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Writing through doubt and fear, and you can, too!

4 Lessons Distance Running Can Teach You About Writing

Does writing ever feel like running a race that you’ll never finish?

Even if you’re not an athlete, writers can learn a lot from the discipline and training methods of distance runners. They train for endurance, not speed, and over the long course of your writing career, you’ll need plenty of perseverance to overcome the challenges you’ll face around each turn.

This doesn’t mean you’ll never win a race. A publication or two will give you energy, and completing a story will inspire you to start the next one, but there will be setbacks. Rejection, lack of motivation, and fear are always lurking on the sidelines.

Photo Cred: Dreamstime

Photo Cred: Dreamstime

The first step in thinking like a distance runner is focusing on one thing:

The middle.

The start of the race (the opening sentence of your next blog post) and the end (publishing your first book) are important milestones, but it’s how you sustain yourself during the long stretches of open pavement, where few fans have come to cheer you on, that will determine your outcome.

Think Like a Runner

Before we dive into lessons learned, here are a few characteristics unique to distance runners:

  • Endurance conditioning
  • The ability to anticipate and overcome roadblocks (like changes in weather or injury)
  • Course-correct in the middle of the race to recover or regain distance
  • Mental strength to push through temporary pain
  • Passion, drive, and the ability to push through struggles

If you think of yourself like a distance runner, you’ll find a multitude of similarities. Distance runners condition for long races, anywhere from 3 to 26.2 miles; writers plan for a career that spans most of a lifetime. If a runner sustains a minor injury, he takes care to properly recover, then sets out again; writers don’t stop writing after one rejection, but continue on the journey.

Distance runners and writers both keep going.

If we stopped writing every time a challenge rose to meet us, we’d never move forward.

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4 Lessons for Writers

1. Train for all scenarios

Distance runners train in the early morning and the afternoon heat. They run up hills and on flat stretches of highway. They visualize a race before competing, and they teach themselves mental techniques to cope with exhaustion and despair mid-race.

Takeaway for writers:

It might be more comfortable to write fiction if it’s what you started doing years ago, but writers need to have a variety of styles in their arsenal. Take a course in a new genre, write a guest post, and think of ways to push yourself to new limits. This will give you more traction in your career, and by training in more than one style, you’re more likely to sustain yourself over the long-haul.

2. Focus on the middle

Because distance races are measured in miles, the beginning and the end are less important than the middle. If you go out too fast, you’ll use too much energy, so there’s tremendous value in easing into a race to conserve for the tough turns ahead. Even when other runners pass you by when the gun goes off, confident runners know that their surge will come later in the race when everyone else is slowing down.

Takeaway for writers:

When your editor pushes back a publication date, a story gets pushed to the next edition (six months later!), or you decide your novel needs to be restructured, these are the times to dig deep. It’s ok to be excited when something comes through. Celebrate that your poem was accepted to the journal or that you received more comments this week than your blog has ever seen.

It’s important to acknowledge these moments, but then put your head down and pound the pavement again. When something stalls, it just means you’re in the middle. Distract yourself with another project, outline a new e-book, or brainstorm content ideas for your blog. Whatever you do, keep an even pace, check in with how you’re feeling, and get ready to push to the finish line.

3. Race against yourself.

Professional runners or athletes on cross-country teams race against rivals and records, but they also run against something else: their personal best. This is the fastest time they’ve ever run, and they’re always striving to beat it. Although it’s not easy to do, runners must strike a balance between focusing on their own race and keeping an eye on the runner next to them.

Takeaway for writers:

Each story, guest post, poem, chapter, and book is a chance to push ourselves harder, turn out better work, and inspire others more than the last time. It’s not a race you can finish in a designated amount of time. Writer’s that finish a book in six months are not better than writers that take two years. What matters is how much you grow and change in the process. So write your own post, story, and book on your own time, without worrying about the course your fellow writers are on.

4. Push through the pain

If there’s one thing distance runners know how to do, it’s push through pain. Maybe it’s a stitch at the second mile marker, or a blister that forms on your toe during the second half of a marathon. Maybe your legs feel heavy. Instead of quitting, runners access a place in their mind that helps them through a race. It’s a place of motivation and mantras. It’s a conversation you have with yourself mid-race, reminding you of why you’re pushing so hard. It’s about knowing that the feeling at the other end of the finish line will be worth it.

Takeaway for writers:

Pain for runners can be translated to something else for writers: fear.

Over the course of our career we will encounter roadblocks, feel the pangs of rejection, push through the emotional rollercoaster of writing our first book, and more. But if we stopped writing every time a challenge rose to meet us, we’d never move forward.

A change of course doesn’t mean our career is over, that we shouldn’t put fingers on the keyboard and string sentences together.

We have to remember that writing chose us, and because the urge to write and create is inside of us whether we’re listening for the words or not, it’s always better to keep running, keep writing, and move closer to the finish line we were meant to cross.

Have you ever felt like giving up on a writing project then found the courage to keep at it? I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments!

About Nicole Gulotta

Nicole Gulotta is a writer, blogger, content developer, community builder, and good food advocate. She is currently eating her way through Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband and French bulldog. Twitter: @nicolegulotta Blog: Eat This Poem

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  • Loved your post, Nicole. Especially the line, “We have to remember that writing chose us, and because the urge to write and create is inside of us whether we’re listening for the words or not, it’s always better to keep running, keep writing, and move closer to the finish line we were meant to cross.”


    I just finished my second book and did feel like giving up more than once, but I my desire to get this book out there was stronger than my desire to stop. It was an emotional book to write, but one I felt strongly about. Thanks for your post.

    • Nicole Gulotta

      Hi Arlene, I’m so glad you loved this post and found it motivating! Great to hear about pushing through your second book, too. There are always moments we want to give up, but I’m sure it felt amazing to complete such an intense project.

  • LadyJevonnahEllison

    Loved this! As a long distance runner and finisher of 12 Los Angeles Marathons, I know all too well about hitting “the wall”. The trick is to know the wall is there and prepare for it in advance. Hydrate, replenish. Surround yourself with runners (writers) faster and better than you and draw from their motivation. Never run alone if you are a beginner. The power of a group does wonders. I am a pace leader when I run and the power of encouragement and hard-core determination in a group is what gets us across the finish line! Great article.

    • Nicole Gulotta

      Thanks for your feedback. “Hydrate, replenish” should be a mantra for all writers and runners!

  • I love this post. My daughter is a runner. She has run for years but this year she is dedicated. Disciplined. Determined. She inspires me, and this inspires me to take what she is doing/what you are suggesting and apply it to my writing. Thanks for this beautiful analogy.

    • Nicole Gulotta

      Hi Tracy, thanks for writing! I was a distance runner for many years, and certainly understand the drive your daughter has. The same determination definitely applies to writing! Good luck with your upcoming projects.

  • themagicviolinist

    Awesome analogy! 😀 I don’t think I’ve ever given up on a book, but I do like to take long breaks during the middle. Once I get really stuck, I take a break, work on something else, and come back with a new perspective. I’ve found that trick to be really helpful.

    • Nicole Gulotta

      I use a similar strategy. Stepping away and focusing on something else can often make a big difference.

  • Renia Carsillo

    As a distance runner myself, this post really hit home for me. Applying the old advice, “For every fast mile, run 10 slow miles,” to writing is helpful to me as well. Reminding me to take the time to practice writing even on days when the muse isn’t present.

    • Nicole Gulotta

      Hi Renia, I’m glad to hear this post resonated with you!

  • I just started running…ok, jogging…ok, I can just lurch along. The part of this that hit home the most for me is what Nicole said about racing againt yourself. I started doing that in my writing a long time ago, I’ll apply it to me running…jogging…lurching along too.

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