Training journal lessons -- Your memory is not reliable

A training journal helps you document how your body reacts to a particular pattern of training volume and intensity.
Some athletes keep very detailed training journals, including every training and life detail. Other athletes keep a very basic journal that includes date, workout time and route. There are a few people that keep no training journal at all. The athletes that do not keep a training journal will have a difficult, if not impossible, task if they want to determine what changes to make in training to improve performance.

Your recent and past training and racing experiences are invaluable. A training journal helps you document how your body reacts to a particular pattern of training volume and intensity. This information can be used to help you in a number of ways.

This column covers two athletes and a few of the key lessons they learned while using a training log.

Case study -- criterium racer

I worked with a criterium racer that was looking to improve his performance. By examining past training logs, I determined he was not putting in enough training time to meet his competitive goals. He was training about six hours per week and that was his average weekly training hours during most of the previous year.

One of the factors that we used to improve his race performance was to increase his average weekly training hours. At the same time, he was a busy business man so unlimited training and recovery time was not an option.

Over the course of several months, we built his training to 11 hours per week. Within this weekly training load he was able to manage two or three stressful workouts each week. His early season races produced encouraging results. We were both confident he was set to have a good performance at his most important event of the season.

About six weeks prior to his target event, he started missing training sessions due to business and other life commitments. Key sessions and time slipped away. Each week he apologized to himself in his log for missing sessions and promised he would get better.

When his key race day came, he rode well early in the race; but faded at the end. He had no finishing sprint. He was disappointed and hard on himself for not performing up to his early season predictions. His conclusion was that he needed more training volume assigned in order to meet his goals. I told him I didn't think assigning more volume was the key, but accomplishing a greater percentage of the training assigned, particularly key training sessions, was important.

Additionally, I emphasized that recovering from that training was also critical. His natural tendency was to short himself on sleep in order to fit more into each day. As you can imagine, sleep deprivation is not a good training or health strategy.

As we began the race debrief process, I told him missing so many training sessions in the six weeks prior to race day certainly had an affect on his race results. He commented that he did miss a few sessions, but he didn't believe he missed enough sessions to make much of a difference.

When we reviewed the data from his training journal, in a snapshot we could see that his weekly training volume had been reduced from an average of 11 hours per week to slightly under six hours per week. When he saw the data summary, he couldn't believe his eyes. He said, "I can't believe I missed that many sessions. I was so busy with work and life issues, that I recalled only the days that I rode and forgot about all the sessions I missed. I knew I missed a session or two, but I didn't recall missing so much training. I really thought I was doing more."

This athlete's story is not uncommon. With a lot on their minds, some busy people tend to remember planned training and accomplishing key workouts. However, they seem to erase the planned, but unaccomplished workouts from memory. Because they had good intentions of training, it is almost like the training indeed occurred.

Due to his life circumstances, there was no way for this athlete to complete more workouts or increase the length of the workouts he did accomplish. Because he did a good job of keeping a training log, he learned some important lessons that made a positive difference in his next year of racing:

  • If life and business does not allow planned training to occur, adjust race expectations.
  • When possible, plan key races during slower business times or shift heavy business travel and workloads until after key races.
  • Pay attention to the difference between planned weekly training hours vs. actual accomplished training hours. Watch for trends and take action when possible.

Case study -- mountain bike racer

A mountain bike racer I had coached for several years was having a busy business time, similar to the criterium racer. Her business was booming, and she felt like she was spinning in every direction, a short two months before her key event.

In an email, she lamented that her key race was going to be a disaster. She was not accomplishing all of her training sessions, and she was certain her race would be worse than the previous year.

Before calling her on the phone, I reviewed the same pre-competitive training blocks from last year and compared them with the current year. What I found is that she was actually accomplishing slightly more training volume in the current year than she did the previous year. I also found that she was completing all of her key training sessions. This meant the volume of quality training was also slightly more than last year.

When we discussed the data over the phone, she was surprised. All that was visible under her microscope was the missed training sessions. When she saw the data proving she was not below last season's training level, she was able to relax and enjoy training again. When race day arrived, she had a great race and performed better than last year.

Her key lessons were:

  • When training seems like it is off track, avoid a pity party and verify those feelings with data.
  • Use your training journal data as a positive motivator that your key sessions are on track, and perhaps better, than previous seasons.
  • When possible, rearrange training to make missed or shortened training sessions easy recovery workouts or maintenance workouts.

Both athletes relayed to me that using personal brain memory as a training journal is a bad idea. A written training journal or a training log stored in computer memory is much more reliable.

If your training journal is as good as your memory, perhaps you are passing up a training and performance improvement goldmine?


Gale Bernhardt was the 2003 USA Triathlon Pan American Games and 2004 USA Triathlon Olympic coach for both the men's and women's teams. Her first Olympic experience was as a personal cycling coach at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Thousands of athletes have had successful training and racing experiences using Gale's pre-built, easy-to-follow training plans. For more information, click here. Let Gale and Active Trainer help you succeed.

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