The purpose of this post is to show how a simple fitness journal, where you track your workouts and basic metrics about your body, will help you achieve even the most ambitious health and fitness goals.
[A friendly warning: this post is longer than typical, with about 2,300 words. It should take you about 10-12 minutes to read. Feel free to come back when you have more time!]
I don’t always keep a training journal, but when I do, it’s usually when I’m shooting for a significant fitness objective. I kept a journal for each of my three marathons, for example, and I kept an extremely detailed journal when I set the most ambitious fitness goal of my life: to get “back to normal” after catching chicken pox at age 39. This was an illness that literally shattered my body and reduced my fitness conditioning to all-time lows, and I credit my recovery in large part to keeping a training journal.
In other words, a fitness journal is ideal any time you subject your body to new, difficult or potentially grueling training--a major exercise and weight loss program, recovery from an injury, and so on. You’ll want to know as much objective, factual information as you possibly can about how your body responds, and this factual information will help you combat your emotions, overcome discouragement, and make it much more likely you’ll sustain your new fitness regimen. Finally, a training journal is a permanent record of your fitness activity that you can look back on--proudly.
But exactly what information should you record in your fitness journal? And how should you set up your training journal? All great questions grasshopper!
First, the “how should you set it up?” part, which is easy: Just use a spiral notebook and a pen. Or a simple text file on your computer. Or a free Google Docs document at Google Drive. I've used each method and found them equally functional. Your goal here should be to find a simple format that’s easy to use and difficult to lose.
As far as what to record in your fitness journal… well, this part’s a little more complicated. Here’s what I track on a daily or near-daily basis:
1) Resting pulse
2) Exercise actions taken
3) Emotional State/How I feel
4) Notable dietary actions taken
5) Any injuries/discomfort?
6) (optional) Blood pressure
Below, I go over each metric, how to track it, and why each is important. And below that, as an extra bonus, I’ll share two additional metrics, to be tracked monthly, to round out a perfect, information-rich training journal.
1) Resting pulse - I check my resting pulse when I wake up, but before I get out of bed. Get a watch or clock with a second hand, count your pulse over a 15 second period (use an artery in your wrist or neck), and multiply the number of beats times four.
Generally, a normal pulse rate for an active person will be somewhere in the range of 60-72 beats per minute. Check yours for a few days in a row to get a sense of your baseline pulse. Then, be happily shocked at how much lower your resting pulse goes after just a few short weeks of meaningful fitness. When began training for my first marathon, my 72bpm pulse quickly dropped into to the low 50s. It’s been there ever since.
Why tracking your resting pulse is important: Your resting pulse is a simple but extremely useful measure of your general fitness. All else equal, a lower resting pulse means a stronger and more efficient cardiovascular system.
Further, your resting pulse is your body’s early warning system: if your pulse normally runs 54-60 beats per minute and one random morning it’s running 72 or higher, you’re most likely overtraining. You’ll want to increase your rest/sleeping time and dial down (or eliminate) your next few workouts.
2) Exercise actions taken - This is more or less the most obvious piece of advice in this entire post. After all, why keep a training log unless it was to track your actual training? This is the sort simple record that I keep:
Sunday: Rest day
Monday: Ran 5 miles, easy pace
Tuesday: Rest day
Wednesday: 3 sets pushups x 30 reps; ran 3 miles (in 24:36, 8:12 mile splits)
Thursday: Rest day
Friday: Ran 5 miles (42:56, 8:35 splits)
Saturday: Ran a slow 3 miles in AM, played 3 hours doubles tennis in PM.
And so on. Apropos of nothing, my wife and I have a running argument about whether the exercise week starts on Sunday or Monday. I say Sunday (duh), she says Monday. Readers, please tell me I’m right.
Why it’s important: If you’re having trouble grasping the importance of tracking exercise in an exercise journal, just ask the staff at your group home for help. They care about you very much.
3) Emotional state/How I feel/My mood - I consider tracking how you feel to be the single most important element of your training journal. I typically write just one or two short sentences about anything notable about my physical or emotional state. Examples might be:
“I totally didn’t want to run today, but I did anyway. Felt really proud afterwards”
“Really good energy levels today, I felt like I could’ve worked out much longer.”
“Felt like shit.” (Hey, I have bad days too.) :)
“When I left the gym I felt defeated, like I’d never get in shape.”
Started my workout off horribly but found a good rhythm midway through, finished strong.”
“Extremely tired today, but I had a surprisingly good workout anyway.”
And so on. Note that on rare days, I wouldn’t really have any notable feelings or comment-worthy moods, so I’d simply write “normal” or “good workout” in my fitness log.
Why it's important: As I said above, this is the single most important part of your training log. But why? Two reasons. First, you’ll never feel more proud of yourself than when you flip back through your training journal and see days when you:
...didn’t really want to run,
...didn’t feel like working out,
...thought you’d never get in better shape,
...and yet you worked out anyway. That’s what it’s all about.
Second, the act of recording your feelings and moods is a critical exercise in building emotional meta-awareness. Look once again at the “thought you’d never get in better shape” line above. If you’re beginning a new workout regimen, I’ll make you a promise: you will repeatedly experience that exact feeling. It doesn’t matter who you are or what your absolute level of fitness is, you will have moments when you truly believe you won’t improve, and that this whole workout thing is pointless.
Worse, at the time you feel it, it will seem utterly true. Crushingly true.
Except that three months in the future, when you are flipping through your training journal and looking back at that day... you actually will be in better shape! That feeling you had, as true as it may have seemed then, turned out to be exactly false.
What’s my point? Just this: when it comes any kind of goal-oriented or discipline-based habits, your ego and emotions will subvert and mislead you. Sometimes they will outright lie to you. But once you see--documented repeatedly in your own writing--how many times you overcame inertia, defeatism and negative feelings and still worked out, you’ll begin to know, deeply, that your negative feelings have no power over you. They are temporary and they will pass.
4) Notable dietary actions taken - Did you eat a bag of Doritos today? Or is this the third day in a row where you’ve eaten negligible amounts of protein? If you have an unexpectedly crappy workout one day, it helps enormously to be able to look back and see the likely reason why: probably it was a heavy and unhealthy meal (or series of meals) in the days prior.
Your diet fuels your body, and as you improve your fitness, you’ll want to improve your diet too. And the two go naturally--even effortlessly--hand in hand: you’ll find that as you get fitter, you’ll find it far easier to say no to crappy junk food.
A quick word on mechanics: I usually document the prior day’s notable dietary actions on my day’s workout log (examples might be: “crap-awful run today: I blame the three beers and unknown number of chicken wings from last night” or “great run today despite that pint of Cherry Garcia I had yesterday”). See what works best for you you here.
Why it’s important: Remember, what gets measured gets managed. It’s true with money, it’s true with your diet, it’s true with fitness. Your diet will improve simply because you know you’re going to document what you eat. This is pretty close to magic, and it alone makes tracking worthwhile.
Sidenote: As you scale up the intensity of your training, you’ll likely want to increase the amount of protein in your diet. During weight training, or during periods of heavy distance running, for example, I’ll often drink a whey isolate protein powder shake on a near-daily basis to help my body recover.
5) Any injuries/discomfort? - Injuries happen, and as you’ll see shortly, you must track them. I usually jot down short phrases:
“Knees ached a bit today, pain 3 on a scale of 10, much better than last week’s long run.”
“Inflammation in my patellar tendons, not painful though, iced them down after tennis.”
“My back was killing me today, but it loosened up during my run.”
“Felt great!” (sadly, this entry appears increasingly infrequently after age 40)
“Calf muscle strain. Need to rest it for a few days.”
“Sore feet: feels like mild stress reactions.”
And so on. The point is to document any physical issue you’re having, and where necessary, to quantify it so you can see whether it’s worsening or improving.
Why it’s important: Our perceptions of our injuries are heavily colored by context, misrememberings and faulty perspectives--just like our moods and emotions. So, just as part 3 of your training journal is an exercise in emotional meta-awareness, this part of your training journal is an exercise in physical meta-awareness. It gives you a reliable and objective record of information about any physical problems you might be experiencing.
Face it, as we get older, “minor pains” and “minor injuries” become more and more a normal part of daily workout life. Yet you still have to do your best to stay in shape! This part of your journal will help you make sure minor problems don’t morph into serious ones. Better still, you’ll start to see important patterns in how your body responds to training. Certain combinations of activities might lead to, say, knee pain, for example. Or, you might learn that your body starts to “act up” if you exercise too many days in a row. Thanks to my training journal, I learned that my knees behave much, much better over time if I generally run every other day rather than on consecutive days.
One last example: Last year during a random run, I hurt something badly in my left calf--I think it was an achilles tendon strain or perhaps even a small partial tear. Keeping track of the injury and noting gradual improvements helped me put the injury in proper context: I could clearly see, by what I wrote in my training log, that my injury was improving (albeit slowly) and that I wouldn't need to have it checked out by a doctor.
6) (Optional) Blood Pressure - I consider this datapoint optional, in part because a blood pressure cuff is a somewhat a pricey piece of equipment for a frugal household. Sure, you can often find free blood pressure machines in many chain pharmacies, but finding one (not to mention returning to it to get regular readings) simply may be too much of a bother logistically.
That said, it’s instructive see a historical series of blood pressure readings in the context of an exercise program. You may very well see your borderline high blood pressure drop right back into normal range. Not only is this highly encouraging and motivating, it can save you from blood pressure meds! Note that your blood pressure fluctuates--sometimes a lot--from day to day and hour to hour, which is why a series of datapoints over days and weeks is more useful than any single datapoint in a vacuum.
Why it’s important: Honestly, your blood pressure isn't that important to track on a daily or near-daily basis in a fitness log. However, it's yet another excellent measure of your general cardiovascular health, and as I mentioned above, you’ll likely be pleasantly surprised by the favorable impact exercise has on your numbers.
One more thought: We have a blood pressure cuff here at home from way back in Laura’s optometry school days, and it’s come in handy lately as Laura’s borderline high blood pressure got to a point where she decided to start treating it with meds. Having a cuff at home--and having a longitudinal sample of blood pressure readings--helped her enormously in selecting (in consultation with her doctor of course) the proper med and dosage.
Finally, here are two additional datapoints that I recommend tracking monthly--not daily!--in your fitness and exercise journal:
1) Timed mile - Run a mile as fast as you can, time it, and write it down. Simple. Next month, do it again and watch how much faster you are. Rinse and repeat once a month. Note: don’t get discouraged by your first datapoint here. You’ll quickly discover that you have a lot more fitness in you than you thought, and as you get fitter, your mile time will drop substantially.
Why it’s important: A timed mile is possibly the best single measure of a person’s overall athletic fitness. If you can get your mile time (remember it’s just one mile!) below 8 minutes, you’re in pretty darn good shape. Remember, a vast number of Americans cannot run a mile at all.
2) Weight/BMI - Remember, your weight and your BMI are just numbers. However, these two numbers together make for an informative measure of your health and fitness. To figure out your BMI, you can go to any of several websites (I use this one at the NIH’s website). Enter your height and weight and it will give you the number.
Why it’s important: Because it just is. If your BMI numbers are in the “overweight” or “obese” range (high 20s to above 30), you’ll face significant health problems. But if you engage in a suitable exercise program and carefully watch and document the metrics above, you’ll see your BMI and body weight numbers improve rapidly.
Final thought: You see that I quite prominently excluded tracking weight and BMI from my list above of daily metrics. If you want to track your weight/BMI each day, feel free, but I recommend tracking your weight and BMI just once a month. Why? Two reasons: To filter out the noise of normal day-to-day weight fluctuations, and to prevent you from overfixating on your weight.
Trust the process of maintaining a regular exercise and fitness regime, track your data objectively and unemotionally, and weight loss and BMI improvement will be a guaranteed result.
Readers, what’s your take?
 An example of how sickly I was: Two to three weeks after the chicken pox had fully run its course, I tried to run one mile. One mile. I had to stop and walk twice, and when I got back home I felt so ill I spent the rest of the day in bed. It was one of the most discouraging days of my life, because it seemed utterly obvious to me (at the time) that I would never get my health and fitness back.
 If you have heart issues, or if you’re showing an abnormally low resting pulse, get checked out by your doctor before beginning an exercise regimen.
 You can take it from me that fitness is a wholly different challenge in your 40s compared to your 30s and 20s. You can take it from my older sisters that fitness is a wholly different challenge in your 50s compared to your 40s. And you can take it from my father that fitness in your 80s is yet another thing entirely.
 It’s vaguely disturbing to see how your blood pressure data jumps around over time, both over the course of days and even from moment to moment. It helps you realize that when you’re in the doctor’s office you’re probably more likely to get an outlier reading than a typical reading (I get nervous in doctor’s offices, so both my systolic and diastolic numbers are sometimes as much as 20 points higher than when we take them at home). Thus any single bp reading is far more meaningful if you can judge it against the context of a series of readings.
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