to plan.

Your finish time is the 'OUTCOME' but you must be careful not to allow that outcome to dictate your race strategy on the day of the event. You will have already started to put together a PROCESS which you will follow, in terms of pacing strategy, kit, feeding etc and if that process all goes perfectly to plan then you may well achieve your finish time, but whatever happens during the event, it will generally serve you better to remain 'process orientated' as opposed to 'outcome orientated'.

I'd explain process orientated racing as follows:

Focus on all the personal processes you have put in place to ensure YOU PERSONALLY have the best performance possible. This does not involve anyone else, there is no room for chasing people who pass you on the course and getting into needless battles which throw you off your personal plan. It's not about chasing a time and ignoring the warning signals to do so. A process orientated approach is very much about you doing all the things that you need to do and doing them well. If you do that, then your finish time will be the best you can feasibly achieve. Examples of going through the process are:

1. Doing your pre-race prep so everything is ready to go
2. Having a clear plan for the day
3. Positioning yourself correctly at the start
4. Pacing correctly from the start - It's harder to hold back initially!
5. Using HR and personal feedback to ensure the intensity is correct
6. Feeding and hydrating correctly
7. If things don't go to plan, what's your course of action?

Process orientated racing requires you to have a clear plan beforehand, then execute the plan on the day. Don't worry about the finish time, just focus on the pre-planned actions and execute them as well as you can and the finish time will be whatever it will be. 

How does outcome orientated racing differ?

Outcome orientated racing focuses more on finishing time or the end result. Your strategy is influenced by the outcome, so you may well chase someone you wish to beat, or ride/run at a pace which is much too fast as you had a pre-set time in mind and you are determined to hit that time. Setting out to run a marathon at 8 minute per mile pace is 'outcome orientated'.

What's the issue with outcome orientated approach?

1. You can't control it. You don't know how windy it's going to be on race day and you don't know how you are going to feel. There are variables outside of your control and you can't just 'crack on' without taking these variables into account.

2. You can't predict it - In some circumstances, in particular if it's your first event of this kind, you can't predict the finish time. Rather than making up a target figure based on 'what your friends have done in previous years', it's probably better to focus on being the best you can be and the result will speak for itself.

The outcome orientated approach can sometimes results in a classic 'crash or burn': I'm aiming to run 8 minute miles and it'll either work and I'll run a personal best, or it will fail and the final 6 miles could result in a spectacular explosion! Either way, irrelevant of the signals, I'm going to run that pace and hold it for as long as I can. On the flip-side, this approach can often result in a personal best. If you want to run under 3:30 for a marathon, irrelevant of the process you follow, you have to run at a certain speed, or it's not going to happen.

Surely I should use both?

If you are less experienced, then you should really focus on the process and not really worry too much about the outcome. Do the things that you need to do, do them well and results will look after themselves. If you are a bit more experienced, then you can combine the 2. Experience allows you to predict more accurately your anticipated finish time, but you're far more likely to achieve it with a structured process.

Race day anxiety

Anxiety on race day is largely driven by OUTCOME. People are nervous about where they'll finish, whether the other people in their category are faster and the fear of this being publicly on display. The PROCESS is not the driver of anxiety. You know your own swim pace, you know your feeding strategy on the bike and you know what your optimal heart rate should be when running, none of these things are a cause for anxiety. If you were to complete your own triathlon event, competing against nobody else, then following the process would be easy (as you have no distractions) and anxiety would be low as there is no OUTCOME in terms of results. Approach race day in the same manner. If you know that you're able to swim, cycle and run the distances required, then focus on your own process on race day, to reduce anxiety. Imagine it's just you, on your own, doing the course as fast or as well as you can. 

Racing causes intelligent people to do stupid things

One thing to consider is that racing causes intelligent people to do really stupid things.... "Ah yeah.. I forgot the take my gels and I got caught up in the moment and went too hard on the first part of the bike". 

Considering many people can tell you every detail of their training and take great pleasure in graphing their workouts and analysing the data, it's pretty comical that they can't remember to take a gel every 30 minutes. How hard can it be?

Live in the moment

External distractions can draw you away from the process and you can very quickly forget what you 'should be doing'. The answer is simple, just repeatedly ask yourself the question, "what should I be doing right now?"

When you're about to start the swim and anxiety is at it's highest, as yourself... "what should I be doing right now". 

When you set off in the first few miles of the bike, ask yourself... "what should I be doing right now?" Pacing? Feeding?

The real test is when it goes pear shaped on the run and you're reduced to a walk... "What should I be doing right now to reverse this?"

The big races are upon us, switch on and do yourself justice. 


Marc Laithwaite is a level 3 qualified coach, who has been coaching endurance sports for the last 22 years. He is a former sports science lecturer of 12 years and spent 2 years with the British Cycling team as a bloods analyst. He has worked with British Triathlon Coach Education as a coach educator and spent 5 years as head coach of the NW Regional Triathlon Talent Squad. He's also a former national age group triathlon champion, European duathlon champion and Ironman age group winner. He also has a dog with a wonky leg. To read more about our coaching services, open water swimming, sports testing and bike fitting GO HERE