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Road to the Trials: Trust the Process

As elite mother-runner Neely Gracey prepares for her third Olympic Marathon Trials, she explains how to turn your wildest ambitions into a plan of action.

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This is the second in an eight-part series at Women’s Running, following elite runner Neely Gracey as she prepares for the 2024 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Orlando in February.

What are your biggest running dreams? Do you aim to take on a new distance—a half marathon, a marathon, an ultra? Aspire to qualify for the Boston Marathon or the Olympic Trials Marathon? Running consistently for a year, five years, and beyond? Picture yourself finishing a race strong, with your family waiting for you on the other side of the line?

Those big, ambitious goals—ones that inspire, motivate, and even scare us a little—drive so many of us as athletes. But sometimes, we can feel uncertain or overwhelmed about how to turn these outcome goals into reality.

That’s where another type of goal—process goals—come in. They’re small, daily steps that add up to big breakthroughs in the long term. If you’re shooting for the stars, consider these the blueprints for your rocket ship. a reminder—I’m Neely Gracey, a mom of two, coach, elite runner, author, and four-time Olympic Trials qualifier.

Last month, I told you more about my running life and my quest to perform my best at the upcoming U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in Orlando in February.

This month, I’m sharing more about the small, everyday steps I’m taking to get there, and how you can use a similar strategy to carry you to your next big breakthrough.

RELATED: Road to the Trials Part 1: Go For Your Goals

Small Steps, Big Rewards

From the time I started running, I knew what I wanted to achieve: to win collegiate championships and break records, to become a professional athlete, and represent the United States in international competitions. But I wasn’t always sure exactly what to do to get there.

For me, a big key to unlocking these dreams was meeting Dr. Candice Zientek, a sport psychology professor at my alma mater, Shippensburg University. As I detail in my book Breakthrough Women’s Running, she taught me all about process goals. Together, we broke down the training and racing strategies that would help me achieve my ambitions, and then the specific daily, weekly, and monthly steps I could take to build them.

It’s an approach I’ve used through the years of my running career, to great success. At the beginning of each training cycle, I’ll set somewhere between three and 12 process goals. For example, I might aim to refill my water bottle by noon each day so I know I’m hydrating well, focus on adding one mile to my longer run each week to get comfortable at longer distances, or turn the lights out by 10 p.m. to prioritize rest.

As my goal race draws near, I review them every month or so, adding new ones, dropping those that aren’t working for me, and tweaking others as necessary. For instance, maybe bedtime comes even earlier, I realize I need to add a bottle of electrolyte fluids too, or my focus shifts from extending my long runs to adding in a day of shorter, faster intervals.

I track all this using a habit tracker—we’re providing one for you, below!—or by writing them in my hand-written training log (I like the Believe Training Journal).

When I was training for my first marathon in Boston in 2016, I had to learn how to fuel on the run—ideally, every 5K. My process goal included doing loops around a makeshift bottle station (or having my husband Dillon hand me fluids) on my long training runs.

For my next marathon, New York City, I put an emphasis on building my mental strategy. So I did at least one run a week on the treadmill, watching videos of the course on YouTube and rehearsing the mantras I’d use in each borough.

As you reflect on the goals you set last month, think about what process goals could look like for you right now. Say you’re focusing on keeping your body healthy while building up mileage—you could aim for 5 to 10 minutes of mobility work with a foam roller twice a week. If you’re in a time crunch to get your run in around daycare dropoff, you could set a process goal of changing into your running gear beforehand. If you’re targeting a race PR and know you tend to start too fast and fade, plan a workout a week where you intentionally run an easier pace for the first few miles or reps, then pick it up at the end.

Note that process goals don’t have to be purely performance-focused. They can also help you balance running with the rest of your life. Last year, when I was coming back into running after the birth of my second son, Rome, I wanted to rebuild my mileage—but also to spend as much time with him as possible.

Rather than view these as opposing pursuits, I came up with a win-win solution: we ran together at least three days per week, me pushing him in the Guava Family stroller. This gave us hours of special, meaningful time, free of the oh-so-familiar tug-of-war between training and momming. As we traveled the roads and trails together, I could both nurture our connection and begin to lay a foundation for my future running achievements. Running with the stroller encouraged me to keep my pace easy, so I stayed healthy even as I increased my weekly distances.

At the beginning, my main outcome goal was simply to return to running, happy and injury-free. But taking this process-focused approach allowed me to set—and achieve—an outcome goal that wasn’t even on my radar before.

In 2022, I saw an article about a dad who’d beat the men’s stroller record in the mile. I began to wonder if I could take down the women’s record. Thanks to my base of stroller miles, I just had to add a few more process goals to make it happen: fast repeats on the track with the stroller, completing the paperwork required to declare a Guinness World Record attempt, and setting up the logistics of timing and recording the race to verify it.

When Rome and I crossed the finish line on June 30th, 2023 in five minutes, 24.17 seconds, my eyes welled up with unexpected tears of joy and gratitude. I’ve always loved running with my boys, but now that they’re getting older—Athens is now 5 and rides his bike, and Rome started school—we don’t share as many miles as we used to. The record attempt started as a cherry-on-top effort. Along the way, it transformed into an emotional closure to the baby phase I didn’t know I needed.

RELATED: Neely Gracey Set One-Mile Stroller World Record

As I always tell my runners, even when we have our eyes on one big prize, we can (and should) make room for other goals and experiences along the way. Those in-between steps—the half marathon PR en route to the full, the trek to the faraway trail with your best training buddies, the stroller miles with your babe—can wind up being just as memorable and impactful as the race you’re building toward.

A Busy Mom’s Training Priorities

Now, as I look ahead to the Trials in February, I have my outcome goals set. I want to get to the start line healthy, finish strong, and ideally, make the top 10.

Unlike in years past, I am not taking an “all-in” kind of approach; I’m allowing myself more freedom and flexibility. So, I need process goals to achieve what I want without sacrificing the rest of my priorities or wasting energy when things don’t go according to plan.

Right now, my strategy is to re-establish my routine, ramp up my volume for a nice long phase of base-building, and begin preparing for a hot mid-day marathon, since it’s recently been announced that the race will begin at noon in Orlando. My process goals to support that include:

  • Drinking at least two bottles of electrolytes and two bottles of water per day
  • Getting consistent with a 10 p.m. bedtime
  • Prioritizing one long run and one workout per week, and adding in extra miles as I can
  • Doing a weekly hot yoga class (Dillon has even promised to join me—I’m going to hold him to it!)
  • Lifting with my neighbor once a week.
  • Hitting the hot tub after a few runs per week

I know that’s enough for right now. Through the years, I’ve learned that I can sustain an intense focus for about two months. Although this race is incredibly important to me, there are many other parts of my life that matter, too. As the Trials draw near, I’ll spend more time adding on to this list and dialing in the details.
Feel free to snag some of my process goals and see if they work for you! Or take them as inspiration for creating your own.

If all this sounds a little overwhelming right now, know that it gets a lot easier over time. Now that I’ve been running for years, some of these process goals are second nature. Each morning, when I make breakfast, I fill up my two bottles of fluids. When I’m taking a down week or month from training, I might stay up until midnight, but it’s easy for me to shift that earlier once I start getting up for longer morning runs. As you start to set, and track, your own goals, you’ll find yourself creating a similar harmony with your routine and your body—you’ll learn what works to support your training and your life, so you always have a roadmap to go back to when you’re setting new goals.

My challenge to you for this month is to take your big dreams and start to break them down into real, tangible actions that will help you achieve them.

  • If you’re running a fall marathon, you might also want to set process goals around fueling, visualization and mantras, or hydration.
  • Or maybe you also have ideas about how to include your partner or your kiddos, ways of continually integrating your running into the rest of your life.

You can use the habit tracker below to commit those goals to paper, then keep tabs on them over time. As you do, you’ll get to know yourself better as a runner and a human, developing a sort of instruction manual for living your healthiest, happiest athletic life. As I write in my book, it’s in this delicate balance between dreaming big and starting small—your heart aiming for the stars, your feet firmly planted on the road—where true breakthroughs are born.

Download: Outcome, Process Goals and Habit Tracking with Neely Gracey

Download the tracker 

Outcome Process Goals Habit Tracker

Click the image to download a printable version of the worksheet


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