How Keeping a Journal Can Make you a Better Runner

An Olympian and sports psychologist explains the benefits of keeping a training journal

It’s likely that you already track your workouts with a running app like MapMyRun or RunKeeper, or even with a GPS training watch.

But are you really keeping track or are you just logging miles and then sharing them on Instagram?

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but if you’re aiming to improve your performance or you’re gunning for a PR  at your next big race, then it’s probably in your best interest to log your miles with a little more focus and attention.

“Over time you can notice patterns in training cycles—not just over one week, but over a couple of months and even years,” explains Róisín McGettigan-Dumas, an Olympian, sport psychology consultant and co-creator of the Believe Training Journal. “You can identify contributing factors to why you are successful or unsuccessful and this empowers you to know what works and what doesn’t”

Based on that information, she explained, you can make changes and adjustments by figuring out appropriate mileage, optimal training times and which workouts you like best.  

According to Dumas, there’s a growing body of research that explains how closely tracking your workouts can benefit your performance.

Other benefits that she mentioned include the ability to measure improvement, which research has shown to be a significant form of motivation, and a “buzz” that can be acquired from writing your workouts down.

“It reinforces the behavior and spurs motivation to do exercise again,” Dumas said.

And yes, it’s keeping an actual physical log, using pen and paper, that is likely most beneficial. Rosin said that while apps can be effective, there are a few advantages to using a journal.

First, Dumas explained, research has shown that writing things down is better for learning and memory.

Second, “While traveling around to races it’s easier to keep a journal that you can refer to and glance through without having to worry about charging chords and batteries,” she said. “You can also add your favorite quotes or photos or inspiration that you can refer to anytime you need a little boost, especially as the pre-race nerves kick in.”

And finally, it can offer a helpful dose of perspective. Over time you’ll be able to look back at old journals to see how far you’ve come. Plus, there’s also a sense of nostalgia that’s involved.  “The journals become something to cherish as tangible pieces of your life story,” Dumas added.

For some, keeping a journal and jotting down notes after every workout might seem tedious, but Dumas ensures that it’s not and offered the following tips that can help to keep it quick and simple.

  • Record your approximate distance and/or total time (e.g. 4 miles or 30 minutes).
  • For interval workouts or tempo runs, record your distance and splits.
  • Include some kind of rating (e.g. felt good, bad, tired, excited, stiff, sore, fluid, etc.)
  • Include anything notable (e.g. -10 degrees, or gale force winds, 90 degrees, etc.)
  • Make note of any major life events going on at the time (e.g. cousin’s wedding, final exams, traveling for work, super busy all day etc.)

“The best professional athletes I know don’t go into analyzing every split of every mile,” Dumas said. “They record their workout repeats and times, but beyond that just keep track of approximate mileage and how they feel.”

Personally, she prefers doodling emoticons like smiley faces, frowns or "ZzZs" to note how she was feeling.

“That way if I glance through my journal and notice lots of 'ZzZs' or frowns, I know something is up and I need a rest,” she explained. “Or on the other hand, if there’s smiley faces all around, I’m in a good place, and a tired day is likely coming up soon.”

Dumas said that she’s been keeping training journals since her teens when she first started to fall in love with running, and that her and fellow elite runner Lauren Fleshman came up with the idea for the Believe Training Journal when they teamed up to share insights into the world of professional running and the mental approach to the sport.

“The idea was born to create our ‘ideal’ training journal,” she said.

Ultimately, using a journal to track your progress is certainly an effective tool, but as effective as it can be, when used the wrong way, it also has the ability to hold you back.

“It’s important to keep recording workouts, but you must take them in context—how busy you were, whether or not you were in a period of heavy training and tired,  etc.,” Dumas explained. “No workout can be exactly compared to a previous one as there are always other factors. That’s why we recommend a holistic approach—what else is going on in your life, and how are you feeling physically and emotionally?”

For this reason, the Believe Training Journal addresses everything from goal setting and body image to psychology and race planning.

Dumas says what’s most important, though, is that you not focus on the past or the future, but on today and what you’re doing right now.

“That’s what counts,” she said. “Sometimes that might mean we need to have selective amnesia on what we ‘used to’ be able to do and quit comparing our workouts and judging them as good or bad. Be where you are today, and start from there.”