Failure isn't a weakness; it's an opportunity. A training log can help you track your failures and learn from them to become a better athlete. Here's how!
Years ago I trained for and raced in the Chicago Marathon. And when I say that I trained, I mean I trained hard. I worked with my coaches (Tania Jones & Lioudmila Kortchaguina) for months. I watched my diet (under the guidance of nutritionist Lauren Jawno). I also kept a log of my training (using an online tool called TrainingPeaks), and was dedicated to the goal of running a qualifying time that would allow me to race in the 2012 Boston Marathon.
But alas, when race day came, I failed to reach my goal.
Pretty much from the first 5k of that 42.2 km journey, I felt flat and low-energy. Months before, I'd visualized the way I'd feel, but when the day arrived, I didn’t have a spring in my stride. Yes, I managed to complete the marathon. But my time was nowhere near what I'd trained for or what I needed for a BQ (Boston Qualifier).
Then, about three weeks later, I turned things around and ran the Hamilton Marathon with a spring in my stride that allowed me to come darn close to nailing my BQ time.
So, what was different? Why was I able to come so much closer to achieving my goal then but not in Chicago? Well, that's where my training log and my ability to view failure as a learning tool come into play. Or, as I like to call the combination of the two, acquiring the data of failure.
Why you need a training log
Let's start with logging your training. As I mentioned, I kept a training log during my training period (and throughout most of the athletic career). There are many reasons why I did this and why I suggest you also do it. Training logs are a useful strategy no matter whether your goal is losing weight, gaining muscle, hiking a mountain, or running a marathon.
You may have a general gist of how your training went, but a gist isn't enough if you really want to learn and grow.
Training logs are reliable
It is easy to believe that you'll just remember what you did during your training blocks. But trust me, as time goes on, and one workout blends into another, it gets harder and harder to recall with any detail when you did your longest run or when you lifted your heaviest one-rep-max. You may have a general gist of how it went, but a gist isn't enough if you really want to learn and grow.
The other problem with memory is that it's not good for pinpointing specifics. What pace was that interval supposed to be executed at and what pace did you nail? What weight did you use for the overhead press and what did you lift for bench press? What small changes did you make in your morning commute and evening routine that might have helped you lose those last ten pounds? These are important details that can make a big difference in your end result as well as future results.
Training logs are unbiased
As you probably know, we humans have a hard separating our emotions from our data. So if you don’t keep a data-driven record of your training, which truly identifies what worked well from what simply felt good, it can get muddled.
For instance, we all hate those workouts that push us beyond our ability. In the end, we aren’t able to maintain the pace, or lift the weight, or hit the goal. We also dislike those workouts that seem overly easy and slow and feel like they can’t possibly be serving a purpose in our fitness journey. Had you only relied on your emotions, it is unlikely you'd ever do either of those workouts again. But when we can look at the hard data in front of us and see the progress that happened after those workouts, it's often undeniable that they were key factors in our success.
Training logs are motivational
We all have bad days where we question why the heck we had this goal in the first place. That is where your training log (much like a daily diary) can provide an advantage. Looking back in a workout or training log and seeing your progress laid out before you, throughout the weeks and months, can give you a real burst of motivation.
I remember scrolling through my training log more than a few times as a way to launch myself off the couch and onto the track. Sometimes, just seeing how far I had come was all I needed to launch into the next breakthrough workout.
You can manage injuries
This works two ways:
You can often prevent or predict injuries based on the rate of progress you see in a training log. As a coach, a big part of my job is ensuring an athlete is not engaging in what I call “too much, too soon” behavior. Training logs can reveal whether you're pushing too hard before you go too far and hurt yourself.
If an injury does occur, the training log can be a great tool to help unravel the mystery of how and why it might have happened. It’s not a perfect diagnostic tool, but if used correctly, it can at least help you prevent the same mistake from happening again.
Your log will help you learn a workout
If you have a complex goal, training can also become complex.
When you're starting a running program, for instance, your instructions will likely be easy to remember. Like "Run 5k at an easy pace." But as your program progresses, the workouts can get harder to remember. The last thing you want is to be in the middle of a heavy superset and have to get your phone and fumble through your email app to find out what the heck you're supposed to do next.
This analysis process helps you remember and turns you into an athlete, not just an exerciser.
Having a training log means you'll spend more time analyzing, and focusing on, and learning to embrace the concept behind each workout rather than just doing what you're told and moving on. This analysis process helps you remember and turns you into an athlete, not just an exerciser.
What to include in a training log
When I first started training seriously, we had to write everything down in a book, which was tedious and messy. Eventually, we started using Excel spreadsheets and creating templates with fields like Speed, Distance, Weight, and Perceived Exertion. But now there are tons of free and paid apps available that make it easy to keep a training log without guesswork.
What makes it even easier is that most of these apps (like the one I used while training for the Chicago Marathon) sync up easily with activity trackers like FitBit, Garmin Forerunners, Polar Loops, or Apple Watch to automatically populate important information like heart rate, speed, intervals, elevation, and more. You can even track and sync your nightly sleep data and Heart Rate Variability, which can both be great measures of recovery between workouts.
There are tons of free and paid apps available that make it easy to keep a training log without guesswork.
The one thing these apps and trackers can’t log though is your personal emotional response to a workout and that can be a key metric, especially when we start talking about learning from failure. This metric is often called Perceived Exertion, but it can be more detailed and personal than that.
Let’s go back to my Chicago Marathon experience. A few days before the race, I was already in Chicago and I was doing a run on the treadmill in the hotel. The workout was “2 x 2k @ 4:25 and 1 x 1k @ 4:20.” For those of you not familiar with this shorthand, it simply means that I was to run two intervals of two kilometers each at a pace of four minutes and 25 seconds per kilometer. Then, I'd kick it up a notch and run one more kilometer at a pace that was five seconds faster. Easy enough, right? Well, according to my log ... no, not easy at all.
I wrote in my log that I felt “heavy” and “tired” during the entire workout. Although I hit the paces, I was “worried about maintaining that pace during the race.” You don’t have to be a seasoned coach to see the red flag. Even though those were paces I'd run many times before, my confidence was clearly shaken and my energy was low. Not a winning combo.
Learning from failure
As I mentioned earlier, my Chicago race did not go well. But after a few days of sulking, my coach and I went through my training log to see what we could learn from it. My fitness was solid, that was abundantly clear. But in the days leading up to the race, I wasn’t as rested as I should have been. Perhaps I was spending too much time sightseeing in Chicago when I should have been recovering. Perhaps sleeping in a hotel room instead of my own bed was taking a toll but it was clear that even though my training was solid, my recovery was not.
This time, leading up to the race, I was sleeping in my own bed and there were no deep dish pizzas and architecture tours on my agenda.
That is when we had the idea of racing again a few weeks later. This time, leading up to the race, I was sleeping in my own bed and there were no deep dish pizzas and architecture tours on my agenda. And sure enough, not only does my log include phrases like “nailed the intervals” and “feeling light and fast” but my finishing time was more than 20 minutes faster than any marathon I had done previously. We learned a valuable lesson from my previous failure and, after some recovery time, it paid off.
It would be easy to just read this account and walk away thinking, “Okay, so just take some time off before running a marathon.” But that's not the bigger lesson. The big lesson is that out of a seeming failure, I was able to glean some important information about my training, my recovery, my biology, and about myself as an athlete.
I could have just wallowed in my defeat and either given up on my dream or gone on to make the same mistake again in the future. But thanks to my training log, and an understanding of how to use failure as a learning tool rather than an excuse to quit, I went on to enjoy racing many more times for many more years.
Preparing for failure
In an interview I did with Katrín Davíðsdóttir, an Icelandic CrossFit athlete who was crowned Fittest Woman on Earth two years in a row, we discussed the importance of not only learning from failure but also the importance of preparing for it. She told me that she and her coach actually “sat down and wrote a list on a whiteboard ... 101 things that could go wrong.”
Now, this may seem like a self-defeating activity but Katrin went on to tell me “... it's all these little things that, when they go wrong (because it always is going to go wrong) then you have a plan B and a plan C and a plan D. And you're so quick at just going to the next plan it's almost as if nothing has gone wrong because you were already expecting it.”
So Katrin allowed not only her past failures to prepare her, but she even imagined potential future failures so she could be ready for them and handle them with ease and calm.
And finally, even the basketball legend Michael Jordan is quoted saying in a Huffington Post article: “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
So, keep an eye on your goals, keep a detailed log of your progress toward them, and whether you succeed or fail, always use it as a learning tool to make you better, smarter and more prepared in the future.