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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Sweat and Storytelling

My boxing coach insists that I need to be running. Apparently pounding the heavy bag, lifting weights, and performing rep after rep of crunches and push-ups and squats aren't enough training. And so my classmates and I slather on the sunscreen, pop in our earbuds, and head out into the ninety-four-degree heat for a pre-workout slog around the park.

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. 

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Tina Whittle writes the Tai Randolph mysteries for Poisoned Pen Press. The fifth book in this Atlanta-based series—Reckoning and Ruin—was released in April. Tina is a proud member of Sisters in Crime and serves as both a chapter officer and national board member. Visit her website to follow her on social media, sign up for her newsletter, or read additional scenes and short stories:


Jim Jackson said...

I may be one of the only people who can afford to have earbuds in my ears while I run who does not use them. There are several reasons. When I am north, I enjoy paying attention to birds singing, wind in the trees, the scurrying of little critters from the sides of the road. I also want to make sure I am aware of the wolf or moose I am about to encounter. Listening to Grace Slick riffing on white rabbits can lead to potential disaster.

But more important than my short-term preservation desires, is the realization over the decades that if I don’t distract myself with exogenous stimuli, sometimes my mind comes up with really interesting thoughts and insights. I don’t get these while riffing with Grace about rabbits.

~ Jim

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

While I'm cranking out the miles on the elliptical and stationary bike at the gym, I usually watch HGTV with subtitles (renovation research). Yesterday, the TV cable was out so I focused on the pool activity outside the window and started plot storming: if, then, why or why not?

The cable came back on, and I lost my train of thought. I'll recapture it when I'm out with the dogs.

Debra said...

That's awesome that you found something that works your body and your creative mind. Running has never been my thing so I'm in awe of people who do.

Tina said...

Yes, Jim, I think you are correct -- everybody I see running is also listening to something. One of my series characters is also a runner, and he doesn't listen to anything either. To get into his head, I have tried running without was miserable. I need a beat to run and to get into running headspace -- otherwise my brain just complains continuously, demands to know when we're stopping and what we're doing next, and did I feel that twinge? that was definitely a muscle snapping there, and how much longer are we going to do this...without music, it's like running with a toddler strapped to my back. But on a walk, now...a walk is a feast for the senses. Maybe if I eventually get good at running, I can get into that zone. Fingers crossed.

Tina said...

That's interesting, Margaret, that the activity outside was as brain stimulating as a walk with the dogs. Walking my dog is counterproductive to any useful brain activity--I'm constantly dragging him out of the road, cleaning up poop, trying to decide if he really has to poop or is just pretending so that we can stop walking. My dog hates walking.

And thanks, Debra. I share your awe of runners. I'm definitely a plodder. But every now and then, I get a burst of...I don't know, something... and I understand what serious runners must feel like, the endorphin kick of speed. But only every now and then, alas.

Shari Randall said...

Hi Tina, if I had those winged shoes, I would definitely run!
I'm a total slug and my only activity lately has been shlepping furniture and moving boxes in the new house. My preferred exercise when I'm not moving house is dancing - sorry Jim, one absolutely needs music when dancing! So my preferred exercise is not good for plotting. Housework or long walks or showers work, usually.

Tina said...

I love my wings! I bought them as a reward for completing my first 5K. They still make me happy. And best of luck with the move -- that is HARD work right there. You're gonna have some fantastic biceps when you're done.

Warren Bull said...

Yet another benefit of exercise.

KM Rockwood said...

I've realized that individuals are very different in what their bodies can do, and in the mind-body connection.

I was into my sixties before I encountered a doctor who didn't say, "You've got to push yourself harder; get out there and run! Anybody with two legs can do that!" and found a doctor (adult congenital heart defects specialist) who said, "I'm surprised you didn't collapse and need to be taken to the hospital in high school gym class."

Well, I have to admit I have collapsed--but never lost consciousness--innumerable times trying to exercise. And believed the people who told me I just wasn't pushing myself hard enough--everybody gets tired, but nobody else makes such a big deal of it.

No more! I listen to my body. When I'm mowing the lawn or anything else, and my chest starts to hurt, I stop. Long before the collapse stage. So what if it's not nearly as vigorous as most people can handle?

I take a water exercise class a few times a week and swim. I can zone out swimming.

And I have to admit I find the whole idea of listening to music while running scary. It's okay on a treadmill, and maybe on a track but I've had runners (and walkers and bicyclists) swerve out in front of my car too often to think it's okay to be so removed from your surroundings. Dogs have been known to come dashing out of driveways, people have been attacked, someone here was even hit by a train--and the runners couldn't do anything to avoid it because they didn't hear it coming.

E. B. Davis said...

I used to run, but I found dogs, insects, rude people, and cars just too much for me to handle. I like the treadmill now, slap my headphones on, and zone out. It is therapeutic. I started running in my twenties, but after I had children, the gym served its purpose. If I hadn't had the release of going to the gym, I might be in jail now!

Kait said...

I love to run - it clears my head, helps work out knotty problems, in plot and person and when someone is gonna die...well, you get the picture - the life you save by letting me out the door to run may be your own! At least, that's what I tell my husband.

No other sport allows me to get into the same zone, not swimming, working out, biking, just running. I think it's the rhythm.

Tina said...

So yes, a word of warning -- don't run (or walk or anything) with your music so loud you have no situational awareness. That's a very good point to bring up, KM, and why I prefer running on parks and trails, places without cars.

Your list, E.B, is the exact list every runner and bicyclist I know has -- the exterior world is a rude and awful place at times. But like Kait said, running is a matter of life or death sometimes. :)