Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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May 3, 2021

What Triathlons Taught Me About Writing

By Miffie Seideman

When people find out I’m training for another Ironman triathlon, they usually ask me why I would spend countless hours working towards a single goal that I might not even win (or finish?).

Wait until they find out I’m a writer!

Honestly, though, triathlon is a wonderful sport. It’s full of very supportive, if not competitive, people from all walks of life. It’s also extremely demanding physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Yes, but writing and triathlon training are polar opposites!

Well, actually, I’ve come to recognize strong parallels between lessons learned in triathlon training and
my writing health- particularly over the last year. Hopefully, these insights will help you, too!

Shift Efficiently

Some inexperienced cyclists use the big gears when climbing hills. These gears make you go really fast on flat roads, but make it extremely hard to climb a hill without exhausting leg muscles and putting excessive force on knee joints. Usually, these cyclists get slower and slower going up the hill, pushing harder against the big gears to make any progress. Some cyclists think it’s a sign of weakness to shift to the specially designed hill-climbing gears. These “granny gears” make pedaling hills easier.

Watch good hill climbers and you’ll see them shift to hill gears while cranking up steep inclines, saving their legs (and knees) for the rest of the ride.

How is this like writing, exactly?

When writers force themselves to keep up with rigid writing schedules, despite other life stresses, and don’t listen to their mind or body, they’re pedaling up that hill in the big gears. They risk emotional exhaustion, brain fatigue, and burn-out. After long, hard days filled with chores and work, I’ve sat at my computer, trying to force words onto the page to hit a daily word count. I finally realized how exhausting it was and how much joy it took away from writing. So, I’ve switched gears. Now I work on story scenes over a whole week and find I can better maintain my excitement for writing.

Do you feel like your creativity is drained? Are you cranking uphill in the big gears? Maybe it’s time to shift.

Even if you have to shift into granny gears once in a while, setting realistic, long-term goals is extremely important. In triathlon, that means signing up for a race. Many triathletes live, eat, and breathe triathlon, always focusing on the next race, that next personal record. When racing isn’t possible, like for all of 2020, training for months with no end goal can lead to apathy, mental exhaustion, depression, and a loss of identity as an athlete.

Goal Setting

The same way triathletes identify psychologically with being triathletes, writers identify as writers. Writing and editing endlessly, without direction, can eventually feel futile with a negative impact on creativity, excitement about the craft, and sense of identity as an author.

So…sign up for a (writing) race!

It doesn’t have to be an overwhelming goal. No one signs up for Iron distance races all the time. In fact, those that do often get burned-out or injured (some permanently).

Identify something your daily or weekly writing process can culminate towards. Start simple: pick a date to swap chapters with another author. Or expand horizons by planning to be ready for a short story writing contest, a pitch contest, a writer’s conference, or an online seminar.

Just pick something! And be prepared to use those granny gears, if you need to.

Get Some Exercise

Triathlon training is great exercise. Rotating through three different sports helps avoid injuries, while building a healthy heart and body. I also find I do my best creative thinking on bike rides. There’s something about just getting away from life’s chores and pedaling off into the sunset that helps my characters come to life. I always come back mentally refreshed.

This makes sense according to a study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, which showed exercise enhances mood and creativity.

But you’ll be glad to know you don’t have to swim, bike, and run for hours to get a positive effect. According to the study, just 25 minutes of aerobic exercise can elevate mood and enhance creativity. Some artistic circles use this approach to overcome mental creativity blocks.

There are days when I would much rather curl up on the couch after work. But I have learned that just a few minutes after I get into the pool or on that jog, my attitude gets much better and I return with more emotional energy, ready to tackle my story.

Walk it off! Next time you have writer’s block, maybe a simple 25-minute walk will have you dashing back to that manuscript!

Rest and Recovery

One of the most important lessons triathletes learn is about recovery. You can imagine how training too much in three separate sports each week can lead to physical exhaustion and risk overuse injury. And the sheer competitiveness of triathletes can be at odds with the idea of resting.

Lately, recovery has become accepted as mainstream and is now considered part of training. Recovery ranges from naps after workouts (my favorite!) to fancy compression boots and specialized nutrition. In addition, triathletes watch for signs of overtraining, such as high resting heart rates and apathy toward workouts. Without adequate recovery, athletes are bound, sooner or later, to get injured.

Reset heart, soul, and mind!

Writers are subject to overuse syndrome, too. Instead of pulled muscles, we can suffer writer’s block, mental exhaustion, loss of interest in writing, and creative stagnation. According to Ferris Jabr in Scientific American, taking breaks can help us recharge, refocus, and be more creative.

Learn to watch for your own signs of overuse and know when to take that break. Feel free to pick something that causes you the most mental relaxation and regeneration. Anything will do, from a walk in the woods to a night off from writing, an afternoon of Tai Chi to sitting by a babbling brook skipping rocks. And keep in mind, you may need a couple of days to refresh, not just one brief break.

This is your permission to stop and smell the roses.

Cheers to you and your happy writing (health)!

I’d love to hear tips on how you manage your writing health! Are you involved in a sport or physical activity that has positively impacted your writing? Have you learned to shift gears?

* * * * * *

About Miffie

Miffie Seideman has been a pharmacist for over 30 years, with a passion for helping others. As a published non-fiction author, her articles have appeared in several professional pharmacy journals. When not training for a race, her writing projects include a (soon to be announced) writer’s handbook and a fantasy adventure that started as “What if Romeo and Juliet didn’t live happily ever after they died?” An avid triathlete, she spends countless hours training in the arid deserts of Arizona, devising new plots.

Miffie can be found hanging around her blog onwemerrilystumble.com examining the intersection of triathlon and writing and on Twitter @MiffieSeideman…you know…tweeting.

Above Image by Melk Hagelslag from Pixabay

19 comments on “What Triathlons Taught Me About Writing”

    1. Hi Terry! That's great for your daughter. I always learn so much when I go watch my daughter race- about people, as well as life. Kudos to her!

  1. Thank you for a wonderful column! There are a lots of similarities, for sure. Ones that I never realized. Your point about listening to your body and knowing when to take care of yourself is spot on. When you take care of yourself, you will be a better writer for it and your work in progress will benefit.

    1. Thanks, Alexsandra. Listening to our bodies can be so hard to do in the over-packed, fullness of life. But oh, worth it in so many ways, especially with our creative energy!

  2. Great post, Miffie!
    I worked a lot on shifting gears while writing for NaNoWroMo. Focusing on the word count absolutely sucked the joy out of writing for me. Once I realized what I was doing to myself I took a step back and decided to break writing times into manageable chunks. That helped.

  3. Miffie, I completely agree on taking breaks. I felt guilty about having a lazy Saturday, but refused to pick up my WIP because it wasn't productive anyway. I needed my grannie gears! The next day I got up early and wrote more during that session than I did the whole previous day of trying! Thanks for the reminders to stay healthy.

    1. It’s so hard to learn that rest IS actually productive sometimes and to not feel so guilty about it. Glad you had such a good writing experience by allowing yourself a chance to refresh!

  4. Great post. I'm also an Ironman triathlete and a writer, and I've often thought the two were similar. Writing a novel is an endurance sport; it's all about pacing yourself and showing up consistently. Besides which, I get my best ideas when I'm on a long ride. The challenge then is to remember them until I get home 😉

    1. Hi Michelle! Yes to those long bike ride ideas. I've forgotten so many by the time I get home, that I periodically pull over during the ride and dictate into my phone- so I totally get it. ? I hope this year brings you some good rides, ideas, and maybe some races. We had a sprint here this weekend (all following new USAT guidelines for COIVD) and it was wonderful to get back to it!

  5. Funny thing. I just got back from a bike ride and this post was waiting for me. Thanks, Miffie!

  6. Great article. Additional step back routines might be to focus on specific elements of the story such as characters, dialogue, pace. I mean exercise the mind in different ways. I find switching up my focus helps me keep motivated too. Sometimes I am adding only a single sentence to clarify something but its a great one.

    1. Great points. Switching the focus up is a great way to keep from getting stale on one aspect of a story and regenerate. Thanks for the suggestions!

  7. I was not sad when the doc who rebuilt my hip said, "No running. Ever." But I am a huge fan of swimming and boxing. And I am always always impressed with all you triathletes!

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