4 Ways The Writer’s Brain Is Like The Runner’s Brain

Remember that little to-do on my list called the dissertation?

I’m hoping to send off my dissertation prospectus and IRB forms by the end of January. Hoping. It feels slow going though. I wish I could run with what I have, but that’s not how these projects work.

What I ran through pretty quickly though was Dr. Jeff Brown’s new book The Runner’s Brain: How to Think Smarter to Run BetterDr. Brown has more than great stories to share from mentally strong marathoners; he draws on sports psychology to help us understand the mental game that running is.

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So good I might just need to read it again.

You had to tear me away from this book as I was reading it. You might recall that super fun patellofemoral pain syndrome I’ve been dealing with since November. Well, the section on the psychology of injuries was like ray of light to read. If you need to understand your injury better to release the anxiety you feel over it, this read is a good start.

Another reason I couldn’t put the book down? Parallels to writing abound. Dedicated writers know that writing takes psychological endurance, too. I think Dr. Brown hints at this a few times in the book, but let me be forthcoming and tell you exactly where I think we can drop bigger hints.

Goal Setting

You might think it’s obvious, but you’d be surprised by how many runners don’t set firm goals for their success–probably because running is relaxing, unstructured time to work on oneself and not work, I think.

On goal setting, Dr. Brown said, “So many runners I’ve talked to over the years fail to take stock of what they are truly capable of right now… It can’t be an accident that striving toward your objectives is one of the largest tasks assigned to the prefrontal lobe, the brain’s seat of executive function and complex  cognitive capability. Without goals there is no direction” (32-33).

He goes on to say, “Resilience and learning how to manage disappointment are essential yet often overlooked aspects of goal setting” (35). Take a deep breath, millennials. You can’t know true success unless you’ve known true failure.

Tune In, Tune Out

Flow. It’s been a buzz word in positive psychology for a while now, but the rest of us are just catching up and catching on to what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defined in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal ExperienceIn running, some of us find flow through internal/ external association or dissociation. Brown lets us know that most runners don’t stick to one kind of flow constantly. I probably use internal dissociation the most, which is when you turn inward: “You think about your problems, the past, your family… create a website, or tease yourself with some sort of fantasy of your choose–just keep your bib on” (53). External dissociation would be talking with a friend or listening to your iPod. Internal association occurs when you’re hyper-focused on perfecting your running performance while external association focuses on sensations and experiences happening outside the body while running.

Cue writing’s turn.

How do writers focus internally or externally on their work?

When we teach writing about writing (the WAW trend), are we teaching internal association style? I could think of a few more parallels, but I’d like to know what others think.

Pack Mentality

“The loneliness of the long-distance runner is one of running’s most ingrained cliches.” says Dr. Brown, who goes on to jab at runners for not being good team players (89). Runners might be lone wolves and they might find company every once in a while with those lone wolf writers I know so well.

The solo runner is to group training runs as the solo writer is to writing groups. We meet our goals more quickly and with greater satisfaction when we find compatible partners to work alongside for the long run. Sometimes writing groups bond right away, other times they fall apart–usually because their writing projects or needs are vastly different. Whatever the reason, when compatible with one’s group, writing and running groups can be life changing.

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You’re preaching to the choir.

Enjoy Your Break

I am the worst at taking breaks. I hate them.

But sometimes my advisor insists I stop writing for a while, and sometimes my body insists on a yoga day to undo what running has done. Learning to enjoy the break is something I am capable of–with some convincing.

For runners, Dr. Brown says, “Turn off the alarm clock for a few mornings. Hang out with friends. Catch up on your reading. In general, recharge before you hit the road again. There’s a good chance physical soreness will keep you from doing any meaningful workouts for at least a few days [after a race].”

And that’s where I’m at right now: taking it easy on my knee for a while and crossing my fingers I can get my prospectus approved soon. It’s time for a new goal.

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For more information about writing, running, or if you need a writing coach, contact Jackie at allthewritemovesblog@gmail.com.

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