Keeping a workout journal is an easy way to track exercise progress. Maybe that's why many personal trainers suggest (or insist) their clients keep one. After all, it is difficult to recall exactly how many minutes at what intensity you did on the elliptical trainer last time. Without those details, workouts blend into one another with no real progress measured.
Three trainers who advocate journal-keeping discuss how to do it effectively.
Head coach of L.A. Tri Club and co-owner of Triathlon Training Series:
Keeping a workout diary is the best thing an athlete can do for their training. I instruct my athletes to start with a marker set — we confirm two variables and let one determine their fitness. For example, a good marker set for running would be one mile around the track at a fixed heart rate, like 150 beats per minute. You have the fixed distance and the fixed intensity, and then you have the variable — how long it takes you to do that mile with that heart rate. So as you train, you can go back to that marker set and see improvements. If you're training for an event, you can also look back on your log to gain confidence. If you're preparing for a marathon and it's a week before the race, it's very natural to have the I'm-not-ready-jitters. But by going back and looking at your log, you can see that on this week you ran 20 miles, and that you've done many long runs.
It doesn't matter if you use pen and paper to keep a log, or a spread sheet. You devise it. Most people have some kind of daily calendar, so they can just add some little notation — that's their workout log. I do think that distance and time are two good things to keep track of, and the rest can be left up to them.
For someone who wants to lose weight, the best thing they can do is write down what they eat every day. Even if you're just concerned about your energy levels throughout the day, a food diary can be a huge help for that too. It becomes easy to assess why you're getting a drop in energy, since it relates to the calories you're taking in and the nutrition you're getting.
Co-owner of Bose Management, personal trainer and exercise physiologist, Santa Monica, Calif.:
The more detailed it is, the more you know about yourself. If you put down your sets and reps and amount of weight you're lifting, you're going to see if you're increasing or getting stale. Some people even like to put down the time of day when they train. If you train first thing in the morning, you'll know that you were fresher and stronger than if you trained later and weren't able to lift as much weight.
It surprisingly doesn't take much time. Most people take rest periods between sets, so you can write things down then. It doesn't become tedious as much as it gives you that pattern to your workout. . . .
A log should include body fat, weight, how far you run — all the little details. Even though those calorie counters on cardio machines are inaccurate, put the number down anyway. You'll still be able to see that you're burning more calories as you get in better shape.
From a food standpoint, I almost make it a must for clients to keep a food log if they have any specific goals at all. People deny what they really eat. But if you keep a food log, and you know you have to write down the 15 M&Ms you just ate, you're a lot less likely to pull those 15 M&Ms out of the bowl.
And when you start to put the food log with the training log, that's where you can see how you're putting in all this work, and 15 M&Ms are destroying that. You can look at someone's log and see that they're training as hard as they possibly can, but their food log looks like a 13-year-old's.
Corporate fitness manager and personal trainer, Bodies in Motion, West Los Angeles:
The more specific you are in your log, the better you'll be able to reach your goals. ... Even if someone has no means to invest in a trainer, they should still get some type of journal or template. It makes a difference.
You can look at the beginning of your log and see the progress, from doing 10 minutes on the elliptical to doing 30 at Level 5. We want it to be detailed and include as much information as possible. ... All the calories consumed in a day should be factored in, because a lot of people don't realize that they'll grab a handful of popcorn eight or nine times a day.
I tell my clients to pick a cheat day that they can look forward to one day a week. ... We recommend doing a progress check once a month and that will reveal if people are following their plan and we can see where they are. It really turns into more of a confessional than people not telling you the things they did.
For the journal, we also do before and after pictures and take their measurements. There's a progress check list and a place where they can give their feedback on how they feel. People keep the journal for as long as they're working with us, which is typically three to six months. But some people continue it afterward. Their goals may change — maybe they want to work toward doing a marathon or improve their golf game.