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a woman in athletic apparel sits on her yoga mat in her home writing in a fitness journal

The word “diary” brings to mind a little blank book with a small key and lock that my mother gave me for my eighth birthday. I never used it. Recording everyday events felt like a useless chore – until 20 years later when I joined a marathon-training program. Our coach, a nervous, wiry guy who had completed well more than 100 marathons, required all of his runners to keep a log of every workout. He inspected them to see if we had completed our weekly assignments and bragged about logging an average 2,500 miles per year for the last 10 years. “That’s once around the equator,” he explained.

Of course, never having kept track, I had no idea how many miles I ran a week, let alone a year or in a lifetime. But I bought my first runner’s almanac and began recording runs. Almost immediately, I started noticing patterns. For example, when I logged 30 miles or more I lost weight, but any distance over 40 miles was pretty tough on my body and required a couple of days rest. Some weeks, I felt like I had run twice around the world and only logged 15 miles. This truthful record of actual miles helped me to moderate workouts, avoid burnout and push myself when I knew the exhaustion came from boredom and laziness rather than too much exercise.

After the marathon, I kept my log current and started keeping track of all my workouts. The training log became an essential device in my conditioning toolkit, revealing subtle relationships between exercise, eating patterns and general fitness.

If you’ve ever participated in a professional weight-loss program, you know that the first thing you have to do is jot down everything you eat. Until you do, you have no idea what your actual intake is. Most people underreport their intake by a third or more. Writing it down, calorie-by-calorie, forces you to face the facts, and that’s what a complete training diary is all about. It provides a truthful reflection of how you eat, sleep and work out. Just confronting yourself with the truth can help you stick to a fitness program. Honesty provides the motivation to change.

Becoming Conscious

There’s a form of Buddhist meditation called Vipassana, or “insight meditation,” that has become very popular. In simple terms, it involves sitting very still, breathing quietly while witnessing the thoughts that cross your mind as if they were clouds traversing clear skies. It’s a method of observing your mind impassably. Somehow, participating in this simple act of scrutiny (without actually trying to change or improve anything) is both transformative and therapeutic. It unclogs your brain, breaks deeply entrenched mental habits and helps enrich your thinking. It’s not mystical but akin to the tried-and-true adage that Little League coaches repeat: “Keep your eye on the ball.” What they mean is, “Don’t try to hit the ball; just know where it is and let your body perform.”

It’s not mystical but akin to the tried-and-true adage that Little League coaches repeat: “Keep your eye on the ball.” What they mean is, “Don’t try to hit the ball; just know where it is and let your body perform.”

Whatever you do, things go better with awareness. A training diary supports self-knowledge and provides the tools you need to track your progress and make adjustments whenever you veer off course. It also provides a personal history you can consult any time.

For example, if you’re trying to maintain a certain weight and suddenly notice yourself gaining, you might thumb through your logbook looking for a month when you were doing especially well. Compare your entries then and now.

One thing I’ve noticed in doing this is stark changes in penmanship. When I’m doing well, I write with bold, clear letters and complete sentences. The further I venture astray, the more illegible my writing becomes and the more cryptic my entries appear. It’s as if I were trying to avoid self-awareness. To get back on track, I turn to a new page and resume logging my workouts and meals completely, clearly and truthfully. Somehow, the bathroom scale responds.

Getting Started

You could keep track of your weight, exercise, meals and rest periods using a business pocket calendar or even a blank notebook. This is how the legendary bodybuilder Frank Zane charted his course to win all the top bodybuilding titles, including Mr. Olympia.

In 2002, Zane published a sample of his diary to shed light on how a champion charts progress. Beyond calories, sets and reps, Zane’s meticulous entries include pulse rate, dreams, metaphysical realizations and workout poetry. It’s an inspiring testimonial that reveals the single-minded focus required of any great achievement.

But for those of us who are less devoted and more organizationally challenged, several authors have published pre-printed training journals with fill-in-the-blank spaces for food, sets, reps, miles, comments and periodic fitness assessments.

In 2002, Zane published a sample of his diary to shed light on how a champion charts progress. Beyond calories, sets and reps, Zane’s meticulous entries include pulse rate, dreams, metaphysical realizations and workout poetry.

The best training journal for you depends on the type of training you do. No one has devised a perfect all-around fitness log. Every logbook slants toward a certain type of training, such as long-distance running or bodybuilding.

Diaries that simply address the type of exercise you do and record how long you do it, such as “weight training, one hour,” don’t illicit enough detail to chart your activities accurately. You need to know exactly what you did during that hour of weight training. Likewise, an entry that simply reads “Cardio, 90 minutes” won’t help you gauge progress toward race day. You’ll want to know the distance you ran, the terrain and meteorological conditions, your average pace and the type of workout you engaged in. If you ran splits or intervals, you’ll want to track these in detail. You can’t do all of this in one line, so look for a training log with plenty of room to write and pages designed for your area of focus.

Learning some shorthand can help you make the most of a small writing area. For example, you might use abbreviations such as d.b. for dumbbell and b.b. for barbell. You can do some exercises standing or sitting, so you might use an upward arrow for standing and downward arrow for sitting.

In my running log, I like to note the intensity of my training session with “M/H” for medium to high, or “L” for low. I use “I.T.” for interval training followed by my base and interval speeds, such as 6.5 mph to 7, 7.5, 8, 8.5, and 9 mph for 1 minute each. On long runs, I simply enter the miles and average speed.

Choosing Your Log

If you’re devoted to a single sport, such as cycling or powerlifting, find a log devoted to it. Most of these contain technical tips, inspirational messages and a layout geared toward recording pertinent, sport-specific information.

Some logs double as calendars and you have to buy a new one every year. You can use these to schedule and track specific workouts, but I prefer a timeless log with enough room for me to enter the month, day and year on every page. You can start on one of these training logs at any time with no wasted pages. I buy several at a time, so I never run out.

Your log should be small enough to carry in your gym bag and spiral-bound, so you can fold it open. It should also have thick pages that won’t tear easily. Make sure it has a glossy cover your sweaty hands won’t soil.

For logging runs, I like Dr. Sharon Svensson’s The Total Runner’s Log, or, for the more serious training program, Tony Svensson’s The Total Triathlon Almanac, published by the Trimarket Company, Palo Alto, Calif. The Total Runner’s Log includes a training guide with instructions on how to use the log. It offers sections on nutrition, running tips, strength training and heart-rate-monitor training, followed by undated, weekly training logs with space to jot down notes and training information. This log also includes sections to record interval and strength training as well as space to chart and graph weekly and annual progress and race records, making it easy to track your weekly goals against actual performance and keep a running tally of the miles you’ve run.

The Total Triathlon Almanac caters to the triathlete looking to improve his or her times. Svensson, a successful and dedicated triathlete himself, developed the guide so that other triathletes and duathletes might benefit from his training tips, success stories – and his firm belief that by keeping a training record, you can drastically improve your performance.

Cyclists should check out The Heart Rate Monitor Log Book for Outdoor and Indoor Cyclists by Edwards and Reed. For general fitness and weight training, I use the Daily Fit Plan Workout Success Planner from Pro Fitness Group, Inc. This undated training log includes pages to record body measurements and set goals, daily weight-training exercises with space for weight and reps, a daily food log and space to log cardiovascular training.

Writing Toward Your Goals

Before you start logging workouts, it’s good to set a benchmark and some realistic goals. The benchmark represents a measure of your present level of fitness. Most health clubs can provide you with a general fitness assessment that measures your body composition, cardiovascular endurance, muscular endurance, absolute strength and flexibility. Based on these measurements, you can set reasonable goals to work toward for the next six to eight weeks.

I recommend finding a training log that has specific pages devoted to tracking these measurements and changes. Once you’ve established your present level of fitness, ask a trainer to help you set goals and mark your next test date on the calendar. Stick to it, even if you don’t feel ready when that day comes around. Remember, the first tenet of using a training log involves brutal honesty, so always chart your progress (or lack of it). Celebrate your success and recommit to your goals every time you become distracted.

Logging Sets, Reps and Miles

The basic parameters you’ll want to keep track of in your weight training include:

  1. Muscles worked
  2. Exercise used to work these muscles
  3. How much resistance you pitted your muscles against
  4. How many times you repeated the movement

You track this by noting your daily focus in the notes section of your journal, such as “shoulders and abs,” followed by the individual exercises you choose to perform and the weight and number of repetitions. You may also want to note the setting used on machines, such as the seat height and backrest incline.

I like to keep track of the date and number of workouts I’ve completed instead of the weeks spent on a given program. Weeks may include missed sessions and days off, so they provide a less accurate measure. Let’s say you want to focus on muscular endurance for six weeks by doing high-volume, low-intensity workouts. Instead of watching the calendar, just multiply three workouts per week by six weeks and then build a training plan based on 18 exercise sessions. It may actually take you seven weeks to complete the 18 sessions, but at least you’ll know you have done exactly what you set out to do.

Tracking aerobic work usually entails recording three variables:

  1. Time
  2. Distance
  3. Heart rate

Your basic log should include space to jot down all three. Since cyclists and runners generally try to complete a certain number of miles each week, many prefer a logbook that displays one week per page. This page should include space to note the distance traveled each workout, the total time and average pace. At the bottom of each page, you should find a place to jot down your weekly goal, actual miles and the distance you’ve traveled year-to-date. I like to include an average pace, too, since the object is to improve your overall speed as well as endurance. Most endurance almanacs don’t include a daily food diary, which is a mistake since many people run or cycle to lose weight, and most can’t lose weight through exercise alone.

Many endurance athletes also like to keep track of their resting heart rate, which you can determine by checking your pulse first thing in the morning (before drinking coffee). Any jump in your resting heart rate could signal overtraining. As you become more fit, your resting rate should go down slightly. On cross-training days, log the activity you did, such as yoga or weight training. Unfortunately, most cycling and running logs don’t provide space to jot down many details, but you can improvise by using the general notes section for this purpose.

Daily Discipline

While I was training for my first marathon, I asked my coach if running 26 miles would qualify me as an athlete. He said, “No. Training to run 26 miles is what qualifies you as an athlete.” Using a similar logic, a logbook puts your focus where it ought to be: on the daily discipline of working out. Goals such as race dates and weight loss provide an objective to focus and motivate your training, but it’s the lifelong habit of daily exercise that makes you an athlete.

Being an athlete represents a way of life, just like being an artist. It requires a deep level of commitment. Your logbook, like a sketchbook, becomes the chronicle of your endeavor and a testament to your dedication.

This article has been updated and originally appeared as “Dear Diary.”

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