Why you need to start keeping a running diary

A few sentences about your best workout. Fifteen minutes jotting down your goals and concerns regarding the next day’s run. A chronicle of good days and bad, disappointments and successes. Could these simple acts of writing mean the difference between a PB and a sub-par performance? Runner Megan Vaccaro finds that getting her thoughts down on paper helps her stick to her race plan. Ernesto Ramirez, a 1:13 half marathoner, says that his pre-race writing helps him strategise in more depth. Lauren Fleshman, a two-time US champion at 5000m, knows that when she puts things down in a journal she sleeps a lot better the night before her race. These three athletes have added an effective strategy to their repertoire – writing in a journal.

Put down those worries

What is it about writing that helps an athlete? ‘Negative self-talk can occur in athletic situations,’ says psychologist Sian Beilock, director of the Human Performance Lab at the University of Chicago, US, and author of Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal about Getting it Right When You Have To. ‘Getting the worries down on paper makes them less likely to pop up in a competition situation. It’s akin to downloading them from the mind.’

Beilock’s conclusion is based on a study she did with groups of students about to sit an exam. Students in one group wrote down their thoughts and feelings about an exam right before taking it, while a control group did no such writing. The students who wrote performed significantly better on the exam than the control group, and those who were the most prone to test anxiety showed the most improvement over their past test performances.

Runners who have used writing in their preparation find these benefits apply to their performance as well. ‘I can be relaxed on the day of the race,’ says Fleshman. ‘Anxiety comes from just not having verbalised. It’s almost like your brain is full of gibberish. Sometimes you just need to translate it. You’re writing your own story, really. It makes you feel in control.’

To gain confidence before a race, Fleshman says, ‘I look at the work I’ve done and also at my goals - processing pages so I can remember why I’m actually doing this, which helps quiet the noise, negative thoughts and extra nonsense that pop up right before a big race.’

The day before a race Ramirez writes down what could happen. ‘You can’t predict everything,’ he says, ‘but you can prepare for some situations. And then, as the race plays out, you can fall back on your thinking [from] the night before and race according to plan.’

Vaccaro says she’s a visual person, so writing goals and plans down helps to lay them out where she can see and process them more effectively. Writing also helps Fleshman judge her expectations. ‘I spend time processing – “Where am I in my training? What can I expect from myself? What’s reasonable? What’s extraordinary?” – and then line up expectation with that,’ she says.

Besides race preparation, regular writing can help throughout your running year. ‘Writing is a way to learn,’ says Richard Kent, director of the University of Maine Writing Project and author of Writing on the Bus, a guide for sports teams using journals. He has worked with many types of athletes to amplify their understanding of their craft.

Tell yourself a story

Kent offers this example: a runner writes down what she considers to be the perfect preparation for the 24 hours before a race. After her race, she writes down her actual preparation and then compares that with her perfect scenario. She quickly sees where she can tighten up this process.

Kent has athletes reflect about their pre-season build-up and goals; training during the season; hopes and concerns on and off the race course; and post-season evaluation.

‘It’s a way to find patterns in your training and your running life so that you can find out what works and what doesn’t,’ says Fleshman. ‘A lot of people just follow a programme and just go out and run. And then they’re taken by surprise when they get hurt or sick. If you have it all written down, you can look at the data and say, ‘Why did this happen?’

You don’t have to be a Hemingway to channel your inner scribe. Your writing can be as simple as adding a few comments to the entries in your running log. The main rule is to turn off your impulse to edit. The journal is for you – no one else will read it.

‘It takes about a month to get in the habit of it,’ says Fleshman. ‘And even if you’re not a person who writes in it every day, you just do whatever you can. It’s still going to make a difference.’

WHAT TO WRITE ABOUT

To help you get started, here are a few sample questions that should prompt your writing. Then the words will flow.

Before a race

What are my goals for this race?

How do I see my race playing out?

What are my concerns?

Based on my recent training and racing, what are realistic expectations?

What am I looking forward to in this race?

During the season

How are my workouts making me feel?

Are there aspects of my lifestyle or training that I need to tweak?

How is my confidence level? Can I do anything to boost it?

Did I execute my race plan?

Did I meet my expectations?

Before and after the season

What am I looking forward to in the coming season?

What are my goals for the season? What improvements should I make in my lifestyle, training and racing?

What is my post-season assessment? What are the things I know I can improve?

What were the highlights of my season?