Five Reasons Why Long-Distance Running is the Ultimate Muse

Outdoor Running Series

By Johanna Saleska

I began a regular jogging routine halfway through my freshman year of college for two reasons: to get in shape and because my friend Ali wanted to.

Ali had run cross-country in high school and missed it; I had been binging on spoonfuls of cookie dough after dinner for five months and had regrets – the decision was natural. Every evening after the sun bloomed orange behind the San Joaquin Hills, we’d lace up our running shoes and jog through the cool, placid neighborhoods of Irvine, California.

Something about those evening runs encouraged all manner of philosophical and imaginative conversation, and they became an essential component of my friendship with Ali. We talked each other through family struggles and validated each other’s thoughts on love. We discussed everything from the existence of God to the plans we’d laid out for the rest of our lives, which at the time were oh-so idyllic and far away.

At the end of the semester, Ali transferred to another university and my jogging routine became a solo endeavor. Interestingly, I discovered that the same kinds of imaginative thinking created on my runs with Ali continued in an even more poignant way when I was alone. Running became my muse.

Now, as graduate student of literature, my daily jogs have become fundamental to my ability to think creatively and, most importantly, to write.

As such, I’ve decided to take things to the next level and train for my first half marathon. I’ve found the creative and cognitive benefits of committed training to be even greater than that of recreational running alone, and in that spirit, I’ve compiled a list for all my fellow students, writers, and/or creative thinkers in search of inspiration. Here’s why running is the ultimate muse:

1. Running enhances creativity. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the majority of my ideas for both critical essays and creative pieces come to me while I’m running (predictably, this very post was born and three-fourths conceptualized somewhere between miles six and seven). Running forces you to cleanse your mind of distractions – no Facebook, email, or unwatched episodes of House of Cards; no dishes that need washing or piles of other work in need of attention – it’s just you and your thoughts. Running affords those meeker but nonetheless valuable ideas an opportunity to be heard; the fun part is when those latent thoughts combine, contrast, and interact with other ideas in new and compelling ways. Joyce Carol Oates puts it better than I can:

Running! If there’s any activity happier, more exhilarating, more nourishing to the imagination, I can’t think of what it might be. In running the mind flees with the body, the mysterious efflorescence of language seems to pulse in the brain, in rhythm with our feet and the swinging of our arms.

Joyce and I are now backed by science too, if you’re into that.

2. Running relieves stress and boosts confidence. Writing of any kind requires scaling a dishearteningly enormous mountain of anxiety with each new project. Gene Fowler says it best, “Writing is easy: all you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” I learned the hard way my first semester of graduate school that the more stressed I get, the less I’m able to write; the less I’m able to write, the more stressed I become. The vicious cycle continues until I’m either calling my mom in hysterics or sitting on my kitchen floor with a tub of ice cream trying to convince my roommate that the school made a very big mistake letting me come here.

But on days when I run, I find myself considerably less stressed, and since upping my consistency while training for the half-marathon, my writing anxiety (while never completely subdued) has diminished significantly. I imagine exercise endorphins (aka “runner’s high”), fresh air, and extra sunshine has a lot to do with it, but I also think there’s a sense of achievement that comes along with completing a long-distance run. So what if I read the wrong book for seminar or completely fumbled my final paper presentation, I just ran 13 miles without stopping. That’s something.

3. A consistent jogging schedule helps build structure into the day. One of the trickiest parts of juggling mounds of work without a set nine to five schedule is time management. For me, scheduling fixed afternoon training sessions has drastically improved my productivity. Knowing that I have until 3:30 everyday to work on any given project motivates me to move more quickly, and I find that I’m less distracted since I know I’ll be getting a significant and meaningful break when it’s time to put on my running shoes and head out the door.

4. Long-distance training serves as a useful analogy to life as a student, writer, or student/writer. One of the most notorious runner/writers is Haruki Murakami, who writes:

For me, running is both exercise and a metaphor. Running day after day, piling up the races, bit by bit I raise the bar, and by clearing each level I elevate myself. At least that’s why I’ve put in the effort day after day: to raise my own level. I’m no great runner, by any means. I’m at an ordinary – or perhaps more like mediocre – level. But that’s not the point. The point is whether or not I improved over yesterday. In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be.

Graduate school, writing, life in general—all take the same kind of self-motivation, dedication, and regimented training schedule as any long-distance race, but on a much larger and more difficult-to-see scale. Wrapping your mind around the kind of mental strength and commitment it takes to complete a long-distance race might allow you to better comprehend completing the same sorts of task in other areas of your life. I’m no psychologist, but it works for me.

5. Nice long jogs allow you to eat cookie dough by the spoonful without the guilt. Just kidding. But seriously. Also cake. And pizza.