31 Days: How walking & running make you creative

This series of articles running through January will explore ways of keeping our head above water in physical, mental, emotional and creative areas. There will be creative challenges, competitions and giveaways. For the full background see here.

Walking & Running

New Years Day is a traditional day for getting out and shaking off the inertia of the Christmas season. So on our first day of exploring 31 ways to keep your head above water I’m going to talk about walking and running.

Of course many of us start out in the new year with good intentions to walk more or take up an activity like running. We know we need that regular exercise to be healthier and to guard against some hereditary illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease. We know that exercise produces serotonin and helps us feel happier and sleep better.

Exercise and Creativity

Exercise can directly affect creativity. According to this Newsweek article

‘Almost every dimension of cognition improves from 30 minutes of aerobic exercise, and creativity is no exception. The type of exercise doesn’t matter, and the boost lasts for at least two hours afterward.’

The article does go on to stipulate though that you need to be physically fit to get the benefit of this energy boost, if you are out of shape then exercising will make you tired.

Well known author Haruki Murakami is also known for being a serious runner. He has completed a 64 mile ultramarathon. While this article reviewing his book What I talk about when I talk about running says that he is contradictory when talking about the relationship between running and his creativity and ideas, he admits to transferring ideas while running into this novels. For Murakami running might be something that adds to the stamina of this prolific author.

I spoke to writer friend Tamsin (@dandeliongirl) on twitter who runs regularly and asked her how running feeds into her creativity.

‘I often think of ideas while I’m running. It’s very good if I have a tangled plot line. I have time to totally focus on it. No distractions.  I run through woods and cross country so I’ll distract myself with thinking of ways to describe what I see. Try and work out how to capture it. Those are my small stones.’

Tamsin describes here how the process of running can clear the mind and help her work out problem areas in her writing such as plot tangles. Attending a talk by writer John Boyne, he explained how the entire plot for his recent novel The Absolutist was elucidated during an hours walk. Tamsin told me that running was a stress relief and gave her greater energy for life and writing.

Flow and inspiration

My own experience is with walking rather than running but I have consistently found that I come up with plot ideas, characters, titles and snippets of text while even on a short walk. (I take my phone with me, which has a notebook for jotting down ideas!) Activities like walking, sports, crafts etc can lead to an experience of flow: complete energetic immersion in a task, an effortless attention that has been shown to correlate highly with scientific and artistic creativity and helps with incubation (the process where disparate ideas come together to form a new leap or idea with a particular project.)

Recently I read this wonderful riff from Karen Rivers on how walking and writing might be intertwined. She says she’d call it nanowalkmo! I hope it will inspire you.

Persistence and habit

Writing is often a slog. We find it hard to start, it’s not all we want to do. Like regular walking or running we need to make it a habit, to build it into a regime that we can build on over time. We may have a ‘bad run’ but similarly we’ll reap later benefits from that initial effort. Like my marathon running relation, we may sometimes hit a wall but need to find ways to fight through it. Being physically fit will also help us keep up our stamina to complete longer projects.

My walk today

Earlier I went on what I hope will be a daily walk. This one was with my mother who is visiting for Christmas. We headed for the seafront in Bray (I’m lucky enough to live by the sea) and discovered that the New Years Day swim was on. Many hardy folk were taking a swim in the chilly sea for charity, a great example of people doing something different, challenging and of which they could be proud. (Sounds like writing a novel, that leap of faith into a chilly sea!) Later on the walk we found an art exhibition of beautiful Van Gogh like paintings of the local area. So today’s walk was one of new experiences rather than ideas, but, as all writers know, experiences are often stored up and show up later in stories.

Walking, Running and You

  • Can you share with us how walking, running or other sports has contributed to your writing?
  • Do you get ideas while you exercise or do you phase out completely?
  • Does it give you more energy?
  • Are you making plans for exercising more?
  • And for those that do exercise regularly, how did you get yourself in the regular habit of running or walking and how do you keep motivated day after day? (I really want to know this!)

If you want to make sure to receive all the 31 ways to keep your Head above Water posts, sign up for email notification on the sidebar. I’ve also set up a twitter account specially for this. It’s @31HAW (the more obvious handles were taken!) Otherwise I’m at @alisonwells. I’ll also hashtag on twitter mainly under #31haw and #headabovewater.

13 thoughts on “31 Days: How walking & running make you creative

  1. Happy New Year and thanks for this great post and the promise of more!
    I’m one of those daily swimmers ~ based in Co. Waterford ~ and find that swimming in the sea is hugely inspirational in terms of my writing. As well as the way in which it connects me so much with nature, meeting other ‘sea urchins’ lends itself to unusual conversations with very interesting people. Couldn’t live, not to mention write, without it! Had a spendiferous swim in big fluffly waves today at Tramore Beach.

    1. alisonwells

      Hello Jean, I’m so glad you logged on to tell us about how your swimming works. You’re one of those people most of us stand at the shore and admire but from my (mainly summer) swims in Kerry I can see how being in the water and the rhythmic act of swimming could also act as place for deeper thoughts to form. The connection with nature is definitely strong and the conversations you have must be uplifting and interesting. Thanks for such an interesting comment.

  2. I’m working up to being able to run a 5K, so at this point I don’t really get ideas while running because I’m watching the clock to do my intervals. But there have been times when I’ve chosen to go for a long walk just to untangle a plot or character problem. It hadn’t occurred to me that running might have the same effect someday. 🙂 That will be awesome if it starts to happen!

    The local gym has too many distractions, though. I may have to learn to run outside. OTOH, I’ve gotten insight into my characters during pilates classes, so there might be something to this.


    1. alisonwells

      Hello, I’m very interested to hear about how running might be different from walking but I wonder if the more focussed attention of running might let your mind work away at a lower lever of consciousness that you’re not aware of. Yes, I’d imagine a solitary run might work better than the gym. An interesting question to put out to others is whether walking is better than running at sorting out plot problems!

  3. Mitch Staunton-Moore

    Wow! I’m a beginner writer… But none the less, I’m a writer. I’m totally amazed by this article, as it touches on something -, a sense that I’ve had for years re: clearing my head and having a good ole think. I walk in-order to feel my life. I know now that makes sense to people, to creatives. This is good stuff.
    -Mitch Staunton-Moore.

    1. alisonwells

      Hi Mitch, yes I think there’s often a restless, creative energy that requires us to get moving and to stop that tunnel vision but let a walk free up our thoughts and concerns.

  4. Alex Gutteridge, children's author

    I’m a walker, not a runner but I often go out with the intention of thinking through a plot or problem with a character and then I get distracted. You can walk the same route every day but always notice something different, colours, textures, scents, sounds. I may not solve the problem I originally set off with but the walk always does me good and because it feeds my soul it definitely has a beneficial effect on my writing. Looking forward to reading the next 30 ways!

    1. alisonwells

      Hello Alex, thanks a lot for commenting. Your description of doing the same walk every day but noticing something different has a Zen kind of sound to it! Paying attention to those details you mentioned calms us and helps us be better writers. I hope you enjoy the rest of the series, there’s lots of interesting articles coming along!

  5. I walk our dog twice a day and frequently work on my writing whilst walking. Sometimes huge ideas just land in my head. I think, for me anyway, it’s giving my head space to allow the stories, characters etc in. My phone is full of snatches of this and that.

    1. alisonwells

      Hi Jayne, yes I love what you said about ‘huge ideas just landing in your head.’ It’s amazing how the ideas arrive. I’m still trying to remember a great title for a short story collection that I wasn’t able to write down but I’ve got several stories out of walking inspiration.

  6. I run, taking part in a weekly parkrun, which is a rather sociable event. Being outside on woodland paths in different lights lubricates my imagination and I sometimes focus on plot or conflicts in a scene whilst trying to forget about running. It’s good thinking time where I can’t be distracted.
    I also do kettlercise, repetitions with a kettlebell to music. The repetition means my ind can wander and I can lose myself in thought without being distracted again. Exercise for me gives a separate freedom to my mind and body.

    1. alisonwells

      Hi Annie, that’s tremendously interesting about kettlecise, I’d never heard of that before. I also like the idea that thinking about your writing helps you keep running, so there’s a reciprocal helpfullness going on here.

  7. Pingback: Sit under your novel in progress, lessons from motherhood | ALISON WELLS: Head Above Water

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