Monday, December 06, 2010

What Runners can Learn from Writers

I simply love it when I recognize my own thoughts in someone else’s writing– when I jump up from my couch while reading and shout, “Yes!” while my dog lifts his head in lazy surprise, mildly concerned at my joyous exclamation.

This was just the scenario today when I pulled up Nathan Bransford’s blog to find a post entitled, “The importance of Exercise for Writers.” (Reason #122 to love Nathan, if you’re keeping track.)

He submits that exercise helps stimulate the creative mind. Having spent a week one summer in a seminar on brain-based research for educators, I’m aware that there’s some actual science behind this idea. (But in an attempt to avoid digression, I’ll consider those details as a possible topic for another post.)

Nathan concluded his post with the acknowledgment that, in fact, he is happier in general when exercising. To which I can only respond with resounding affirmation. (See previously mentioned, dog-startling yell.) If you read my post from yesterday, you'll know these were exactly the thoughts marinating in my own brain.

It may come as no surprise that I find mind and body are the yin and yang of our very existence. It’s a theme to which I return often, and one on which I have plenty more to say.

But with Nathan’s specific blog post in mind, it occurs to me that runners and writers have a lot to offer each other. So, fellow runners, consider the following bits of advice, given to and received by many a writer. You may find that your writer-counterparts are pursuing an activity not so different from your own.

Five Lessons Runners can Learn from Writers


As a writer, if you can’t picture it, you certainly can’t create a world that your reader can visualize. Writers visualize it all before they make it happen on paper. It’s even better if we can hear it, feel it, smell it, etc. Planning makes things turn out so much better.

As a runner, visualizing your goal race as you would like to see it happen will give you a better chance of making it happen. No, you can’t just visualize your way to a win, but it sure can help. Ever hear of a self-fulfilling prophecy? That’s the power of positive thinking. (Or the power of negative thinking, if you let yourself go down that road.)

I’ll never forget in high school being at a championship race with my cross country team. Our coach had us visualize the race the day before, made us tour the course so that we could, and even had us go so far as to gather on the podium (already set up) as if we had won. Guess who was among the podium teams the next day, despite the fact that we hadn’t even been ranked in the top ten?

Mix it Up

As a writer, there is such a thing as boredom and fatigue. There is such a thing as feeling stuck, frustrated, unmotivated. When this happens, I give myself a break from my current project and write something completely different, with no purpose beyond that of being fun. Maybe it’s a writing exercise, a poem, a character sketch or a journal entry. Sometimes I write with my students. Whatever it is, I give myself the freedom to enjoy it with no pressure or expectations. My brain just needed a different track for a while.

As a runner, those symptoms of boredom, fatigue, frustration or inertia may also sound familiar. Changing your routine can go a long ways toward maintaining your training. In order to stay motivated without easing up on your workout quality, try things like new workouts, new trails, or even running at a different time of day. It’s amazing what critters might be out at dawn that you miss in the afternoon, or what the evening moonlight looks like on the snow.

Set Goals and Make a Plan to Achieve Them

Given the abundance of running metaphors out there, this one might be advice from the runner to the writer. For all parties, goals should be specific (“I want to run a 3:15 road marathon” not “I want to run fast”), tough but still attainable (“I want to finish a 100 miler” not “I want to break Ann’s record at Western States”) and measurable (“I want to write at least 10,000 words on my novel this month” not “I want to write more”).

And of course, if you don’t have a plan, it’s a lot tougher to arrive at your goal. When exactly will you do this training/writing? Before breakfast? After work? How many days per week? Can you do more on the weekend? Write it down. Make a schedule or training plan, and you’re much more likely to get out the door with your running shoes on every day.

And in case you don’t know, it’s not nearly as important what you do on race day as it is what you do every day between now and race day.

Find Friends

Writing can be a very solo pursuit. Something that can, in fact, drive a person nuts. Writers have figured out that having a writing circle not only gets you great feedback on your writing, but also supplies you friends with whom you can share your process, ideas, inspirations and sorrows. Knowing others have a shared experience can certainly keep the crazies at bay.

As a runner, these friends take the form of training partners, running clubs, online connections and even fellow racers. Before I met other runners in my town, I signed up for races just so I wouldn’t be running alone! Training partners can push you, keep you company, keep you safe, and get you out the door just by saying, “I’ll meet you at the trailhead at 5!” Because you share a passion, they often times become some of your best friends.

Do it Because You Love It

This is actually another one known better to runners, but I read it everywhere as advice to writers. Maybe that’s because so many writers expect to be the next Stephen King. As runners we’re pretty aware that there’s no real glory in this thing, and certainly no money. People who pursue these activities for reasons other than love eventually become bored and move on to mountain biking, or P90X, or grad school, or guitar lessons.

For the rest of us, we may as well take a deep breath and settle in for the long haul. A marriage of this sort can take a lot of work, but is as rewarding as it is challenging. True love lasts a lifetime, and I’ve got a long pair of legs that yearn to move and a brain full of thoughts that need to be purged.


  1. Nice. The parts about goals being specific, attainable, and measurable are right on, and point to a larger body of thought about strategic planning and goal-setting in a leadership context. It's always interesting when lessons from one aspect of life can be applied to others.

  2. Great piece. I've spent a lot of time thinking about the parallels between running and writing, and you've eclipsed all of them.

    I wrote a post last year after Wasatch titled "100 Miles with James Joyce," one of my favorite but, of course, least popular posts (which always seems to be the case). I don't like to crosslink, but in case there's interest in reading it:


  3. Jacob - Thanks. I do love applying lessons to whatever aspects of life they seem to apply. More benefit for the same amount of learning! I forget where I first learned about those three aspects of setting goals, but it definitely stuck with me as a good lesson.

    Hank - Yes, the parallels of running and writing - a seemingly bottomless well of things to contemplate for me. Good to know I'm not the only one.

    Also, I know what you mean about your own favorite pieces not necessarily being others' favorites. (See last lesson above, about writing for the love of it.) Thanks for the link on the post though. I'd definitely like to check it out!

  4. I completely agree on the creative synergy that comes from a good long run. Not at all surprised that science is now supporting what all of us creative types have long known.