There’s an awesome article over at the New York Times about re-thinking exercise as a source of immediate rewards, not a way of possibly achieving some outcome in the future. Many times when we have a rigid goal – do X amount of training, get Y result – we can set ourselves up for failure. We tend to do too much, and when we can’t keep up with that goal, we give up or get hurt.

Having a purpose or a goal is essential. But if we could accomplish a goal just by having one, I’d be retired right now at age 27 (maybe it can wait till 30?). Our brains are not wired to think about some abstract future event. We can only focus on the present; the process to achieve that goal.

If you’re a current or former athlete, you should know this. I sure do: I had a lot of early success, followed by a lot of injuries. The more I focused on that success and those results, the more I got injured. The more I got injured, the more I focused on getting back to the results. I got worse every season. Too much future-dwelling, not enough present-feeling.

In training for health, fitness, performance, or whatever goal you have, the best research-tested, mother-approved way to get there is to focus on the immediate benefits of training. Those immediate benefits usually aren’t faster times or better performances; they come in the form of learning.

We think of learning as a cognitive process that’s happening in our brains. But it’s also the physiological process that causes our bodies to adapt to training. If we focus on the adaptation itself, the performance outcome, the end result, we’ll be disappointed, overtrained, or injured.

Focusing on the learning process won’t just help you train better. It’s also the key to success in a competition. And it’s true of every event and every sport.

The best weightlifters don’t focus on how much weight they’re lifting. They put the weight on the bar, and focus on perfect movements, teaching their bodies the best way to move that weight. Physiologically, that’s how you actually get stronger.

The best basketball players don’t think about how many points, rebounds, or assists they need for a double-double. They’re concerned with being in the right place at the right time, seeing the floor, reacting, or just plain having fun playing a game.

The best cyclists don’t worry all race long about hitting a certain power output for a certain amount of time, or having a heart rate in a certain zone. That’s what the team car is for. Instead, they focus on cadence, breathing, body position, technique. The process and not the result.

Your data is a part of that learning process. It’s not the result. It’s a tool to help you figure out if what you’re learning is reflected in changes in fitness, fatigue, and performance.

It’s also why of all the data you’re recording, the most valuable metric could be your perception. How do you feel? Are you getting better? Worse? What do you think? That’s how you optimize your training: once you can find your individual performance responses to training, you’ll be dangerous.

So focus on the process, you could learn something!

Kevin Fasing

Kevin Fasing is an Exercise Physiologist in Denver CO. An athlete, coach, scientist, and avid dog-walker and bike commuter, he believes everyone can accomplish their goals through personal data collection and the information to interpret it.