Use process goals to avoid anxiety about hard sessions

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Many people feel anxious about their training sessions and races, particularly the harder or more important ones. I thought it would be useful to explore this a little more and explain how you can use process goals to reduce or remove this anxiety and stress.

So, how can you use process goals to avoid anxiety about your hard sessions? Process goals are steps that you can control that result in a successful session. Focusing on process goals will shift your focus from the outcome, which isn’t completely in your control, to processes that are within your control, which is far less stressful. For example, you may or may not be able to hit the target time for a given effort but you can focus on working hard and doing your best. Good process goals are the overall duration of your session, doing the right number and durations of hard efforts and having the right recoveries.

It is easy to get caught up on the target heart rate, pace or power of your session, which can induce lots of anxiety about how hard it might be as well of fear of failure. However, the important part of getting fitter and faster is consistency, so setting goals focused on consistent training and realising that one session is just a very small part of getting good results is the best way to success.

How do process goals work?

Process goals shift the focus onto things you can control that when correctly planned are likely to result in meeting other less controllable goals, such as performance goals, which may be a target time for your chosen event, or performance goals, such as winning a given event or finishing in the top 10%.

It is much less stressful to focus on things that you can control rather than worry about whether you may or may not achieve something that is dependent on what you can’t control. However, for this to work, you need to have goals that you believe in and ideally some measure that you are improving over time that reinforces the efficacy of your process.

It is best to set at least two sets of process goals that are focused on consistency and general good practice, and specific to any given training session.

Consistency and good practice

Some of your goals should be focused on overall consistency with the objective of helping you do generally good things that will benefit your fitness and help you follow your training plan appropriately; these might be:

  • Sleep for at least 8 hours per night, going to bed and getting up at consistent times;

  • Do all training sessions in the plan, or if you don’t have a plan then maybe to train at least 3 times per week;

  • Eat a good breakfast and other meals at consistent times to ensure you are properly fuelled for your training and recovery;

  • Maintain alcohol consumption at sensible levels;

  • etc.

Specific training goals

Other goals should be specific to executing your training sessions as effectively as possible; these might be:

  • To check the details of the planned session and make sure you have all the information where you need it;

  • Warm up properly, as per the plan or according to your usual warm up;

  • Spend a few minutes preparing mentally for the session if it is an important one (you may want a short checklist of more specific processes to focus on here, such as good form);

  • Do the session as planned but focus on the process and use the target power/pace/heart rate as guidelines, accepting that you may or may not hit them on this particular day but you will make your best effort and accept the outcome;

  • Cool down appropriately;

  • Rehydrate and recover properly afterwards, before moving onto other commitments or activities;

  • etc.

You may want to set different goals for specific types of sessions, particularly if you are doing multiple disciplines such as triathlon or you include gym work in your routine.

Your process goals should be planned to give you the best chance of meeting your other goals that may be associated with outcomes or performance, things you probably find more exciting and motivating but things you can’t control so well. Spend some time thinking about this before setting them up to make sure you believe in the process and your overall plan. Remember you need general goals to help you build consistency and more specific goals to help you get the most out of each training session.

You can learn from top athletes

If you watch sport on television, take a look at the pre-event interviews with the best athletes. They are all focused on the process of how they have trained and how they prepared for the event and they usually say that they are looking forward to see how well they do. This is really important, so spend some time to absorb it: the best athletes are interested in how well they are going to do, they almost certainly have outcome and performance goals, maybe to win or to finish in the top 5 or 10 competitors, but they are not focusing on that, they are focusing on the best process and are open open to the result, which may be what they hoped or not. They accept that it is the process that they can control and getting the process right is all they can do to give them the best chance of a win.

Look at the bigger picture

It is easy to lose sight of the fact that you get fitter and faster gradually as your body (and mind) adapt to gradually and consistently building up the volume and/or the intensity of your training. Once you realise this, it doesn't take a lot to realise that having the odd session when you don’t hit the targets isn’t going to make any significant difference to the rate at which you build fitness and neither is it likely to impact on your overall goals.

It is also worth considering why you may not hit your power/pace targets for any given session and realise that there are various factors, almost none of which are likely to be because you haven’t tried hard enough. The intensity targets are an estimate to guide the session, either set by you, a training plan or your coach. This estimate could be too high or too low for various reasons, such as:

  • you or your coach made a mistake setting the session;

  • you are unusually tired for some reason;

  • adverse environmental factors slow you down, such as excessive heat, rain, cold or snow;

  • etc.

With a little thought, you can see that these are things you are unlikely to be able to change during any particular session but it doesn’t mean that there is no point doing the session. The most important thing in building your fitness is likely to be executing the session to the best of your ability in the most effective way, even if this means making some slight changes, and recovering properly afterwards so that your body adapts as effectively as possible.

This isn’t to say that you can’t learn from sessions where you don’t hit your intensity (performance) goals but it is saying that your performance is just information and generally not something you can change. After the sessions, make comments in your diary and think about whether you can improve the process, then move on with the next session as you build your fitness step by step.

Be mindful

Mindfulness in itself is a great tool, as little as 5 minutes of relaxed, non-judgemental focus on your breathing can make an amazing difference to your mood and personal wellbeing. There are plenty of apps to help with this but I find that just closing my eyes and visualising my breath flowing through my body works well. You can’t get it wrong, so why not give it a try.

Here I am talking about being mindful and non-judgemental of yourself and your training. You obviously have to work hard to get the best out of yourself, particularly in your harder and more important sessions and races but this doesn't mean you have to become attached to the outcomes. If you follow the process, you will give yourself the best chance of a good outcome but the result will be whatever it is and all you can do is your best, so you may as well be happy with it, even if it isn’t what you wanted. Observe and learn, enjoy the journey and build on both your good and your not so good results.

Use common sense

If you are ill or injured it may be necessary to revise your activities, back off or take a rest. In this case, you may need to revise your process goals - a good example of this is a friend of mine, who used to run at a reasonable level; if he got an illness such as a cold, he reduced his training to 30 minutes each day until he was better. Obviously, with certain illnesses, it is best to rest completely so be sure to use your own judgement, be sensible and stay safe.

Set some guiding goals

Now, set some process goals that are fundamental to your training. If you set 3 effective goals that you always keep in mind to guide your training, you will feel much more comfortable. These have to be goals that you believe in and also goals that are within your control most of the time. A good approach could be to have a guiding goal for a particular session, one for each day and one for each week. Choose the things you think will make a difference but also things you can control.

Your 3 goals might be:

  1. To get 8 hours sleep each night, going to bed and getting up at consistent times that give you plenty of time to get ready for your day;

  2. At the start of each week to identify the 3 most important training sessions for that week and execute them according to your sessions process goals; and

  3. To execute each session according to the plan, focusing on the overall duration and each component, for example, if you have an interval session of 3 x 4 minutes hard efforts that will take 75 minutes to complete, including warm up and cool down, you would aim to do 75 minutes of training and have executed 3 x 4 minutes of effort. The intensity of the efforts would be a secondary goal that you understand is a product of many factors, some of which are outside your control and you will accept the outcome and learn from it as necessary but without attachment.

Now you have some goals you still need to be mindful that sometimes you may not be able to achieve them because life throws up unexpected challenges. However, you know that by following the processes and building up day upon day, week upon week and month upon month of consistent training, missing the odd session or not completing it as planned isn’t an issue.

Related questions

Can I use other techniques to help my anxiety? Yes, there are many techniques in sports psychology that you can use to help with anxiety in both your training and racing. One of the main things to deal with is what is known as negative self talk. A good way to deal with self talk is to write a list of all the negative things you say to yourself and next to each one, write a reason why it isn’t true or a reason you can ignore it. If you keep reading through this list you can reinforce the positives, so you can quickly refocus if you have negative thoughts. There are other ways you can use this list to refocus. We will soon have an article on this but in the interim, please have a look around or get in touch and we can help you out with some suggestions or more formally.

Is recording daily metrics like resting heart rate and HRV useful? As part of your daily process, it is useful to include a time to record some measurements such as resting heart rate, HRV (heart rate variability), hours of sleep and some subjective recordings of your mood. These things can prove invaluable in helping you notice the onset of fatigue or illness at an early stage that may otherwise go unnoticed until it becomes more serious. Paying attention to the signs and acting accordingly can really help in maintaining consistent and effective training.

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JHCoaching has been helping athletes at all ability levels for many years. During that time we have learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t, as well as helping many athletes achieve things they never thought possible.

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