Running and writing. The effect on inspiration.

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Running clears that 'creative fog' for so many people. Image by Paul Petch.

Running clears that ‘creative fog’ for so many people. Image by Paul Petch.

I am writing this in the immediate aftermath of completing my second Juneathon and as a previous partaker in its chillier equivalent, Janathon. Given it is probable there are two words in that last sentence which are unfamiliar, I had better explain.

The ‘athon’ challenges entail not only a commitment to exercising daily throughout the assigned month, but also to blog about it. Last summer when I was a fresh-faced novice to the blogosphere, the combined prospect of regularly uploading new content whilst maintaining a 30-day run streak filled me with a sense of excitement and dread. These feelings were reinforced by comments made by ‘athon’ veterans, who agreed unanimously that exercising was the relatively easy bit – it was sustaining a daily blog without lurching into the mundane or repetition that would prove demanding.

…‘mind wandering’ – a term commonly used by cognitive researchers to focus on internal stream of thought – where creative thoughts crystallise and ideas incubate.

Reflecting on these experiences has brought into sharp focus the nature of the relationship between running and writing. At first glance the dual activities appear to be inextricably linked. This is evidenced by the upsurge in running-related blogs, with contributors of all abilities and motivations sharing their own stories, as well as race reports, training schedules, and guidance on staying motivated. Novelist Haruki Murakami explored these intertwined pursuits in his book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, attributing ‘most of what I know about writing fiction I learned by running every day’. On the one hand, we challenge ourselves through our running, striving for new PBs, setting new goals, and completing longer distances. On the other, we express how this makes us feel through our words.

Drawing on personal experience, running helps me to create a productive space for ‘mind wandering’ – a term commonly used by cognitive researchers to focus on internal stream of thought – where creative thoughts crystallise and ideas incubate. Particularly on long runs,  mentally I am able to envision whole sentences, sometimes paragraphs, with a cognitive flexibility that I rarely have when sat behind a desk or hunched over a laptop.

Historically there are a number of writers who have cited running as assisting the creative process. American novelist Louisa May Alcott was reportedly a devoted long-distance runner, whilst fellow countrywoman Joyce Carol Oates emphasised the importance of running in helping to nourish the imagination: ‘in running the mind flies with the body; the mysterious efflorescence of language seems to pulse in the brain, in rhythm with our feet and the swinging of our arms. Ideally, the runner who’s a writer is running through the land – and cityscapes of her fiction, like a ghost in a real setting’. The philosopher Henry David Thoreau famously wrote “the moment my legs begin to move my thoughts begin to flow” whilst returning to Murakami’s memoir, he expounds the significance running has in his daily writing process.

Others have used running as a metaphor to explore a range of thoughts and ideas. Struck by the serene calmness of a young man bedecked in a running vest and shorts trotting past his cottage, Alan Sillitoe wrote down two alliterative lines of verse. These formed the basis of the novella, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, in which the protagonist, Colin Smith uses running as both a form of escapism, and to mentally reflect.  

How, then, might one explain the effect of running on inspiration? Anecdotally, academic literature has intimated that creative people sometimes use physical activity to overcome mental blocks. Numerous studies have suggested a connection between aerobic exercise – which increases the flow of blood to the brain – and enhanced mental capacity, but empirically the evidence remains inconclusive. In 2014 a study by Oppezzo and Schwartz demonstrated that the less strenuous activity of walking is capable of boosting creative ideation both in real time and shortly after. That said, the authors tentatively suggest that other mind-freeing activities (e.g. knitting) may have similar elevating effects.

Part of an explanation branches from the comparisons between running and writing. Here it is common to see both pursuits attracting descriptors such as discipline, perseverance, and endurance. These highlight the endurance and perspiration required, as well as the importance of embedding them as part of the daily routine. You appreciate for example, that some days will be more challenging than others – days when you’ll want to quit. Running, like writing, can be a slow and incremental process. It’s a case of putting one foot in front of the other, and using words to transition from one point on a journey to another.

Numerous studies have suggested a connection between aerobic exercise – which increases the flow of blood to the brain – and enhanced mental capacity, but empirically the evidence remains inconclusive.

An alternative interpretation underscores the introspective nature of running and writing, which demands focused concentration. Running, like writing, is an intensely solitary pastime, which creates a space to think and to reflect. A third version accentuates the physical environment, noting the significance of the visual theatre presented by the surroundings, and awakening our senses. These can provide moments of stillness and calm, whilst our senses nurture greater vividness and clarity, enabling us to see using a fresh perspective.

Returning once more to my own ‘athon’ experiences, the focused mind-set of determination and routine became an important element of the creative process. Grasping that I had a daily deadline contributed to my prolificacy, constantly churning out fragments of fresh ideas with the desire that the more interesting thinking would be preserved. I can vividly remember one occasion when I was out running I was consumed by an outpouring of free-flowing prose that on arriving home I immediately grabbed a notepad, furiously jotting down the words tumbling out of my brain onto the sweat-soaked paper. When creativity flows, it really pours. Just like an invigorating run – the type that unclutters your head, and causes your mind to wander through new questions, thoughts and curiosities.

I immediately grabbed a notepad, furiously jotting down the words tumbling out of my brain onto the sweat-soaked paper.

Of course the idea that creativity is an abundantly available resource merely waiting for the correct application – i.e. physical exercise – to extract it ultimately feels deterministic. There have been occasions when regardless of the distance, I’ve simply run out of steam, and to borrow a marathon metaphor have collided head-on with the (creative) wall. Similarly, there have been numerous times when I simply haven’t felt like running and lacing up the trainers teetered into chore-like territory, where all thoughts of spontaneity and enjoyment have been extinguished. Fortunately these moments have been fleeting however, as the daily commitment – along with the sense of accountability fostered through social media – went a long way in silencing the negative internal monologue as to whether to pound the pavements or to reacquaint myself with the sofa.

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What do you think?

Does running help you create?

Do you feel mentally ‘cluttered’ without a regular run?

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David Hindley

David Hindley

Dr. David Hindley. Senior Lecturer in Sports Education. School of Science and Technology. Nottingham UK.
David Hindley

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