This summer and fall, I have undertaken two projects: training for a half marathon and writing my first serious novel. In the last few months, I’ve come to realize that running and writing are not as different as they may seem.
This is my second half marathon (I completed the same race last October), and I’ve been running for a few years now. In preparing for a race, especially a relatively new distance, training is very important. You don’t want to go straight from munching on chocolate on the couch watching Star Wars all day (what a life) to running 13.1 miles. You’d hurt yourself! (Unless you’re Barney Stinson, but then you couldn’t walk afterward and you’d get robbed, so really, I don’t see a net gain.) You need to train. For runners, that means creating a plan and (for the most part) sticking to it. Eat healthier, sleep longer, and rack up those miles.
The same can be said for writing. Not all writers are like this, but for me, I had to start with short stories which, over time, became longer, and then I decided to attempt my first serious novel-length manuscript. However, researching and doing character profiles can also be considered training. Training really is anything that helps you get ready for that long race (i.e. your novel).
Distractions! They’re everywhere! There’s always a new TV show to watch or food to eat or a book to read or the internet to be perused. There’s always something you’d rather do, because, let’s face it, running and writing are both WORK. It’s hard getting out to the park and willingly putting yourself through sweat and pain and maybe blood and possibly even tears just to get that feeling of accomplishment at the end of a run.
It is just as hard to sit down at a computer or notebook just to get cramps in your hands, a headache, and pour out your heart and soul onto the paper only to feel a sense of accomplishment at having put down 500 words. Especially when there are so many other things out there to do! But every runner knows that eventually, they will have to put down the remote, tie up those laces, and hit the track. The same as every writer knows that they will have to put down the same remote, fire up Word or Pages, and hit the words.
Good Days and Bad Days
In life, everyone has good days and bad days. The same goes for running and writing. Not every day will you get out for a run and the birds are chirping and the sun is shining (yet hidden behind clouds) and your body feels great. In fact, that rarely happens. And not every day do you sit down at your computer and the words flow magically out of your fingertips and you hardly notice that four hours have gone by and gold has appeared on the page.
But it helps to remember that just as rarely as those happen, horrible days are rare as well. Not often do runners get out on the road and all their muscles ache, their stomachs are upset, it’s 100 degrees outside, and they forgot their sunscreen. Or the writing equivalent: every word feels like you’re pulling teeth, you would rather be doing anything than writing (including staring at a wall), and you glance up at the clock and only 15 seconds have passed.
More likely, you’ll have middle days. Days where you may not feel tip-top, but you remembered your sunscreen and a whole two minutes have passed since you last glanced at the clock. But even when you do have those bad days (or weeks), remember there’s a light at the end of that tunnel. Only two possibilities are left: it will either get better or it will be over. In any case, the bad has ended.
I am a goal-driven person, so goals and rewards work really well for me. Every day, I have a set number of miles I need to run and I have it written in a couple different places, so I know that, when I finish those miles, I get to cross it off of three different lists, which makes me feel accomplished. I also cross off each week that goes by. With writing, I set a goal of about 1000 words a day or 5000 words a week, whichever is longer. I also get to cross those off various lists.
But something I’ve noticed both with my half marathon and my novel: they’re long-term goals. It’s hard for me to stay motivated when I know I still have two months left. That middle of the training is always the hardest for me. So, I have to create mid-term goals. For running, I’ve signed up for a 10K. Now, when I go running, I know I will see the benefits of my training in a mere two weeks instead of two months. For writing, I set word count goals (e.g. 30,000 words at the end of week 8). This way, I will have achieved a mid-term goal and can look forward to the next one.
I also reward myself as I hit these goals. These rewards can be applied to both running and writing. Whether you treat yourself to a small ice cream or allot money to buy books, these small rewards will help you stay motivated and working toward the next goal.
Learn What Works for You
There is a lot of advice out there for both running and writing. So much so that it can be overwhelming, even conflicting. I have learned, the hard way, that advice needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Advice is usually what worked for the person giving you the advice or, if by an expert, what worked for the majority of people.
But you are not that person and you are not “the majority of people.” You are you, and you are different than everyone else in the world. You are unique, and that’s a good thing. But that means that you’ve got to learn what works best for you. Which also means you have to let yourself fail sometimes. I have been having trouble with my knee when I run for about a year now. I’ve scoured the internet, searching for reasons why. Some say my IT band isn’t strong enough; some say my feet are pronating too much; others say my feet are too turned out. You know what I found out? It’s none of those! My knee is unique, so it doesn’t fit in a neat little box. My knee has individual needs.
My writing is the same. I’ve read (and own) lots of books on writing. How to write, what’s the best time to write, what are the best tools to write, what is the best name for the squirrel next to me to write (not really, but that’d be funny). Some say write in the morning, others at night. Some say write every day, others say you can write a few days a week. But my schedule and my situation are unique from everyone else’s, so I am the only one to know what’s best for my writing. It’s all trial and error.
Keeping it Fresh
Different workouts are a great way to build other muscle groups. These enhance your runs because you’re training more than just the same old muscles every time. A speed run is shorter but faster to help you run more comfortably on race day. A long run focuses on distance so you can be sure you actually can run 13.1 miles. An easy run is purely for recovery; its primary function is to make sure you get out there and run that day. Doesn’t have to be anything spectacular. You just have to run. Writing can be the same way. Some days you may want to write for a specific amount of time; others, you can write for word count.
Cross-training is good exercise as well. In running, cross-training allows you to use an entirely different set of muscles than in running. You can go for a walk, swim a few laps, or go on a bike ride. Each of them builds different muscles, which help keep you balanced while you’re running. For writing, cross-training can be considered as reading or editing. Reading allows you to see what other people have done, and editing will keep your mind sharp in looking for key errors even in your own writing.
And that leads me to this last section. Burnout. Everyone, not just runners, not just writers, everyone knows what burnout is. Working 70 hours a week, chasing 3 kids around the house, personal drama seems to never end. Then one day, you come home and plop on your bed face-down and decide that this can’t continue if you want to keep your sanity. For runners, this can happen when running has become your life and not because you wanted it to. For writers, this can happen when you have been writing every day (or close to it) for an extended period of time.
In sports, to help counteract this, they have built in offseasons. For football, they play from August to February, and then the players get a few months’ rest. For baseball, they play from April to October. This gives the players a chance to recuperate from their intense efforts the rest of the year. This can be applied to running and writing as well.
All this to say, running a half marathon and writing a novel are big projects, and they are not very different in preparation. Your efforts should be protected by training properly and rewarding yourself. You should remember that everyone has good and bad days. And most of all, don’t take my advice as final. Learn what works best for you, and you’ll succeed farther than by taking someone else’s advice.