Workout apps are fine, but I’m a strong believer in an old fashioned training journal. Since last spring, I’ve logged my workouts in a hardback graph paper notebook, and I found that the blank pages gave me plenty of space for charts, reflections, reference material, and more. So here’s a peek at how I’m setting up my training journal for 2020, based on what’s worked for me in the past.
Start with a blank notebook
As with bullet journals, a freeform approach can work well, allowing you to adjust your format as your needs and whims change. So I start with a completely blank book.
Mine is hardback, with plenty of pages, and a graph or dotted interior because I know I’ll want to make charts. Ribbon bookmarks, elastic closures, and interior pockets are nice-to-haves. I’m basically describing a Moleskine or Leuchtturm, but mine is actually an off-brand I picked up at a craft store for I think $10. If you want something even cheaper, I’d recommend a composition notebook, the kind with a stitched binding (since a spiral may get banged up in your gym bag).
Make sure to put your name and phone number on the journal somewhere. If you might want to keep a table of contents, spend a meditative few minutes writing odd page numbers in the bottom-right hand corner. Decorate the cover. Or don’t. It’s your book.
Write a note for posterity
Part of the reason for a training journal is to keep a record you can look back on. Five years from now, you might be thinking “Hmm, I ran a really good marathon back in 2020—what did my training look like?”
So think about all the things that you won’t bother to write down because you take them for granted. On the first page of your journal, make a note of all that stuff. Things like:
Where you work out. For example, which gym are you currently a member of?
Your most common routes for runs or bikes. This way you can write down “lake loop” for a given day’s workout and future you will know exactly what that means.
What units you use. My lifts were always in pounds, until I started going to a gym where the plates are labelled in kilos. I now log lifts at one gym in pounds and at the other in kilos, which would be really confusing to future me if I didn’t make a note of that.
What apps you use to log your workouts. It’s fine to just jot down the basics each day and keep details in an app (your split times for long runs might be in Runkeeper, for example) but make sure you have this note so you know where to look up the information in case you need it.
Note your goals and PRs
Make a page that’s like a time capsule: what are your current best efforts? What goals do you have for the year or the coming season? If you’re a runner, those might be race times; if you’re a lifter, write down your one-rep max in the lifts that matter most to you. Leave space for updates as you blast through your old PRs.
Set up some reference material
Next it’s time for some handy charts. I find this kilos-to-pounds chart useful, especially if you train in pounds but have to select attempts for competition in kilos. (I attach it to the inside back cover with a glue stick.) This rep max percentage chart is another helpful one for lifters.
The first few and last few pages of the notebook are also a great place for other reference material. Your coach’s phone number perhaps? Dates of important competitions?
If you aren’t sure what you’ll need, just leave your inside covers blank, and add them when the mood strikes you.
Make charts that are based on your current fitness level
This section blends the last two, and it’s one of the most satisfying because someday soon it will become outdated and you’ll get to draw up a whole new set of charts. If you do any kind of training where you’ll need to look up numbers to know what to do for the day, set up those charts now. For example:
If you’re a runner, plug in a recent race time to this calculator and it will tell you what pace you should be running for your long runs, your tempo runs, and so on. It will also give you predicted finish times for other distances.
If you do a weightlifting or powerlifting program that’s based on percentages, make up a chart with percentages of your PRs. For example, if my coach wants me doing snatches today at 60%, 70%, and 80% of my max, I don’t need to get out the calculator—I have a chart in the front of my notebook with those numbers already worked out.
Log each workout
Finally, the best part. How you log each workout is up to you, but I’ll tell you what I’ve done.
There was a phase where I was lazy about the paper notebook, and mostly just logged things in apps (Strong for lifting, Nike Run Club for running.) So for each workout I’d just jot down how many miles I ran and how fast, or I’d note what lifts I did in the gym and what my heaviest sets were.
But now I prefer to put more detail in the notebook. I use one page for each day’s workout, and I write down sets, reps, and weights. I also do things you can’t do in an app: I’ll circle new PRs. I’ll scrawl notes on how my heavy lifts felt. (Like I’m dying? Like I could definitely do more?) For winter running, I often write down the temperature and what I wore, because every fall I discover I’ve forgotten what to wear in the cold.
Collect long-term trends
There’s one more key piece of data for each day: how the workout felt. I think we should all record this, whatever form that might take. One easy way is to put a smiley, frowny, or neutral face next to your entry. Running coach Jenny Hadfield has her athletes write down colours: “yellow” if they felt great, “orange” if a workout was ok, and “red” if it was a struggle. Over time, too many reds or frowny faces can mean you’re pushing yourself too hard and in danger of burnout.
I use a mathier approach, which I heard about on a Barbell Medicine podcast. Every workout, I write down how long I was in the gym (usually between 60 and 90 minutes) and then I assign a number to how hard the workout felt. It’s on a scale of 1 to 10, where an easy workout is a 6, a normal one is a 7, a hard one is an 8, and then 9 and 10 are reserved for truly brutal, exhausting efforts.
To keep tabs on my progress, I multiply these numbers (90 minutes x a rating of 7 = 630) and then, on a separate page, I make a bar graph. Look, I’m a nerd, this is just how I am. Where this data gets really valuable is when you total up those numbers by week, and look at how the trend is going. If a typical week is between 2500 and 3000 units, but then you ramp up your training and suddenly your next week is 5000 units, you may have overshot and should probably back off a bit. I don’t make these bar graphs every week, but if I’m trying to increase my training, I do use them to make sure I’m increasing it responsibly. It’s also interesting to notice when you set PRs—often they will come after a week that was lighter than usual.
Write down whatever is important to you
As you train, you’ll find things to add. Definitely write down a little recap of how any races or competitions went. If your coach gives you some words of wisdom, or if you learn something interesting from a YouTube video, write that down, too. You’re in control, and the pages are blank. It’s all yours.