A commonly overlooked training tool is the training log. It can be one of the cheapest, simplest tools in your training regime—and one of the most effective for long-term improvement. About five years ago, I started a log that has become a critical piece of my training. If your goal as an athlete is long-term improvement, then a training log is the best tool to help you maintain objectivity. Just as engineers and scientists log data to help repeatability, quality control, and improvement, athletes can realize benefits from their training data.
A training log is simply a diary to record information about your training. My training logs aren’t fancy, usually a notebook I keep close at hand. Some prefer to keep electronic versions on computers. There are web-based programs designed for maintaining athletes’ training logs. You can now find several smart-phone applications to keep a log on your phone. Personally, I still prefer pen and paper, but the point is to choose a medium that is appropriate for you and, most importantly, one that you’ll maintain.
At a minimum, you should jot down your workout sessions, times, paces, distances, and notes on how you felt. Some athletes keep very detailed logs with heart rate data, daily body weight, rest, cycling wattage, personal and work stresses, sleep information, as well as daily nutrition. The more data you keep, the better, but it’s most important to choose information that you know you’ll maintain over time. If you start by recording every little piece of data about your day, unless you are very disciplined, you may fall out of the practice and abandon your log if it becomes too much of a time commitment. Try starting your log to see what information you can easily keep up.
Once you’ve started your log, make it part of your routine. If you miss a few days, try to jot down as much information as you remember. After a period of time, you can begin to use it as a reference tool in your training. If you have a coach, it’s critical to share that information with your coach. If you’re self-coached, its one of the best ways to look at yourself and your training objectively.
The key benefits of collecting data:
With long-term training data, you can look back over time to identify specific things you did leading up to your best moments. What sessions, times, paces, and recovery did you do before your best races? How did you structure your race build, or your taper? Without a log, you have a notion in your mind, but with it documented, you can look back and concretely identify those items you felt made the difference. If you appropriately incorporate those items into your next plan, then you’re more likely to repeat a great performance.
We all make errors in our training. We over train, under rest, set too aggressive goals, or over reach in our sessions. Often, these mistakes lead to injury or extreme fatigue. Without a log to review, it’s difficult to gain an objective perspective on our own training and identify these patterns. I recently reviewed an old log and saw notes about how trashed my legs were and how exhausted I was for many days in a row. I look at that and ask “why didn’t I take a couple of days for recovery?” Now when I find myself jotting down similar notes, I know it’s time to avoid old mistakes and take extra rest.
With hard data, it will be easy to see when your fitness has hit a plateau. You’ll see a pattern of stagnation with your test sets and key sessions. You’re not looking for a plateau over a one- or two-week period, rather you’re looking for a long-term lack of improvement. Once a plateau has been identified, you can look at your training critically to identify where you need to change your sessions or recovery to create the stimulus to get past your plateau.
Psychologically, injuries are the toughest issue for most athletes to manage. When we’re in the middle of recovery, we feel like we will never be the same athlete or get back to the same level of fitness. With a training log, you can see that it probably didn’t take as long as you thought to get back from a previous injury to your same fitness. You can identify how many weeks you felt weak before you got your stride back. This can be incredibly comforting when you’re going through an injury. A record of your past will help you realize that you’ve come back before and you can do it again. Seeing how your body reacted in the past can help you set expectations for yourself and the pace of your recovery.
During the taper for a big event, athletes often second guess themselves and their training: Did I train hard enough? Did I do enough miles? Am I fit enough? As you taper properly , your body will go through phases where you don’t feel fit and then it’s easy to doubt. As I feel those thoughts and anxiety creep in, the first thing I do is pull out my training log. First, I look at the last several months of training leading to the event. Just seeing the miles, hours, and sessions immediately helps my confidence. Next, I look further back to the builds to past races. I remind myself that training is cumulative over time. It’s not just one or two weeks of training that make an athlete, it’s the months and years. Seeing the sessions and races over the long term is absolutely the best thing an athlete can do to boost confidence and clear mental doubts.
It’s important to see your improvements over time. You may watch your race times improve, but sometimes seeing other advances can be just as important to your motivation. I keep all the times and paces of certain key sessions so I can compare those test sets over the long term. When I can see improvement, it’s positive feedback that I’m doing the right things. If I don’t see improvement over the long term, then I know I need to take a hard look at my methodology behind my training. You’ll see the fluctuations from how you feel day-to-day, and though you won’t see daily momentous jumps, you’re looking for that long-term improvement.