7 reasons to keep a running diary

Does your training need a leg up? Keeping a diary could be the game-changer that your running needs.


by Rhalou Allerhand
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Even with the best intentions, in the run up to race day the task at hand can start to feel daunting and training can fall behind. If you’re gearing up for a big event but your running has hit a stalemate, now is the time to consider a training diary.

A running diary can be a simple journal that chronicles your training, but it also has the potential to be an essential tool for achieving your fitness goals. By consistently logging data, key patterns that you wouldn’t normally notice may suddenly emerge and your running can transform from a haphazard affair to an efficient PB-ready programme.

‘A training diary isn’t just there to record individual sessions, but more importantly to map out your eight to 12-week plan,’ says Becky Hodgson, personal trainer and running coach at Hall Training Systems. ‘It gives you structure, stability and a set of targets, which you’re working for in the short and medium term. Try to see your training diary as a list of weekly targets that you’re trying to smash week-on-week. Just like architectural plans are the blueprint for a successful house build, a runner’s diary is the blueprint for a successful training plan.’

1. Structure

Logging your running life can provide vital focus for future targets. ‘If you're aiming to cover a distance or a certain time then you'll need to have structure or a plan to make this happen,’ explains Hodgson. ‘A diary is a place where your specific workout plan is written down and all workouts are recorded. With each recording the runner can look back to see how well they did during a particular run and whether anything needs to be adjusted. For example, if you manage to cover 10K in 45 minutes in one workout but then struggle with a time of 49 minutes the next, having your workouts written down will allow you to look back at what may have caused the drop in performance - perhaps it was lack of sleep, poor nutrition, overtraining or even the weather. Knowing this information can prevent a person from becoming de-motivated but also see what could be hindering their performance.’

You don’t need to have a snazzy, purpose-made training log to monitor your workouts. ‘Just make sure you track the time of day you start your run, how long it takes you, which route and how much distance you covered, and any significant factors, i.e. running fasted or in bad weather,’ adds Hodgson. ‘Then you can see your improvements week-on-week. At the beginning of each week, make sure you reflect on what you want to achieve by the end of this and write it down.’

2. Set goals

Your training diary is also the ideal place to record your goals and keep your aims in sight. ‘I started using a training diary at the start of this year, to keep track of my training for my first half marathon,’ says Joanna Barlow, a customer service advisor from Milton Keynes. ‘I wanted to set monthly goals and keep a track of my training to make sure I wasn't increasing mileage too quickly. It's been really helpful to look back and see how much I've improved - even over the past six weeks. I also keep track of my strength training and my diary tells me that I've increased the amount of reps on certain exercises, which is a great confidence boost and motivator!’

‘It's been really great for setting specific goals - rather than the vague ones I had before. One of my goals used to be to increase calf strength, but it has now changed to wanting to double the amount of calf raises I can complete month on month. If I'm feeling particularly tired or suspect I've been overtraining, I can look back over the month to see if I've been overdoing it. It's also very motivational. Having the goals written down gives me a focus. I LOVE achieving goals, so it drives me to keep going, Writing them down has also forced me to make my goals more specific and realistic - which means I don't lose motivation.’

Claire Pepper, a photographer from London, agrees. 'The one I use is quite goal-oriented so it has made me think in that way much more than I normally would, in terms of what I want to do this year and also what I want to achieve,' she explains. 'Whereas in previous years I have just signed up for random stuff and trained for it without any wider sense of the year as a whole or what I want to achieve. I definitely feel like I have managed to train consistently so far this year and that's probably down to being more organised.'

3. Measure progress

Keeping a log of your training is the perfect way to measure your progress. ‘I started using a diary during my first marathon five years ago as a way of holding myself to account to do sessions I'd planned,’ says Cathy Drew, an international officer from Brighton. ‘If I had to write the distance down, I found it motivated me to get out and do them. Since that first marathon, I've just continued to use a book to document my training.

‘I find that it helps me to sensibly piece together my thoughts about training sessions, and not overtrain or beat myself up about not getting the miles in. I write about how I'm feeling, if I've eaten anything weird or not enough... I find keeping a diary is a really helpful measure of my progress, plus it's fun to look back on at the end of the 'season'!’

4. Identify patterns

Do you find Mondays particularly tough? Or does your energy slump on certain days of the week? By consistently logging data to examine your fatigue levels you can identify key patterns. For example, if you find a few days after a long run especially draining, factor an easy run into your future training plan. Or if you lag behind at certain times of the month, give yourself an easy week or substitute your run for a lower impact exercise. ‘The workout diary itself won’t make you faster, but it can definitely show you trends: the days on which you were faster and areas which you may need to work on,’ adds Hodgson. ‘A diary can act as bank of data that can be used to the runner’s advantage for future training sessions and designing new workouts.’

5. Accountability

If you make a plan, you’re considerably more likely to achieve your goals. ‘Writing out your goals at the beginning of the week can make you more likely to stick to them,’ says Hodgson. ‘Setting very short-term goals like this means you get a fresh goal and target every week. Having to record your runs also leaves glaring holes when you miss a workout you had scheduled.’

‘I use a training diary because I enjoy the process of reflecting on my training and being able to look back at what worked and what didn't,’ says Sarah Marsden, a doctor from Leeds. ‘I find it helps me think about my training more, and how I'm feeling, rather than just blindly following a training plan, which has got me overtrained and injured in the past.’

Sarah uses a diary that has exercises to work through. ‘Each week has space for setting a goal for the week, recording and reflecting on training, and a specific exercise to think about, like what my biggest obstacle to success is, or how I'm going to take care of myself that week. It helps me think about the goals I set and how to break down achieving them into smaller steps, and helps me look back and spot patterns either that led to any injuries or problems I've had, or to particularly good races. It's motivational in that having to write in the diary that I flaked out on runs makes me ashamed!’ 

Sarah has also found that recording her runs is particularly useful for accountability. ‘If I miss more than occasional runs, it's an easy pattern to spot and snap myself out of. It also helps me take better care of myself when work is emotionally tough and I'm exhausted, and realise I should back off on the training.’

6. Motivation

One of the biggest benefits of keeping a training log is the motivation it provides. ‘A training diary allows you to take recordings of both time and distance. If you see improvements in one or even both, you know the hard work is paying off and motivation will soar,’ explains Hodgson.

‘However, the opposite can hold true. For some people having a “bad session” can provide them with more determination and drive to push harder, train for longer, but for others it can send them spiralling down a route where they become disheartened, demotivated and sometimes feel like quitting. However, this isn't the attitude to take as everyone can have off days where their performance isn't 100 per cent. Knowing why your performance has dropped and what can be done about it is where the real secret lies, and you can only really know this by logging everything in your training diary.’

7. Traditional diary alternatives

A training diary might not work for everyone, but there are other ways to record your run data and track your goals. ‘For me, having real time numbers and glaring red cells in front of me make it far more likely that I'll go out and run,’ says Ash Coates from Cheshire. ‘Being a software developer it's a lot easier for me to enter stuff this way than the old fashioned pen and paper. I started using a training diary last year. Unfortunately due to the amount of info you had to enter into it, it soon became a laborious job… so I switched over to using a combination of Strava and Excel. I started putting any comments or thoughts on my run as the title of my Strava workout, so I could immediately see a reason why I was slower or faster that particular day (weather bad, hungover etc).’

‘I've also used Excel/Google over the last few years to keep track of total distance as I'm always aiming for a goal of 2015 miles in 2015 or 2016 in 2016 and this seemed to hold all the information I needed to motivate me to get out and run. I added a rolling total and an update on whether I'm up or down on what I should be for the year and colour coding for missed days/club runs and races. As I've got a couple of years worth of runs recorded this way it's also a lot easier to analyse how well I'm doing against previous years training plans/runs without having to read through pages of journals.’

‘I use a big spreadsheet,’ agrees Andrew Cooney, a Web developer from Windsor. ‘It helps when you have time goals. It's motivating (you don't want a blank in your spreadsheet - I'd colour a missed session something vile). I colour hard sessions and long runs so at a glance you can see if you're getting enough of each in. And you can easily see how many weeks to go to a race. I do find I look back on it occasionally and it's part diary too.’

Getting started

Not sure where to start? 'An easy way to start a training diary is to buy an ordinary 2016 paper diary,' says sports agent Tom Payn. 'Before the start of the week write your training plan and at the end of each day write exactly what you did. By using a training diary in this way you have your plan set out before you in a very easy to read format, you can compare your actual training to what your plan was.'

'I find a training diary helps me focus on what I want to achieve from my training (i.e. the plan) and motivates me to complete the training,' he added. 'It is also a great help in making sure your training is improving and progressing. Having kept a training diary for over 13 years I can see what worked well and what didn’t. I can see what I need to work on and what mistakes I have made. I can progress my training so that I train smarter.'

READ: How to cope with overtraining and loss of motivation

READ: Running app rundown


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