Running and writing: why doing one helps with the other

I think quite a lot of writers run, and there’s reasons for that. I’ve been meaning for a while to write an entry about how getting into and training for triathlon and long-distance races in the past few years has influenced my ability to start writing again. Sport and writing, as pastimes, aren’t such strange bedfellows. Everything that is essential for getting through a training plan and completing a long race is something that can be picked up and applied to writing. 

Just as, five years ago, I wouldn’t have dreamed of completing a 5k because I was so out of shape and slow, five years ago (with the exception of the occasional nanowrimo effort) I didn’t have the ability to pick up a story and work on it without being easily discouraged and abandoning the idea. I’m convinced that getting into sport has been a major factor in getting back into writing. Here’s why. (It’s a list, my loves – always with the lists):

1 – Tenacity. Training and races; short stories and novels. Getting on with all these things and seeing them through to the bitter end needs a certain amount of bloodymindedness. There’s a point during both activities when you want to throw your hands in the air and give up. That used to be standard with my writing. Training taught me to suck it up. It also taught me that there’s nothing quite like that high of finishing.

2 – Being happy in your own head for long periods of time. Whether you run/write to music, or listen to radio plays, or whatever, you’re going to be spending long periods of time with only your thoughts for company. You need to be able to spend time in your head without turning into your own worst enemy. Apart from training your muscles to keep going, I’ve found that sport has also trained me to control my thoughts. Being on your feet for hours is extended meditation, I suppose, and you have to learn to shut down the voice that tells you to stop, and use it as an inner cheerleader, or arse kicker, instead. I personally have an arse-kicker inner voice. Perky “You can do it!” only works for so long.

3 – Doing it for yourself. I’m slow. Slow slow slow. That means when other people have finished running, I can still be out on an empty track struggling to finish. Apart from the bloodymindedness and arse-kicking voice, which are hugely necessary at that point, I also have to absolutely be doing this for myself, because I enjoy it even as I’m hating it. It’s easy to get swept up in comparisons, but running and triathlon have taught me to shut out everyone else. I’m not competing for first place; just my own mini triumphs. I don’t care who won, I’m just pleased I entered and finished. That person got a book deal? Mate, I finished a story I’m proud of and submitted it. If it gets accepted, great. If not, well hell, I finished a story I’m proud of.

nanowrimo have the writer/runner connection right there in their logo...
nanowrimo have the writer/runner connection right there in their logo…

4 – Break it down. When I did the London Marathon, if I’d looked at it as 26.2 miles, I would have freaked out and given up. I got through the training plan by rarely looking a week ahead. I did the same thing with half-iron training. If you stand in week 1 and look at week 8 and realise you’ll be swimming a standard 4k session at that point, it all seems impossible. But if you break it down, focus on the day at hand, and just get through that day, suddenly, somehow, you did it. In the marathon, hours into the run and dying on my feet, I constantly did maths breaking down the next mile until mile 20. I didn’t even THINK of the last six until I got to them. With a story, same thing – today my goal is to get three pages down. Today my goal is to write for an hour. Focus on the goal, look up, and lo – actually you’ve done quite a lot and the end doesn’t seem that far away.

5- It’s never easy. There are days where you have good training sessions and come out buzzing. A lot of them are average. Sometimes you have noodles for arms and weights for feet and you don’t see how you’ll get through it. Regardless, even the good sessions hurt. If you’re not putting effort in, you aren’t doing it right. Golden days where it all comes easily are few and far between and should ideally be saved for race day. Same thing applies to writing. If you sit down and expect the words to flow easily every single time, you’ll never get anything done. It takes work, and effort, and on the bad days just slog through it and be satisfied that you didn’t give up. Suck it up. I think Patrick Ness summed it up quite nicely, ages ago. “Why can’t it be fun?” said one writer, having a bad day (I’ve paraphrased). Ness’s response? “Then it wouldn’t be writing, it would be wanking.” (Not paraphrased.)

6 – Look after yourself. I know I just said suck it up, but there’s a balance to this. If running or writing is making you more miserable than happy, or if on one day you really really can’t face what you’ve planned because you’re mentally and/or physically exhausted, then for God’s sake, take a break without beating yourself up about it. You aren’t superman, and all those blogs and magazines and twitter feeds you read for inspiration are not a true reflection of how that person’s life is going. Maybe they only blog about training or whatever, but you don’t know what other things they let slide in order to perfectly fit that in. Life is messy, and unless you’re a pro, allow yourself some flexibility and down time. Pay attention to niggles, whether that’s a bad knee, or that a story is putting you into a really, really bad head space. If you don’t give yourself a break, you will crash and burn. Also, see point 3.


BUT. Continuing on from point 6, I’m being a total hypocrite right now, because however much the two have certain skill sets in common, I’m finding I can’t get a balance of running and writing going at the moment. I’m supposed to be training for the half marathon at the end of this month, but a combination of weather and writing plans means that training is the thing that’s being left to slide all the time. And then I feel guilty, because I know people who seem to fit everything in no problem, and I can’t seem to. I feel like a lazy arse for sitting and watching tv, but that’s me spending some downtime with my partner, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

When I talk to my mate who’s doing the London Marathon, he’s made it clear that there are certain hobbies he’s not even considering trying to pursue while he’s training, because he’ll go mad trying to fit everything in. He’s dead right.

Realistically, however much I want to both train AND write and do all everything else, I can’t do that and stay sane and healthy. I’m trying to write, train for a half marathon (and subsequent triathlon), hold down a full-time job, look after two dogs and maintain a relationship. Also sleep. And that doesn’t include the housework and keeping in touch with friends and having a social life. If I could pick something to ditch, it would, honestly, be the job. But that’s impossible, so for the time being training is on the back-burner. It would help if the rain would properly stop so that I could go to the park at lunchtime without muddied soakings.

Mannequin runner stays dry...
Mannequin runner stays dry…

The whole taking on too much thing was made double-clear this week when it started out brilliantly (finished long story! Lots of walking! Lots of reading! Sent stuff out! Socialised!) But by Thursday I had a near-permanent headache, as well as face-ache from constant stress-related teeth grinding. On Friday night I was so tired that I crashed quite horribly while out with friends and reached a state of being unable to make conversation or focus on anything (brain or eyes). I was just cold and miserable and wanted to go home. I spend Saturday soaking up as much daylight as possible, took the dogs for lengthy walks, met another friend for brunch and chats, more writing in the afternoon. Today I have been… sleeping. And sleeping sleeping sleeping. That’s sort of a sad way to spend Sunday.

– In extra related news: said friend is training really very hard for the marathon and is raising money for Amnesty International, so if any of you lovely readers would like to help him out by throwing £5 his way, that’d be marvellous:  DONATE HERE.

– Now that you’ve read all that I’ll just add that Haruki Murakami goes into the whole running/writing relationship in far greater (and better) detail in his book, What I Think About When I Think About Running. I haven’t read it for a few years, but it’s a good book.

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