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I Review Fitness Trackers for a Living. Here’s Why I Still Won’t Give Up My Workout Journal.
Photo: Michelle McSwain

I Review Fitness Trackers for a Living. Here’s Why I Still Won’t Give Up My Workout Journal.

I’ve documented the past 20 years of my love affair with running in about 10 notebooks, training logs, and journals. I’ve almost always worn a running watch to capture metrics such as time, pace, distance, and heart rate. But I’ve also made it a point to write down the details surrounding my mileage—or, for that matter, any workout.

My analog approach doesn’t allow for cross-platform sharing, deep-dive data examination, or digitally optimized dashboards. But according to science, this may actually be beneficial. A 2014 study showed that writing down information (versus typing it or uploading it) can improve focus and retention—and provide the opportunity to process that information. All of that can help with goal achievement, some research suggests. Put that in the context of, say, establishing a daily walking habit or bettering your top 5K time, and you could be setting yourself up for success.

“Writing down your workout gives you a boost, which reinforces the behavior,” says sport psychology consultant Róisín McGettigan-Dumas, co-author of the Believe and Compete training journals. “It’s like giving yourself a gold star for getting the training done. You want more of that good feeling, so it increases motivation to keep the training—[the] good behavior—up.”

Here’s how to get started.

Choose a journal that fits you

Whatever you decide to write in should be inviting and speak to your style; you might find our guides to paper planners or notebooks and notepads inspiring (my current fitness notebook of choice is a bright red Moleskine hardcover). Once you’ve decided on your medium, don’t feel pressure to keep it perfect. Resist the urge to self-edit, and let the thoughts flow.

Also, give your journal a home. I like to keep mine in a dedicated place—on top of a stack of books in my living room—so I always know where to go when it’s time to jot things down.

Start small, keep it simple

It may seem obvious, but zero in on what you want to improve—speed on the run, endurance in the pool, the amount of rest you get so you’re ready to exercise again—to help prioritize your intentions. “Track the things that are going to make a difference and bring you closer to your goals,” says McGettigan-Dumas.

View journaling the details of your workouts as a work in progress, not an all-or-nothing proposition. Simon Marshall, sport psychology expert and co-author of The Brave Athlete: Calm the F*ck Down and Rise to the Occasion, advises athletes to start by writing no more than 50 to 100 words at a time, to preserve enthusiasm and stave off burnout. The catch? Those words can be few, but they shouldn’t be far between. “Frequency is more important than volume or quality,” he says. “The old adage of ‘do something in very small doses, but very often’ is a far better strategy than a deep dive infrequently.”

McGettigan-Dumas takes it a step further. She recommends recording barebones summaries. “I like to use smiley faces, frowns, or other symbols that are easy to read at a glance,” she says. “You want to be able to flick through and recall things easily. It’s a good way to practice essentialism.”

She also suggests hitching log-keeping to an activity you already do every day—sipping your morning coffee, unpacking your gym bag, turning in for the night. It will help turn a flirtation with a training diary into a committed relationship.

Get in touch with the feels

Details form stories. Stories illuminate patterns. Patterns enable you to identify successes and areas in need of adjustment. The trouble is, running watches and other devices, with their constant streams of feedback, can mess with your ability to gauge how hard you think you’re working, a concept known as perceived exertion. That means you can’t always pinpoint those details, stories, and patterns that produce a holistic picture of your training. “The part of our brains that is processing effort-related cues is sort of withering away because we’ve outsourced effort to technology,” says Marshall.

Rely solely on what your watch tells you, and you begin struggling to pace yourself. You forget to trust how you feel. And that has the potential to keep you from evolving in your chosen activity.

Ditch the tech ... some of the time

This doesn’t mean that people need to abandon their Fitbits or kick Strava to the curb in favor of all paper and pen all the time. The two can work together. “Checking in and making sense of the data happens when you write it down and consider the factors that went into it and how it fits with the rest of your life,” McGettigan-Dumas says. “I’ve had many athletes tell me they feel they can be more honest in their journals than they are online.”

If your running watch, fitness tracker, or Instagram feed is generating stress or anxiety, try going without for a day or two. Removing the impulse to compare—and, along with it, the pressure to measure up—allows you to remember that your workouts are just that: yours. Look for satisfaction (and maybe even joy) in personal efforts and progress rather than calibrating them to fit someone else’s idea of success. And don’t be surprised if you learn a thing or two about yourself along the way. “Something quite remarkable happens,” says Marshall, “when we turn thoughts into written statements.”