I hate every second of it. The sweat stings my eyes and the sunlight beats me about the head and face like a mugger. Every step feels like I'm moving through sludge, and with the humidity at almost one hundred percent, I literally am. The air is heavy and still and thick, and I am no natural athlete. I have no generous allotments of either fast-twitch or slow-twitch muscles. I am a plodder. I have come to accept this about myself.
But I run anyway. And my coach is right — it makes me a better boxer. It keeps my legs well-muscled and my cardio capacity strong. But then, so would a host of other physical activities. The real reason I run, the one that keeps me lacing up those athletic shoes, is what running does for my writerly brain, which gets stronger and more capable with every step I take.
I'm not the only writer to have noticed the cognitive and creative benefits of running, of course. Many famous authors, including Joyce Carol Oates, are also runners. Three of the authors in my own creative circle have completed half-marathons with dang fine times, but the prowess is not the point. The point is one foot in front of the other. Rinse and repeat.
Scientists have noticed this correlation. Some connect it to the pattern of brain waves known as gamma rhythm, typically controlled by attention and learning, but also governed by, apparently, how quick one is on one’s feet. As researcher Mayank Mehta of the University of California, Los Angeles, explains, there is "an interesting link between the world of learning and the world of speed." Other studies show that vigorous physical exercise literally creates new neurons, and it makes them in the region of the brain associated with learning and memory. Running also increases blood flow to the frontal lobes, the place where clear thinking and good planning happen, and provides support for emotional regulation and recovery. Though researchers remain unsure how that latter result comes about, they have documented that it does.
I regularly do other physical activities, but nothing primes the creative pump like running. During a good run, it's as if my body goes into autopilot mode, letting my brain hang out and enjoy the ride. Boxing and swimming and yoga all require mindfulness—I must be present in my body every second of the time. My thoughts are not allowed to wander because I need them to keep my fighting stance, or my alignment in a pose, or my head above water when I need to breathe. Running lets me experience mindlessness, a kind of mental anti-gravity that's both useful and refreshing.
And so I run, even in the summer. My body and brain are the better for it, and so are my stories.