A few years ago I wrote post a while back about the power of tracking (anything!). Simple awareness of your behavior, even without a deliberate attempt to change, is often all you need in order to improve. Mind-blowing, really, and super-inspiring, especially at this time of year.
Today’s post from Doug Hay (whom you probably know as co-host of No Meat Athlete Radio and blogger at Rock Creek Runner), expands on this incredibly powerful concept in the context of running.
You say you’re serious about improving in 2015? Here’s where to start.
Runners are lazy.
That might seem like an odd thing to say about a group of people who run for pleasure (and not just because they’re being chased), but for the most part, it’s true. We’re lazy.
But I get it.
Foam rolling, strength routines, speed work, and other similar training techniques are painful and typically known to be the opposite of fun. Besides, after kicking ass for a 5-mile run, who wants to do more?
So even though those routines are important for proper training, I’m going to ignore the painful stuff for now. What I want to discuss today is one of the easiest techniques we runners can add to our routines that will help us get stronger, train smarter, and avoid season ending injuries. A technique that it isn’t painful, and doesn’t take much time. And believe it or not, it can even be fun.
But for some reason, almost nobody does it.
What I want to talk about today is tracking our workouts. Not just turning on the GPS, never to look at the data again (more on that later), but really tracking what we did and how we felt.
Why Tracking Matters
When my good high school friend, Jeff, got his first car, his father required that he take notes on everything about that Ford.
When he’d fill up the tank, Jeff would open up the glove compartment, pull out a notebook, and jot down everything from where he was buying gas to the car’s current mileage. Once a month, I’d catch him checking the tires’ air pressure and how the oil was holding up.
He knew all the stats on that car’s performance. He knew if it was running well or struggling through the winter.
At the time, I thought it was obsessive. But that’s because I didn’t fully understand his dad’s reasoning.
What I now understand is that with that information, Jeff knew exactly what helped the car run at peak performance, and saw warning signs if something was going wrong. When the car did have trouble, he could look back on when things started to turn sour, and report all that to the mechanic.
Now, I don’t track the stats on my car, and likely never will, but when it comes to running, Jeff’s father’s philosophy works perfectly.
The benefit of tracking running data is massive. By keeping a proper running log, we can see what is working and what isn’t, in real time. If something goes wrong and we get injured, it’s easy to look back and figure out what behaviors might have caused the issue, and how to avoid repeating that mistake.
If it’s a big race goal you’re training for, looking back on all the progress can be motivating and a powerful tool for when things get tough.
And when things go right on race day, it means you already have the entire playbook mapped out for next one.
Why Your iPhone or GPS Won’t Cut It
Over and over again, I see runners who no longer bother keeping any sort of actual records, because they think their GPS watches or phone apps do it for them. We turn them on before the run and off when we get home.
And voilà, our run is uploaded and tracked.
Unfortunately there are two marathon-sized problems with this:
- It’s only tracking what the watch can record (distance, pace, routes, etc.) and not how it actually felt.
- Because uploads happen at the magic of a button, we’re more likely not to look back on them ever again. That is, of course, until the end of the year, when we want to tweet out our total yearly mileage. #runningbrag anyone?
When all it takes is plugging in your watch to the computer, we don’t end up studying the information like we would if we were writing it out ourselves. And the information becomes useless.
9 Key Metrics to Log
In an upcoming section, I’m going to tell you to stop being a lazy runner and start keeping a training log. I’m even going to provide you with an easy tool to do it. But first it’s important to understand what to track and why it can be useful information.
SPOILER ALERT: It’s more than what your GPS tracks for you.
1) Type of workout: A 4-mile easy run is a lot different from a 4-mile run doing speed work on the track. To help differentiate the two on your tracking chart, note the type of workout first. Keep this simple to easily categorize. A few examples of types of workout include:
- Easy Run
- Long Run
- Speed/Track Work
- Hill Workout
2) Daily Mileage: Your total daily mileage. This one’s a no-brainer.
3) Time/Pace: Track your overall time running, and break it out into pace.
4) Route: Always track where you ran. It allows you to review how hilly the course was, how frequently you’re running a particular route, and if certain characteristics of your regular routes might be contributing to an injury or improvements. Tracking your route also comes in handy when designing course specific training.
5) Terrain: Running on rocky trails or a paved bike path? Crowded city sidewalks or a gravel road? All these factors affect your pace and the benefit of that particular run. Take note of the terrain for reference in the future.
6) How you felt: I like to have a quick reference to how I felt during the run, and do it as simply as possible with just three options: bad, normal, great. That way you can quickly see if you’ve had several bad or great runs in a row, and make adjustments accordingly. It also serves as reference guide to how certain distances, paces, or routes affect your feeling about the run.
A helpful trick if you’re tracking on the computer is to use a color coded system for this, which makes deciphering how you felt even easier.
7) Effort: For this I recommend using a scale of 1 to 5. 1 being the a completely easy run and 5 being an all out effort.
8) Notes: A blank space for you to fill in any notes you have about the run. Important things to keep in mind are what you ate before, during, and immediately after, what shoes you were wearing, notes on weather, if you were running with anyone else or solo, your heart rate if you measured it, and anything else that has a major effect on the run itself.
9) Extras: I recommend you also track a few extras on a semi-regular basis, such as weight, diet, and what you’re training for at the moment. There’s no need to track these every single day, but they’re good to have as a reference in the future.
What to Do With All This Data
So you’ve taken my advice and started tracking your runs. Now what?
Just like my friend Jeff could do for this car, you too can now use the data you’ve tracked and put it to use in real time. At the end of each week, or at the very least each month, look back at your training log and ask yourself the following questions:
- Where has my training been lacking? It’s easy to skip a workout here or a long run there without realizing that you’re doing it multiple times per week or repeatedly over several weeks.
- Have I covered all the basic pillars of proper training?
- Easy run
- Speed work/tempo run
- Long run
- Strength/core training
- Rest days
- In what areas of my training am I seeing improvements? Look for patterns over the week or multiple weeks that indicate improvement in speed, endurance, or strength, and note which workouts are working for your training to use in future weeks.
- In what areas of my training am I seeing weaknesses? If after 6 weeks, you aren’t improving on speed, for example, something isn’t working. Adjust your training to address that particular weakness.
- Where am I now, and how should I move forward? Training plans are a constant work in progress. As you look back on the data, reassess where you are and how to properly move forward. It’s this lack of assessment that often leads to over-training and injury.
A (Totally Free) Training Log Tool
While those tools are powerful, I find that the act of logging in to a site and posting a run publicly is often enough to hold me back from doing it in the first place.
So after speaking with Matt, I’ve decided to share with the No Meat Athlete family the training template that the runners I coach use to track their training plans. It’s simple, interactive, and tracks everything you need and nothing more.
Download that tool and receive more information on smart training here. (Just a heads up, the sign-up is hosted on my blog, so it will direct you away from No Meat Athlete.)
Quit Being a Lazy Runner!
Taking notes on 9 different things might feel like a lot of work, but when you actually sit down and do it, you’ll see that tracking each run only takes 2-3 minutes. Even the laziest of runners can justify two to three minutes of work if it means getting faster and preventing injuries.
And the best part? By creating a habit of tracking your runs, that same process will spill over into more than just workouts. Budgets, diet, meditation … just about anything you’re looking to improve can benefit from keeping a log or journal.
Start with running. This obvious technique is too easy and beneficial to keep avoiding.