Creativity Is a Marathon; Not a Sprint
Imagination? Powerful listening skills? Open mindedness? Persistence? Humour? The ability to connect ideas and create something new?
The list goes on. But one quality that you usually don’t think to add is this: being a good runner. A runner?
Can Running Make a Better Writer?
Running (or other types of aerobic activity) does so much more than keep our body in shape and our heart strong. It’s essential for keeping our mind strong.
Frequent moderate to high aerobic exercise such as fast walking, running, swimming, and cycling, is boosts our brain health. And no matter what great writers might say about the muse, our writing does, essentially, come from our brain.
Not only does running improve your brain power by encouraging the growth of grey matter directly (which is linked to memory), the aerobic nature of running boosts your brain with oxygen, which improves your cognitive skills.
This makes you more creative, more efficient, and, in a nutshell, a better writer.
The Creative Brain
Running is a natural way to improve your moods, lower your stress levels and give you a natural high – all of which have an impact on your creativity and productivity when you write.
But there’s more to it than that. Let’s look at what it is about running that’s so great for your creative brain…
1. It Reduces Stress and Kills Self-Doubt
According to Pierce J. Howard, managing director of research and development at the Center for Applied Cognitive Studies in North Carolina, aerobic exercise changes your brain to get your creative juices flowing.
When your heart is pumping at a higher than moderate rate, your body flushes out cortisol, the hormone that triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response when your body and brain are stressed out.
Excess cortisol blocks the brain functions needed for creativity and problem-solving — the brain goes into survival mode in moments of stress — which is why you get less creative under pressure. Despite what you may think, at times of stress, your brain is relying on instinct, rather than executive functions like problem-solving.
After a run, however, those barriers to creativity are significantly lowered — meaning that you question yourself less and you release any pressure on yourself to be better. You’re in the flow, and this is what allows you to let go and be your full creative self.
2. It Trains You to Be Focused and Efficient
In 2004, world-renown novelist, Haruki Murakami gave an interview to the Paris Review where he talks about his schedule.
Every day, he says, he gets up at 4am to work. He writes for five or six hours, and then goes for a 10km run, or a 1500 meter swim, or both.
The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind,
But it’s more than that:
To hold to such repetition for so long—six months to a year—requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training.
Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.
The strength it takes to train your body to do repetitious, grueling exercise is the same fortitude of mind needed to train your brain into being creative.
This regular, focused activity becomes an auto-pilot for your creativity. The very fact of the habit encourages your brain to use this fixed, set time it has to perform the regular task (writing in this case), and to turn on ‘creative’ without you having to think about it.
What’s more, a study conducted by the University of Bristol of 200 university students and faculty, found that those who did aerobic exercise at the start of their day were 23 percent more productive than those who did not.
It’s not totally clear whether that’s because of the physical effect of increased oxygen to the brain, or it reflects mental discipline — that those who make running a habit are just be better at using their time efficiently. Either way it seems like a good habit to form.
3. Running Frees Your Subconscious to Make Connections
According to Keith Sawyer, author of Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration, physical activity allows your mind to be idle in thought while remaining focused on something (the running). And this frees your subconscious to make connections that it can’t make when it’s focused on complex tasks — like writing a book, or analysing data, or tying up a story.
This idle-in-thought idea is something we know instinctively. It’s why we have our best ideas in the shower, right before we go to sleep, or while ironing. And it’s a similar effect to that of deep meditation.
Plus, running has the additional bonus of that cardiovascular boost. (not that I’m biased here, of course)
The combination of a lowering of anxiety levels and a strong focus on repetition to give you more free space in your brain is the perfect soil to fertilise creative connections and new ideas.
It’s true that most of these benefits can be achieved from other aerobic exercise — anything that get your heart rate up, oxygen in and your sweat glands pumping. But there is one important distinction that sets running apart from the rest. And that is focus.
In order to really tap into the creative benefits of exercise, you need to pick something that is low concentration, and preferably repetitious, so that your brain can let go and do its thing.
Forget Team Sports
Team sports require too much concentration, too much strategising and communication to give you this freedom.
Even solo-sports such as golf, tennis, and cycling have more of a focus on skill, and therefore don’t have the same releasing and creative-boosting impact that running has.
Swimming, running, or brisk walking are the best choices. Something where you can switch off any conscious thought, push your body for an aerobic gain, and leave your mind free for those unconscious creative connections.
What Are You Waiting For?
There’s no shortage of articles on running and creativity on this site. We truly believe that keeping your body and mind healthy are integral to becoming a more creative writer. ‘It’s all in an evening’s run,’ you might say.
Enjoy the power of running!
Do you share my passion for running? Most writers I know like the individual sports — running, yoga, swimming — it seems to focus our mind our help us create. I’d love to know whether this is true for you? Let me know on Facebook.