How Running Helps Writers Get The Job Done

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In his book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, legendary Japanese writer Haruki Murakami doesn’t spend a lot of time on how running influences his writing. But in the first chapter, he writes:

As long as I can run a certain distance, that’s all I care about. Sometimes I run fast when I feel like it, but if I increase the pace I shorten the amount of time I run, the point being to let the exhilaration I feel at the end of each run carry over to the next day. This is the same sort of tack I find necessary when writing a novel. I stop every day right at the point where I feel I can write more. Do that, and the next day’s work goes surprisingly smoothly. I think Ernest Hemingway did something like that. To keep on going, you have to keep up the rhythm. This is the important thing for long-term projects. Once you set the pace, the rest will follow. The problem is getting the flywheel to spin at a set speed—and to get to that point takes as much concentration and effort as you can manage.

This past fall, I taught a trail running and writing workshop in Montana. Every day, we talked about writing and creativity in the morning, then went for a trail run, and came back and talked about writing and creativity in the evening. In the weeks leading up to the workshop, I asked a few friends who write professionally how running affects their work. I got some interesting answers, and I later asked people on Instagram the same question. I heard from journalists, fiction writers, poets, cartoonists, songwriters, and other creatives, and I loved reading their answers—some of which parallel my own usage of running as a creative catalyst (and mental health tool), and some completely different. Here they are:

chart of mental noise vs distance of run
(Illustration: Brendan Leonard)

Running is to my writing what a rest day is to my running. I don’t see the benefit in real time but I’ve come to appreciate the role it plays.

It’s pretty rare for me to have an epiphany or a breakthrough on my run. If I do think of something, I almost always forget it by the time I sit back down to write. It’s actually a little jarring how clearly something might come to me four miles into an eight-miler and how, when I try to recall it at my desk, it’s like I’m trying to decode the cryptic scribblings of a coma patient.

But when I’ve been staring at an email subject line for an hour, trying in vain to unlock the right turn of phrase, sometimes I’ll go for a run, because that time when I’m focused on something else is when all the mental effort I put in incubates and festers. I might not come up with the answer on the run, just like I won’t run a PR on my rest day. But both time away from the screen and time off my feet are vital ingredients to getting better at those crafts. —Alex Kurt, copywriter, contributing editor at Trail Runner

As a lifelong bookworm and daydreamer, I’ve spent most of my life functioning like a brain in a jar—lost in story and oblivious to my corporeal being. Running is the first activity I’ve ever tried that compels me to plant my brain inside my body and stay there. I only started running three or four years ago, but I feel like it’s made a huge difference to my writing. My characters are so much more adept at feeling their emotions and functioning in the world! But more importantly, running is an escape valve from the pressures of working in publishing. There’s nothing at stake when I’m out on the trail. There are no rejections. There’s nobody looking over my shoulder saying “Aren’t you supposed to be good at this?” I can just bumble along, one foot in front of the other, breathing. For me, that’s a sanity saver. — Wendy N. Wagner, Hugo award-winning editor and author of The Creek Girl

Running beats my mind back so that I can focus and form ideas into words. I rarely write before running because otherwise there’s too much effervescent energy and tension coursing through me to focus at any length. Now, ideas also come to me while running, on occasion. Things form or reform anew during a run, for which I have a motto: never assume you’ll remember. If I have my phone I’ll create a note. If I don’t then I’ll come up with some association cue to recall what I’d thought up while out there. Nothing drives me crazier than returning home and drawing a total blank for what the idea was that sparked mid-run. —Peter Bromka, Relay

the zen of running vs the zen of writing chart
(Illustration: Brendan Leonard)

The biggest thing I take from my running that I use in my writing is embracing the suck. There are days when runs flow but most days it’s a slog and I just need to tell myself to put in the miles. The same goes for putting words down on the page—99% of it is just showing up consistently, especially on the days when you don’t feel like doing it. —Mario Fraioli, The Morning Shakeout

Running brings everything back into perspective. When I am staring at my computer and my head is about to explode, and I’ve rewritten the last sentence six times, that’s when I try to go for a run. My runs always break down as follows:

  • 0 to 15 minutes: I fucking hate running. Everything hurts. This is bullshit. Also: How did I get so old and achy??
  • 15 to 30: Maybe this isn’t so bad.
  • 30 to 45: I zone out watching my dog’s ass. This is like a poor man’s flow state.
  • 45 to 60: Scientists have told me that at this point, the two hemispheres of my brain start firing signals between each other. Whatever is happening, I get creative ideas to solve my writing roadblocks. Usually.
  • 60 onward: I now know if the draft I had was right for whatever I am writing, or I have a decent enough and sometimes genius idea for how to fix it. I immediately pull out my phone and dictate it to myself, because my brain is a fucking sieve, and more than once this has happened: “Wow, look at the sun coming over that ridge.” Followed by, “FUCK ME WHAT WAS THAT GREAT IDEA I JUST HAD?”

—Doug Mayer, author of The Race that Changed Running: The Inside Story of the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc

To run is to oxygenate my writing, to give it air and space and breathing room, to let it outstretch its arms. To exhale. There’s a certain quality of attention that running—particularly trail running—can offer that I think helps me as a writer, too, because, after all, to attend to the specific, to bear witness to what surrounds us seems central to any quality writing. Now don’t get me wrong, I space out for horribly long stretches while running, thinking for miles about life or work or tacos. Speaking of tacos, I recently spent the better half of a long run outlining an awful short story about a ghost that haunts a local abandoned Taco Johns near my home. Normally, though, running invites a less-intellectual presencing that I can later patch into my writing life as a primary tool, which I guess I call focus. Summary: running is for creative oxygenation. Running is for attention. Running is for tacos. —Nick Triolo, Senior Editor, Trail Runner + Outside Run

As a full-time writer, trail running brings me into a unique meditative space where my mind is relieved from daily word-wrangling yet is reinvigorated at the same time. My best problem solving, curiosities, and story concepts are born when I’m flowing my feet over dirt — a space my consciousness can’t as often go to when I’m doing outdoor activities that are faster and more consequential like skiing or mountain biking. The more I can relieve stress, as I do on a run, the better the words flow. As I observe and tangibly reconnect with the world around me, inspiration is absorbed, too. Simple and accessible, running is a great writing tool. —Morgan Tilton

While running alone can fuel my creative mind and help thoughts connect, running with friends also helps my writing. Perhaps because of the inherent vulnerability in running or the bilateral movement connecting the hemispheres of my brain, I find that I’m able to express myself in conversation while running in a way that expands what I can express alone or in conversation while still. After running, I also seem to tap into a deeper filing cabinet of my vocabulary. —Drew Petersen

difficulty chart of having an idea while running vs remembering it later
(Illustration: Brendan Leonard)

Running is critical to writing for me. It’s a great method of procrastination but more importantly my best ideas come while running. The challenge is it’s very hard to type to while running. And the best ideas seem to disappear as soon as the run’s over (and I’m tired, worn down, sweaty, etc.) so I keep voice notes now. They aren’t ideal but they will help me back to the train of thought I was in while running.

Number 3 is that running shakes up the brain. Without it I become stagnant mentally and physically (are they even separate?!) but with running I suddenly remember all the things I love doing, and why…which is writing, and I don’t necessarily have a reason for loving writing, but I can’t seem to give it up. —Jim Chapman, author of the forthcoming book The Four Cornered Forest

I am a fiction writer as a hobby and love to think over storylines and plots on my runs, especially long runs. Sometimes I can’t wait to get home and write that idea down. Some of my best ideas have come during a run and I am very thankful to have a training buddy who lets me talk them out during runs on occasion. Running helps clear my mind so I can focus on my writing. —Stephanie Hussman

Runs provide the same sense of potential surprise that good writing does. I always go on a solo trail run when I’m trying to figure out a new poem—often it’s a case of finding the little surprise side track that takes me somewhere unexpected, and that translates over to my writing. That or it’s a great way to kind of get my conscious mind to shut up for long enough to let the poem tell me what it wants to be about and to say—kind of letting the answer rise up out of the soup that my normally overactive brain turns into after a couple hours in the hills. —Leah Atherton, author of a sky the coulour of hope

Sometimes running helps me think and center myself. Sometimes I come back from a run and think, “I have done a lot today,” and I make zero art. Sometimes running takes the anxious edge off. Sometimes it provides a solution. Sometimes it’s better to do it in the morning and get it out of the way. Sometimes it’s better to wait until the afternoon to focus morning manic energy on creation. I still haven’t figured it all out, but I do know that I am happiest when I do both. —Luke McCambley

illustration of person running with steve prefontaine
(Illustration: Luke McCambley)

I’m newish to both of these pursuits (was previously a climber and filmmaker) but have been doing a ton of both running and writing recently. I like the pattern of flipping total focus between these two tasks and have found they support each other right now. I’ll chunk out a block of time and put words on a page until the words aren’t making sense any more. Then I find myself actually looking forward to my runs, because it’s something that feels good to do when my brain is mush (and I don’t have to talk to anyone!). I come out of the run tired and with more mental clarity, and then all I have to do is eat, drink water, roll, and stretch and then I sleep better and do it all again the next day. —Heather Mosher, director/producer of Not Alone

I’m a song writer (so slightly different), but when I run, I come up with little ditties and song lyrics. These melt the miles away! Also—nature is inspiring. And running is my idle brain time when I don’t have to think about outreach and this press release or that show. I have no choice but to be there—in that moment—running and singsonging. —Ashe Berton

When I run, I think the words held inside of me can finally come out. They’re finally given the space to be held, tended to, and caressed. Writing an extensively long and a little too vulnerable Strava post is how I get to feel like I’m here, in this moment. —Elisa Gautam

chart of running progress vs writing progress
(Illustration: Brendan Leonard)

On a run, I might think about conversations I had days or decades ago—or want to have, but don’t have the opportunity or courage to say those things—and I carry on that conversation in my head as if I were talking to those people or writing letters to them. Perhaps I’ll mentally argue a point or catch them up on something that happened, and pretty soon dialogue and stories are flowing like my legs. I stop seeing the scenery through which I’m running because I’m fully engaged in this imaginary conversation, whether  it’s the words and scenes I’d use to describe my dog’s behavior to my now-deceased dad, or forming a pitch to an editor to get an assignment. Eventually I realize I need to write this down—I need to remember a phrase or the just-right nut graph that came to me, or I’ll forget it as soon as I’m back at the car—so I get out my phone, go to the Notes app, and slowly jog or walk while dictating the essential points, memories, and phrases I want to write about later.

Other times, I go for a run after I’ve drafted a piece but before I turn it into an editor. I massage the wording in my head, realizing I need to cut this or add that, and I might also challenge myself to think up a headline and subheadings for it. That process of playing with words in my head, and boiling down the story into a phrase for a headline, almost always leads to better edits once I’m back home.

Or sometimes, I head out on a run because I can’t write. I call it “productive procrastination.” I should write, but I don’t feel like it, and my first attempt was a clunky paragraph that needs deleting, so I might as well get my run done. As I run, I think about what’s holding me back. What’s not working? Why don’t I want to get started on this piece? Sometimes it’s because I struggle to answer the question, “What’s the story?” Often it’s because I care too much and am too nervous about how it’ll turn out. Running restores some of my confidence and motivation to at least get the damn thing started. I can outline it in my head. I can think up an intro paragraph. Often, I find myself running faster because I suddenly want to finish the run and get back to writing.

Running helps me in all phases of writing—from generating thoughts and processing feelings (whether solo and letting my mind wander, or running with others, or listening to a podcast or audiobook and hearing their voices), to getting started, to revising. —Sarah Lavender Smith, “Colorado Mountain Running & Living” newsletter, author of The Trail Runner’s Companion: A Step-by-Step Guide to Trail Running and Racing, from 5Ks to Ultras