When I look through a diary I had started writing at 10 years old, it is a little amusing and terribly boring (insert YAWN). It is full of simple facts about what I had done each day and who I was with, but hey I was only ten then. That was my first lesson in what not to write when it comes to keeping a journal.
When it comes to keeping a training journal, these days we can track anything and everything we do; there are smartphone apps, software, training tools and all sorts of gadgets. When I started training for mountain biking at the turn of the century I used a heart rate monitor, a trainer that measured power in watts and a blood lactate monitor to track my changes in fitness over time. It was also satisfying to know my distance covered and cadence (pedal strokes per minute) maintained after rides on the road. But when it comes to my first sport, running, I had to laugh when I recently saw this cartoon as I have to confess I’m still stuck in 1994.
Since I’ve worked as mental performance consultant, many if not all of the athletes and coaches use some sort of tools to track and record training data as well as to monitor recovery. Unfortunately though, many coaches struggle with motivating athletes to enter such data regularly or in a timely manner.
On the other end of the spectrum, there is the potential to become so consumed with data and numbers, that as athletes, it can become easy to feel like a workout doesn’t count if we don’t have some sort of numeric proof or even public record of it such as on Strava *ahem – you know who you are!
Finding the best way to track and monitor any data around your training and competitive performances is individual. It will likely take some experimentation to make it meaningful enough for you to find worthwhile. See what approach suits you best somewhere between recording zero information and becoming obsessed with writing every single detail down that relates to your life as an athlete.
To find the right balance consider the following positives for writing and recording things, particularly when it comes to mental performance and maintaining emotional consistency through the ups and downs of performances:
- Plan for automaticity. I remember reading a study as a graduate student about how the best students studied. They wrote things down over and over again until pages of learning could be condensed on a single flashcard. Planning mentally for performances is similar to studying for a test. The hard thinking and analyzing should be done ahead of time. Peak athletic performances happen when we don’t have to think about what we’re doing at a conscious level. Once the gun goes off, you can be ready to respond automatically with simple cues that trigger your best response to each segment of a race or to any circumstance (a.k.a. test question) that could be thrown your way! In my experience, athletes that have a solid pre-race routine and race plan written down often are able to stick to it well through distractions and physical discomfort.
Purposeful mental training. In my opinion anytime that you take time to plan, analyze, strategize or reflect on your training and competitive performances, you are engaging in purposeful mental training. Give yourself space to thoughtfully answer pre-performance questions like: “What do I need to focus on to get the most out of myself today?” and post-performance questions such as, “What went well today and why?” and “What did I learn and will improve upon next time?” If you write down your responses to such questions it will help you commit to do what you need to and to solidify what you’ve learned. In other words you’ll accelerate your athlete self-awareness. Taking time to plan and reflect can translate into more consistent performances as you pay close attention to what works for you in terms of your combined mental and physical approach. Writing things down can also be an effective way to deal with pre-race anxiety in a solution-focused way: write it down, put it aside, relax and come back to review the plan as needed.
- Let go and move on. I was surprised to learn that if you’re having trouble getting a song out of your head the best thing to do is listen to the song in its entirety. This is termed the Zeignarnik effect, referring to how when we ignore unfinished tasks, our unconscious mind will keep fretting about them. For athletes who race and compete often, writing down some reflections after each performance can be an effective way to debrief, reflect on the highest highs, lowest lows and everything in between. Getting things out in a conversation with a coach/trusted confidante, or down in writing can be an excellent way to offload thoughts and feelings in the name of emotional energy management, and move on to whatever is next.
Finally, at the end of a season, when your memories of specific training periods or competitions can seem like a blur, you will have a record of your reflections. Such notes can be useful to look back in order to help you and the team around you plan your next season. You may also see it as a personal souvenir of your athletic career one day.