Writing fiction requires a balanced mix of concentration and carefree madness that can be frustrating to strike at times, but whose fruits give me a deep sense of accomplishment.
However, even if when I write I can jump from place to place in the blink of an eye, and can take on as many different personalities as I want to, my body isn’t impressed by any of these mental feats.
Not in the least.
On the contrary, after a while I’ve been sitting at my desk pounding on the keyboard (and pounding is just the right word, for it’s not a rare occurrence that of my wife asking me to be a bit less noisy) my body begins to send up to my brain a series of signals the Big Boss can’t ignore.
Of course, these signals my body sends are nothing like the severed horse head of the iconic scene in The Godfather. However, if unattended, these innocent signals that at the beginning appear only sporadically and just as mild annoyances, have the nasty tendency to become more and more insistent and painful.
In short, they represent my body’s way to tell my brain it’s time to get up and move, to go out and breath in some fresh air.
At first blush this necessity to stand up and move might look like an intrusion, a blatant interruption of my work. But that is so only if we take into account short term results — how much we write in a day or a week.
Instead, listening to my body and seconding its requests is a long-term strategy. A winning strategy that allows me to write day after day while keeping fit. Or better, while keeping healthy (Yes, there’s a difference between being fit and being healthy. For example, some athletes are extremely fit, but aren’t exactly healthy.)
We all know about that fabled state of mind, the flow. Some manage to reach it and stay there for a good while. Some others reach it only sporadically, and for fleeting moments.
However, you don’t need to be in the flow to experience the destructive power of interruptions. In fact, even if you’re one of those people who can patiently resume their work over and over again, on each occasion you’ll have to spend some time to get back into the same mood, to remember where you were, and what you were thinking.
All these actions require energy and time. Time you can’t use to write more. And energy you just waste away to get back to the place you already were.
It’s like running a marathon, and then every couple of kilometers having to go back two or three hundred meters. If the words wasted effort come to your mind, you’re right.
While I believe all interruptions are bad for productivity, pauses you plan in advance sit on the other side of the fence. They can be one of our most powerful allies in the quest for productivity.
Of course, there are many kind of pauses we can schedule to help us successfully wade through a long day of writing. But here I want to focus on those I reserve only to running.
Running for Writers
About the benefits of running I’ve already written a post — Keep Running to Keep Writing. You can head there and read it.
However, here I want to take a look at some benefits I either described only briefly or didn’t mention at all yet.
The Magic Cascade
It may seem a bit of a stretch, but running offers a great opportunity for relaxation. In fact, if you practice regularly you’re not only going to improve your aerobic system, but many other parts of your body.
In particular, your body will produce more endorphins — substances that help you feel great. In addition, it will also be better equipped to get rid of the harmful byproducts that stress produces.
The rhythm of running can also greatly help you enter a more mindful state, so as to be more directly in contact with your body and thoughts.
Relaxation and mindfulness and a general sense of well being can then pave the way for your brain to start churning out new ideas — a lot of them. Of course, these aren’t necessarily all good or useful. But even if you came up with a good idea for every hundred you have, if you’re regularly having new ones you’re going to have soon a long list of good ideas and not enough time to write them all down.
As a result of the deep relaxation and creativity you experience, you end up also with a major boost to your self-esteem. And as a result of this also your immunity system grows stronger.
As you can see running can really put in motion a sort of magic cascade of good things. And to make this happen all you have to do is take that damn first step, and then keep going.
How to Start Running
Ok. Ok. I know what you’re about to say. Running is hard. Running is for masochists. There’s nothing glamorous about gasping for air and smelling like a heap of dirty clothes and being chased by a cloud of mosquitos into the woods.
But all the above, and even worse, happens if you start running without paying any attention to what you’re doing.
So, here is a list of things you can do to get started as painlessly as possible. In any case, it’s always important that you ask a doctor how to go about before you start any kind of exercising.
1 — Don’t stretch. Stretching is overrated and potentially harmful. To warm up, just start walking or running at a very slow pace and keep going like that for 10 to 15 minutes.
2 — If running is too much for you, just start walking briskly. Walking is a perfectly fine alternative. Especially at the beginning.
3 — Wear comfortable shoes. Not fashionable shoes. When I say comfortable shoes I mean it. All that mumble jumble about the type of foot you have and how a shoe can help you are mostly bullshit. If the shoes you’re wearing are comfortable they’re good enough to start. And remember that in general the best shoes are those that let your feet work most freely. These are minimalist shoes. But if you’ve been using super cushioned and highly structured shoes forever you should get used to the new shoes very gradually. To give time to your feet to tone up.
4 — When you start running avoid alternating constantly between walking and running segments. Instead, start out walking, to warm up your muscles. Then run for as along as you feel like. Finally close your training with a final walking segment to cool down.
5 — At the beginning keep an easy pace and try to keep it constant. To reap the great benefits of running your heart rate doesn’t need to jump up uncontrollably, quite the opposite.
A very handy and effective formula you can use is this:
Subtract your age from 180. Then modify this number by selecting among the following, the case that best describes your fitness and health profile.
a) If you have or are recovering from a major illness or are on any regular medication, subtract an additional 10.
b) If you are injured, have regressed in training or competition, get more than two colds or bouts of flu per year, have allergies or asthma, or if you have been inconsistent or are just getting back into training, subtract an additional 5.
c) If you have been training consistently (at least four times weekly) for up to two years without any of the problems in (a) and (b), keep the number (180–age) the same.
d) If you have been training for more than two years without any of the problems in (a) and (b), and have made progress in competition without injury, add 5.
The above is called the 180 Formula and it’s been developed by Dr. Phil Maffetone.
6 — When you feel tired you’d better err on the side of caution and skip a day or two.
7 — A heart rate monitor can really be useful. But to make sure you’re not working too hard you can always gauge your effort with other empirical methods. For example, you can chat while running. This is another good way to make certain you’re not pushing too hard.
After all, you’re a writer just keeping in shape — you’re not trying to become the next Eliud Kipchoge.
8 — If you can, choose to run in places you like, places that inspire you. I love woods and mountains and I’m fortunate enough to have plenty of choices within walking distance from my home, but that’s just my preference.
A Useful Resource
If you’re interested and you want to know more about running and health you can go and have a look at The Big Book of Endurance and Training. It’s a bit repetitive, but the concepts in it can have a deep and positive impact on your life.
After all if it’s true that we humans have been telling stories forever, it’s also true that it’s thank to our running prowess we managed to evolve enough to tell such stories.