Rediscovering a Process Focus – 80/20 Endurance
Shelby Houlihan

Rediscovering a Process Focus

There’s a runner I coach, we’ll call him Jeremy, who’s concerned about his weight. It’s not that he’s overweight and worried about developing type 2 diabetes or heart disease. Rather, Jeremy is light and lean but just not quite as light and lean as the elite trail runners whose ranks he aspires to join—and it bothers him.

In our most recent weekly call, Jeremy was out of sorts because he had just hopped on the scale for the first time in several weeks and discovered his weight hadn’t budged despite an increasing training load and consistent healthy eating. At one point he asked me, “Do you think there’s any way I can get to their level [referring to the top trail runners] without getting down to their weight?”

I explained to Jeremy that he was looking at it all wrong. “The question you should be asking is whether you will ever become the best runner you can be,” I said, “and the answer to that question is an emphatic yes, because it’s almost entirely within your control. If you just focus on the process, training right, eating right, progressing sensibly, and learning and adapting as you go, you will realize 100 percent of your God-given ability. Whether you will lose a few more pounds along the way is unknowable and beside the point, hence a complete waste of time worrying about.”

Okay, I might not have said “hence,” but the rest is pretty accurate, and my message was well received. Jeremy understood there was no rational reason to be anxious about the uncertainty surrounding whether he would need to lose weight to achieve his goals and whether he even could lose weight if he did need to. I had reminded him that there is no uncertainty whatsoever about the process a runner needs to follow to become the best runner they can be, and that a runner who simply follows this process without looking ahead is all but guaranteed to realize their full potential. There is no more reason to presume that success in this effort depends on attaining a certain weight than it does to presume that it depends on attaining a certain VO2max, running economy, respiratory exchange ratio, lactate threshold—you get the idea.

The importance of maintaining a process focus in the pursuit of athletic ambitions is well established, and yet most athletes struggle to do so with any real consistency. Jeremy is by no means an outlier in this respect. A huge part of my job as a coach is to herd athletes back to the path of process focus when they stray from it, seduced by the bright, shiny object of outcomes. It is for this reason that I see the current Coronavirus pandemic not as a good thing, certainly, but as a bad thing with a silver lining, at least.

The near-total erasure of the 2020 race calendar has all but forced athletes to focus more on the process of getting better than they are normally wont to do. Some have adapted to the situation better than others, and by and large, few athletes have adapted better than the pros, who tend to be very process focused at all times. It hasn’t surprised me at all that a number of great performances have been achieved by elite runners during this strange period, including Donavan Brazier’s PR 3:35 1500 meters, Keira D’Amato’s breakthrough 15:04 5000 meters, and Shelby Houlihan’s stunning 14:23 5000m American record.

I myself have found the lack of normal racing opportunities oddly beneficial. By nature I love to compete, and in normal times I am, throughout the training process, constantly looking forward to my next race. One might have expected, therefore, that the present moratorium on mass-participation events would deal a blow to my motivation, but what I’ve found instead is that, without conscious intent, I’ve simply transferred the anticipation I normally direct at races to my training. Whereas previously I looked ahead to workouts primarily as stepping stones toward the real prize, I now look forward to workouts as ends in themselves.

This has turned out to be a very good thing for my fitness. Honestly, I’m astonished by how far I’ve come since missing an entire month of training due to illness between early March and early April. When I ran the 2017 Chicago Marathon at the tail end of my fake pro runner experience, I consciously viewed my PR performance as a swan song of sorts. At 46, I fully accepted that my best days as a runner were now surely behind me. Now, three years later, I find myself as fit as I was then, possibly fitter, and in less than two weeks I’m going to take a crack at setting an unofficial marathon PR in a solo time trial. Certainly there is more than one factor playing in to the fitness renaissance I’m experiencing, but this enforced process focus is, without a doubt, a major one. Take heed!