What's Cool In Road Cycling

Training: Why Process Goals Matter

And How They Affect The Outcome

TOOLBOX: Goals and outcomes from hard work in training are great, but an over-reliance on the end result can make for an all-or-nothing experience for some competitive cyclists. Focusing on the process to get there can be even more important.  Here’s how to break down the steps to make your training process a more effective way to reach your long term cycling goals.


Faster rides. Stronger legs. Leaner body mass. Tougher mindset.

Any of these ideas about your cycling sound familiar? When you identify a discrepancy between your current and desired performance, you’re setting a goal (Locke & Latham, 2012). Setting goals is part of being human – it’s something we all do, be it for cycling, work, parenting, appearance, or just living your best life.

If you read last month’s article on Motivation, you might remember the “continuum” of motivation, and that we considered ALL of your motives for cycling and training to be important contributors to your ongoing success. Motivation matters, because it drives us toward our goals. According to Goal Setting Theory (Locke & Latham, 1990) all humans are naturally goal-directed, and your motives propel you towards your goals.

Motivations and goals work together to keep you focused, moving, and aiming higher. If you aren’t harnessing your motivation and leveraging it effectively, you’ll lose sight of your goals and maybe even lose interest in them. Reciprocally, if you don’t have specific, measurable, achievable goals outlined for yourself, it’s only a matter of time before you’re struggling to “find” and use motivation.

Setting goals

What are your Goals?
So, what are the goals you’re currently pursuing? Write a few down. Maybe you have a cadence goal, a riding-time goal, a body weight/lean mass goal. Maybe you’re working on some aspect of your form or focusing on building quadricep strength. See if you can identify at least two goals that are currently on your radar.

What did you notice? Hopefully, and similarly to your cycling motives inventory, you’ve identified goals that cover a range of outcomes, like fitness, energy level, speed, strength and maybe even appearance, body weight, or overall sexiness. In addition, you should also see processes, like learning a new skill, or improving it. Adopting a new breathing technique, or practicing it regularly. Do you notice more goals focused on outcomes, or processes?

Outcomes Versus Processes
Often, athletes identify outcome goals easily. Processes, on the other hand, can be overlooked, or forgotten.

Outcomes are important and worthy of your time. But focusing solely on the outcomes of our pursuits can distance us from the day to day work that we need to put in to accomplish those goals. For example, the pandemic may have pushed back your opportunities to compete for well over the next year.  If your races, and the requisite speeds and strength you strive to achieve in order to compete feel far, far away, it may be hard to get in consistent rides, strength training, and other components of effective preparation for competition.

What are Process Goals?
Researchers and practitioners have long known that process goals can improve performance and productivity, and that outcome goals on their own can sometimes interfere with performance and productivity (Zimmerman & Kitsantas, 1997). While it is important to have an outcome goal, it’s equally, if not more important, to set processes goals.

I know – “Eyes on the prize!” “Go for the Gold!” –  right? It seems natural to focus on the desired outcome in order to keep you pushing toward it. However, focusing on the outcome only can drain motivation, impair performance, and have a negative impact on goal achievement. On the other hand, a focus on the process of your goals can be more enjoyable and more effective in helping you achieve the outcome. In other words, process-oriented goals focus on the journey – not the destination.

Now, this doesn’t mean throwing your outcome goal out with the motivational bathwater. Having a goal of any kind is good – the key is to mix it up, particularly if your outcome goal is long term, high-reaching or both. For example:

Let’s say your outcome goal is to compete at a specific race and to finish with a specific time that would be a personal record. That’s a fabulous goal.  But if there won’t be any races to attend for a year or more, you can lay process goal breadcrumbs out along the way to maintain motivation. You might choose to focus on speed drills and to set a process goal that includes the frequency, intensity, and duration of these drills for a 2-4 week period, with specific measures of your times and your perceived exertion. The next month, you might choose to focus on the process of decreasing body fat by 1-2% by practicing being hungry for 30-60 minutes before eating meals, abstaining from snacks, increasing your water intake, and maintaining a food/water journal with your progress.

Do you see the difference? Your outcome goal focuses on the end. Your process goal focuses on the means. Outcome goals will be an achievement that happened (past tense). Process goals are tasks that are happening (present tense). Remember, process goals can act in the service of an outcome.

The end result

Why Go for Process Goals?
Setting an outcome goal, but then focusing on the process can be worthwhile for a number of reasons:

  1. Performance enhancement: If you are thinking about the process of your cycling, training, eating, or dynamic stretching, and not just the outcome, you can bet you’ll have better form, stronger focus, and increased resolve to push harder and improve.
  2. Avoiding negativity: Sometimes, outcome goal orientation causes us to focus on what NOT to do (“I will not eat any Doritos this week!”). Guess what happens when you try to NOT think about Doritos? Or not skipping a day on the trainer? Focusing on the process is foolproof, because you’re always thinking about what to do. Process orientation keeps you in the present moment, engaged, focused, and motivated.
  3. Enjoyment: It’s true! Being fully engaged in a goal-directed activity is an evidence-based way to be a happy camper. Quite the opposite of being a mindless, horizontal vegetable on the couch streaming show after show with your favorite bag of chips, it’s engagement in something you love – engrossed, focused, effortful immersion into something you love that makes you feel happy and fulfilled Flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).

Developing Process Goals
So, why not give process-oriented goals a try? Here’s what to do:

  1. Look back at your short list of goals and select one outcome that is of highest importance to you. Take a moment to consider the processes that are involved in this outcome (for example, cadence work, consistent 8-9 hours of sleep each night, meal preparation, better ankle mobility).
  2. Identify one or more specific processes to focus on. If you identify more than one, you can work on one at a time, and select which you’d like to tackle first. If you’ve got one for now, that works, and my guess is you’ll identify more as you work on this first process.
  3. Keep track of your process goals. Goal effects are significantly strengthened when you write about them (Locke & Latham, 2019). You might put bedtime, or training time into your schedule, and then make a check mark when you’ve complied with your plan. Measure the progress of your goal by recording increases in strength, riding times, or improved range of mobility.
  4. Set a timetable. Be specific about how long you want to focus on this process before turning your attention to something different. For me personally, 4 weeks is a good amount of time, because I can achieve progress and maintain high motivation, then switch to something new before getting bored or plateauing.

Good Luck and let me know how it goes!

Going for the final goal

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper Collins Publishers, NY.

Locke, E.A. & Latham, J.P. (1990). A Theory of Goal Setting and Task Performance. Pearson Publishers, NY.

Locke, E.A. & Latham, J.P. (2012). New Developments in Goal Setting and Task Performance. Taylor and Francis Group Publishers, NY.

Locke, E.A. & Latham, J.P. (2019). Legacies in motivation science. The development of goal setting theory: A half century retrospective. Motivation Science, 5, 93-105.

Zimmerman, B.J. & Kitsantas, A. (1997). Developmental phases in self-regulation: Shifting from process goals to outcome goals. Journal of Educational Psychology, 89, 29-36.

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