How Running Helps Us Write, Read, and Live

Not everyone runs. A good chunk of my friends think that runners are a little crazy. ‘Why would you do that to yourself?’ people ask- and I’m not even that serious of a runner. I’m not sure I would ever do a half-marathon, for instance. Running is rhythmic and calming. It requires focus and diligence, and many writers find it useful in their creative process. Amanda Loudin, of The Washington Post, wrote that running and writing, “are at once complementary and opposing activities. Running requires a high level of physical activity; writing calls for a high level of cerebral activity.” So why do so many writers like to run, including myself? 

Let’s talk for a moment about some very well-known authors who run. There’s Joyce Carol Oates, Malcolm Gladwell, Stephen King, and perhaps most famously, Haruki Murakami. “Running plays a role in the words they so beautifully string together,” claims Loudin. If you want to improve your running or your writing, you must focus. Improvement doesn’t happen by accident, and these acts require you to pay attention, breathe, edit, and figure out what works and what doesn’t. 

If you can run, you can write. You can work- you are mentally and physically capable of doing more than you even realize. I once listened to a Radiolab episode, Limits of the Body, in which pro-athletes discuss how they do what they do. People can exercise until they collapse, sometimes even die- but how does your body allow you to keep going up until the point that you fall apart? It’s the same answer as to why we feel we’re tired after doing very little exercise. The answer to both is: It’s in in your mind. 

In Limits of the Body, Dr. David Jones explained how, as a protective mechanism, your mind tricks you into thinking you’re all out of energy way sooner than you actually are. Far back in human history, like way back, humans needed to run away from danger [think saber-tooth tigers]. Now, we don’t need to run away so often, if ever, but we still have the ability to. Our body is wired to save, and then use, all of this pent up energy when you need to. If you tell yourself you aren’t tired, if you convince yourself that your body is capable of doing 1, 2, 3 more miles, you can do it. It’s no easy feat and it takes training. Just like writing. 

Running, for me, clears my mind. So does writing. But I often find I can’t do one without the other. After sitting at a desk all day long, the idea of sitting down again and writing is almost unfathomable. Not only is my creativity depleted from a day of thinking and doing, but my body struggles to stay still (although it will stay still for watching Netflix… curious). My cure for a restless body and tired mind is to go for a run. Biking works too. 

Many runners have turned to writing to help them learn and get over their insecurities. Former Irish Olympian, Ro McGettigan, found that writing, and her anxieties as a writer, helped her “understand [her] running insecurities… Both pursuits are a never-ending process of learning.” Similarly, writer Marianne Elliott, a “writer who runs” found running to help her writing.

Elliott also says, “With writing, I got caught up in the outcome- getting my book published- rather than practice. Running helped teach me to look at it differently…There’s always going to be some discomfort with running, but as you push on, it goes away. The same can be said of writing.”   

For McGettigan and Elliot, running and writing have worked to advance one another. For me, running clears my head and prepares me for writing. According to The Atlantic, writers such as Joyce Carol Oates, find running useful “for the type of cloistered, intensive work [writers] do.” She also stated in an interview: “I do a lot of running and walking fast- that’s where I really do a lot of my writing, in my head.” Ernest Hemingway would supposedly stop a story “mid-sentence, perform physical exercise, and then return to work…”. Other well-known writers who find physical activity useful for their creative process include Don DeLillo, who said running “helps me shake off one world and enter another,” and Murakami, who wrote an entire book about running.


The question of why writers run doesn’t have one clear answer, but Nick Ripatrazone wrote an article for The Atlantic about it. He couldn’t have put it better, in my humble opinion. He said: 

Why do writers so often love to run? Running affords the freedom of distance, coupled with the literary appeal of solitude. There’s a meditative cadence to the union of measured breaths and metered strides. Writers and runners both operate on linear planes, and the running writer soon realizes the relationship between art and sport is a mutually beneficial one. 

Writing, like running, is freeing. But both can be incredibly difficult and take time and effort to improve on. One clears your mind and paves a way to the other. They work symbiotic, and both are extremely good for you. 

Many people are being left out of this conversation, however, because many of us don’t run. At the end of the day, physical exercise is important for everyone- especially since many people sit in front of computers for 45 hours a week. The reality is that exercise is necessary for everyone; the fact that it helps writers so much just further proves this point. There are hundreds of scholarly works explaining the benefits of exercise. This Harvard Business Review article is one of many, but it’s a good starting point for anyone interested on the mental benefits of exercise. 

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