Image source: Fllckr CC / petertandlund
Exercise is well known to be good for mental, as well as physical, health. Numerous studies have even shown that it can boost creativity. It is one of those activities that scientists say can actually change your brain and keep it healthy. Through my recovery from anxiety and OCD, this is something I’ve experienced first-hand.
Running is the simplest form of vigorous exercise. Maybe that’s why so many people seem to struggle with it – it lacks the fun of zumba, the socialisation of team sport, the hipster status of yoga, the directed focus of the ball-chasing sports, and the mirrors of the gym.
Running’s simplicity is its strength – it’s why I love it and why I used to hate it. The mental challenge is the hardest and best thing about it; because yes, it is boring. To master it requires getting intimate with your mind, because it separates you from the increasing number of distractions in this busy world. The reasons I value running may be strongly linked to my being introverted, but then, many writing types are, apparently.
I started running in 2010, in my late-20s, being kind of fit but kind of not, and unable to run more than 1.5km continuously.
After a conversation about running with a stranger who insisted I could run the full 3.8km of the Tan track if I breathed properly, I tried, made it, and immediately thought: “Crap, now I have to do this every time.”
Subsequent thoughts, though, were more self-affirming – that maybe it was my mind holding me back more than my body. A few months later I started running to and from the track, rather than walking, increasing the total distance to 7km. In 2011 I completed a 10km event, and then a half-marathon in 2012.
Around the same time, through learning to manage lifelong OCD and anxiety and taking up yoga, I began to understand how those buzzword concepts of ‘acceptance’, ‘mindfulness’ and ‘letting go’ actually worked. There’s nothing like the oppressive heat of a bikram studio tonarrow focus in to the moment, and the pose, for an hour, while all other thoughts and worries pass like clouds, or freeway traffic, depending on how your mind operates. They helped enormously in getting the most out of a run. Running is the true moving meditation, and can provide the perfect mental space for ideas to surface.
A lot of runners probably settle into that meditative state naturally – I doubt anyone could endure long runs without it – but for those who struggle, it is possible to work at it. Similarly, it’s possible for writers to get better at conquering the blank page. The only danger once ideas are coming through clearer is focusing on the wrong ones.
Not all ideas are welcome. Self-doubt and anxiety can cause a writer to put off, or abandon, a project. When running, it’s tough to keep the legs moving while the brain fixates on worries that feel like they require urgent attention. My disruptive thoughts were often OCD or anxiety-related, but they could very well be the doubts and anxieties triggered by a blank page. Feelings of hopelessness, incapacity or impending doom demand attention and resolution (which generally reinforces, rather than relieves them). A blank page is just one of many triggers for a lot of us.
Running presents a panacea to this. The physical exertion diverts energy away from the mind and into the legs and lungs. Thinking slows down, conscious thought quietens and the feelings and ideas that have been struggling for attention or comprehension are able to work their way to the surface.
Engaging in thoughts (good and bad) is harder, allowing the mental space required to realise that unnecessary worries can often actually sort themselves out without active thought. On the downside, you have to assume good ideas will stick somewhere in the background, because taking a pen and notepad kind of defeats the point. When I’m running properly (which doesn’t equal running hard, just in a good rhythm), I physically struggle to engage with thoughts. Even overstimulation from looking around can actually make me a little nauseas (but that is preferable to being hit by a car, so I have no choice but to look up).
Running and overcoming mental blocks (like those you constantly encounter in creative pursuits) have something significant in common: it’s helpful to stop thinking. Just as life is what happens when you’re making other plans, ideas arrive when you’re doing other things.
That may be why writers such as Haruki Marukami are such avid runners. In his book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, popular author Haruki Marukami says:
“I'm often asked what I think about as I run. Usually the people who ask this have never run long distances themselves. I always ponder the question. What exactly do I think about when I'm running? I don't have a clue.”
This lack of active thinking, for me, is what not only facilitates ideas, but helps deal with all sorts of problems. It’s a wonderful way to accept and process doubts, fears and the associated feelings without dwelling.
It’s like the mind is a long-neglected sink full of dirty water that all sorts of stuff has been put into, and you pull the plug, letting out all the cluttered, murky gunk so you can start over fresh, seeing ideas more clearly.
My early runs were much like the experience some of us have when a pitch is accepted. Enthusiasm is easily overwhelmed by doubt and the thought, “I can’t do this” – whether “this” is putting one foot in front of the other or translating ideas into actual words. A popular shoe manufacturer commercialised the best advice. It’s common to be told to just write, whether it’s good or not, and you then have something to work with, minus the anxiety of the blank page. Similarly with running - especially early on, just getting out there, and pushing a little further in the face of mental barriers helps knock them over. In each case, you realise you’re capable of more than you feared, and it empowers you for the next effort.
I’ve learned valuable lessons from running, which I have taken to my work. For starters, I work and think best in quiet environments with minimal distractions, including distancing myself from social media and turning off the TV and radio. And rather than force my mind to generate ideas, sometimes it’s helpful to mentally step back and observe the thoughts as they come and go, and pick out the good ones to explore further.
Everyone is different of course, but many people who like to write are the types of people who need a good activity that gets the blood flowing, gets them away from the desk and unhelpful distractions, and allows them to gently explore their mind without getting stuck in it.
Running is that activity.
Sam Ryan is a freelance writer, communications professional and former editor for Right Now, and currently wondering whether to try a full marathon in 2016. He tweets at @sjrwords.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.