What Running Reveals About Writing

Photo by Mike Warren http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5/

I run several mornings a week, but there is a point in the running process when I just don’t want to do it. Those moments of resistance taught me something important about another activity that is important to me—the discipline of writing.

By the time I have been out on my morning run for about 15 minutes, I start to feel pretty good. By then I’m warmed up, physically and mentally. My breathing is settled, my body feels that smooth running rhythm, and my mind is lost in the solitude that running allows. At that point I don’t care if it rains or whether it’s cold or hot outside. I am committed to the run by then, and I will finish it no matter what.

In all my years of running, I don’t remember ever regretting coming out for my run once I am past those first 15 minutes or so. By that point I am always glad that I’m out there and that I didn’t let any excuses hold me back.

When I say that I never regret the run, that is not to say that I “enjoy” it. While I do enjoy being outdoors by the foothills near our home and the feeling that I’m doing something that’s good for me, for the most part running is difficult and painful, and I’m always glad when I reach the end of my course. It’s physically draining and takes time out of my day. But once I finish, I also feel a small sense of triumph that I have gotten the day off to a good start.

For me, the hardest part of the running process takes place about an hour before the run. I wake up early, have breakfast, sit on my recliner and drink coffee and read the newspaper. In those groggy but comfortable moments, I sometimes think, I just can’t do that run today. My mind seeks excuses not to do it. Is it raining? Do I have an early meeting at work that would prevent me? Should I sit here and drink a second cup of coffee and forget the run?

I have learned that this is not the time to make my running decision. Intellectually, I know I’ll be fine once I’m out there, but emotionally I’m still fighting it. I have learned to ignore those urges to skip the run. I turn off those thoughts as I get off the recliner, get dressed for the run, and head out. It takes awhile to convince myself I’ve made the right choice, but if I can just resist the excuses long enough to get outside, then I’ll be glad I did it.

Running Lessons Applied to Writing

Something similar happens in the writing process. Once I have been writing for awhile, say half an hour or so, my brain gets fully engaged in the project, and I don’t want to stop. Writing is “enjoyable” only in ways similar to how running is enjoyable. I’m glad I’m doing it, but it’s also difficult and painful at the same time. I never regret writing once I am fully absorbed in it.

The most dangerous part of the writing process is the half hour or so before I start writing, and the first twenty minutes or so of sitting at the computer, before my brain has fully engaged. As with running, it’s the transition from the comfortable world to the world of the writing project that the lazy part of my mind wants to avoid. If I can resist the urge to give in to excuses not to write (and there are thousands of them, from emails that “need” to be written to household chores that “need” to be done first), then I am likely to have a productive writing period.

With writing as with running, feelings are my enemy during those transition times. I have to anticipate that I will not want to do it, and I have to prepare myself to do it anyway. I can’t claim that I always win this battle, but I have gotten better at it once I learned to identify and fight the thinking processes that prevent me from pushing forward.

17 thoughts on “What Running Reveals About Writing

  1. The struggle to start something is very difficult to get over. I know this feeling well. This is why so many find it so difficult to start working out, clean, or start a project. Being lazy seems to feel good. However, at the end of a lazy day, I typically find myself wishing I would have done something productive. I think of all the things I could have done while I sat around in my pajamas all day. Along with writing, I always procrastinate on my essays, the idea of sitting down and putting all my ideas together sounds boring to me and I can never find the motivation to do it. It is when I force myself to start, however, that I remember how much I do enjoy writing and it is something I feel I am good at. I agree wholeheartedly with the intention of this post.

  2. There are times, when running, like writing, does not sound appealing to me. It is not that I am too lazy to do either of these things, it is more so based on the reasoning that there are so many other, more important, things I could be doing with my time. On any given school day I could have a paper to write as well as the thought in the back of my head that I need to exercise, need to run. I tend to put both of these off until the last possible moment, waiting until it is nearly dark out to run and also waiting until the night before a paper is due to begin writing it. While I know that these are both things I need to accomplish there are times when I convince myself that there are better ways I could be spending my time. Ultimately I give in to both the running and the writing and, although it is not before I procrastinate to great extent, I still manage to get both done. After I go on a run I wonder what it was that made me feel like I shouldn’t or did not want to go, just as after I finish a paper I wonder why it was so difficult for me to begin. Running and writing both take discipline, both become a choice of mind over matter, choosing to do something even though you may not really feel like it at the time.

  3. Motivation, where art thou? The times I feel least like a writer can be when I’m trying to write. I’m only now learning not to “try,” but just to start – similar to what you consistently practice with your running habit, Dr. Bentz. I get out a Post-It note and tell myself that I’m going to write enough to fill the note. (Yes, this was inspired by Anne Lamott’s write-enough-to-fill-a-one-inch-picture-frame technique!) Once I’ve gotten that far, I’m usually good to keep going, or at least to start Post-It number two! I stick the notes to my rough drafts, just as a reminder of what it takes to start.

  4. Wow, I am so glad I clicked through ACFW to this post! As a running writer, I can totally relate and got a lot out of your ideas. Thanks so much.

  5. The connection between the demands of running and writing is very interesting. I relate to the painful transitions of both disciplines and more often than I should, I give up before reaching my goal. In my Freshmen year I gave a presentation on Ray Bradbury (one of my favorite authors) and his writing process. I bought his book “Zen in the Art of Writing” and learned about his secrets, experiences and excitements as a writer. I remember reading the emphasis he put on writing every day, even only 500 words. Bradbury too felt the need to make the connection between writers and athletes and he said, “An athlete may run then thousand miles in order to prepare for one hundred yards,” and then he added, “There is no failure unless one stops. Not to work is to cease, tighten up, become nervous and therefor destructive of the creative process.”
    Running and writing have much in common. From our motivations, through the process which demands discipline, to the rewarding feeling of accomplishing what we desired.

  6. I really liked the analogy used to compare writing to running. I think the general principle can be applied to many things. When I first read this, I immediately thought about how I study and do school work because I felt the same way as one does when beginning to run. I don’t like studying and doing school work, but I still do it because I want to do well in my classes. When I begin to study or do some type of related classwork, I immediately dread it and try to find ways to distract myself from the work. After a while though I tell myself that what I am doing isn’t so bad and its good that I’m doing it now because I wont be stressing about it later. Eventually it sinks into my brain and I no longer dread what I am doing. I’m actually kind of happy that I’m doing the work and I get really engaged into what I am doing. So, like with running and writing, it’s always difficult to begin the process, but once you get over that hurdle, everything becomes easier.

  7. As someone who detests running but craves the feeling of release that follows, I can relate to the love/hate relationship of trying to dedicate oneself to doing something we know we must do. This topic reminds me of a conversation I had with Dr. Ivanov-Craig last week. We discussed the struggle of balancing passion and drive. When relating running and writing, I can’t help but think of the passion vs. drive struggle. I love reading and writing. I love the feeling of writing something that I’m proud of, falling in love with characters, or even hating myself as the creator of tragedy. Yet, I continually struggle with dedicating myself to the craft. Even though I know I will not regret it and that in most cases, there are very few ailments that writing cannot, at least temporarily, cure, it’s the sitting down to write that’s the hardest, or the lacing of my running shoes.

    Why is it so difficult to make myself do something that I love, and that in the end, makes me better? Furthermore, I’m constantly perplexed by the bout of time in which I consistently exercise or write followed by stages of stagnation where I lazily ignore what I know I should do.

    I think the answer lies in the “comfort” that you hinted to in your comparison. It’s often comfortable, at least in the moment to take the extra hour to sleep or relax rather than to write or exercise or do whatever it is that makes us better. I struggle with this laziness or desire for what is easy, when in the end, it proves to be such a temporary resolution, a bandaid of sorts.

  8. I can relate so well to the need to get over the mental gymnastics that I have to go through to get going and make the right choice to do what needs to be done regardless of how I feel. I often am ruled by my feelings and it gets me in trouble. Both exercise and writing is just a couple of the areas I battle with the same thing. I am growing in making better choices to discipline myself but the battle isn’t over by any stretch of the imagination. I often do the all or nothing thing. I will exercise hard for a week straight but then slack off and do noting for three weeks. I know it is much better to do a little everyday than those marathon sessions. I really want to grow in my writing too but I tend to follow the same patterns.

  9. Hi Dr. Bentz,

    I can relate much to this post. Taking Senior Seminar this semester, I had to motivate myself greatly to start writing the term paper. Funny enough, I became much more productive in terms of doing all my other assignments except the Senior Sem. one. They all looked so manageable comparatively. Of course, once I committed to it, putting my, as Dr. Adams once phrased it, “butt in chair,” I was able to write away. Often, when faced with what seems arduous tasks, I can’t help but want to put them off. However, the anxiety from what could be is always worse than what actually is. Writing the term paper was not too bad once I started. My only regret is that I did prioritize my asssignments according to due date and not scope, which put me at a disadvantage in terms of time. Senioritis isn’t good.

  10. That feeling of triumph that comes after the sacrifices we perfrom for the sake of self-betterment is what makes it all worthwhile. I can certainly relate to the feeling of relunctance that comes before engaging in performing work (especially if it is voluntary), but it is those who can really “grin and bear it” who are the ones who develop character.

  11. Thank you Dr. Bentz.

    You have just summarized my college life in Apu.
    Like running, once you are in it you don’t want to stop and I find that my writing is the same way.

    Once I am writing I like what I am doing and there is no better feeling then reading your finished writing.

    But the transition before the writing is what always gets me and I have paid for it. ( going an extra semester in Apu)

    It is a good lesson to learn and I hope to not make it again.

  12. Dr. Bentz,

    I really found this post interesting! I had never thought before about how running might apply to writing, particularly in the sense of writing as a discipline. At the end of finals, I can see the relevance with special clarity given the immense amount of writing required in response to what we have been studying and absorbing all semester.

    Do you find that as time progresses, writing becomes less of a burden because the mind has become conditioned to accept the “warm ups” and “cool downs” as part of the natural rhythm of the process? Has writing become any easier to form good practices in the more you have experienced life and disciplined yourself in this area?

    Thank you for your thoughts!

  13. Pingback: Pretend Someone is Watching–and Other Tips to Help Your Writing | Life of the Mind and Soul

  14. This is so interesting. My roomate and I trail run several times a week. It is a constant struggle to collaborate on when we will go simply because one of us usually is already quite stressed. But going running is so very therapeutic. In fact some holistic psychologists use treatments in which patients go barefoot running in order to overcome depression, addiction, or negative life patterns. I can’t agree more that just getting out of bed or off the couch is the hardest part of running. I never pinned an amount of time for it. 15 minutes is exactly right though now that I think about it. Writing is exactly the same. Most things require the mental self-control and power to actually start and stick to it.

  15. While I can’t really speak to the running theme (I am no runner and truly despise the activity) I do appreciate how applicable it becomes to the process of writing, in my own personal life the sitting down to write isn’t always the issue but the mental fortitude to push through the first 15-30 minutes of writing is often times the hardest part. Vary rarely do I regret doing it once I have made it to that steady flow.

  16. Whether I am writing papers for classes or stories for fun, I have learned that I just need to START. My biggest obstacle is the fear of the looming mountain of writing ahead of me and not knowing where to begin. If I can simply convince myself to start writing no matter how poor the writing is, the biggest challenge will be past me. It is always possible to go back and revise poorly written work, but a blank sheet of paper will get me nowhere! Once I have gotten past that initial fear of starting, my brain kicks into gear and I can write at a furious pace, similar to a runner’s high.

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