Runners pass by the Capitol as they compete in a road race in Washington, D.C. Comparisons between writing and running often stop at distance running. / Dustin Renwick

Forget Distance

11 other overlaps of writing and running

Instructors assign young writers books such as The Elements of Style and Writing Tools. But reading lists that included Once a Runner or Life at These Speeds would help too, because writing takes cues from the oldest sport.

Writers and runners have filled notebooks and websites with examinations of how each act parallels the other. Words to steps, pages to miles. The repetition, endurance, and discipline required for both. The common frustration and exhaustion.

Yet the analyses offered to date — whether by Joyce Carol Oates or Haruki Murakami— focus myopically on distance running.

Here are 11 aspects of the sport that previous comparisons to writing have missed.


A sprinter measures the world in hundredths of seconds, not multiple minutes or hours. A 5k and 50k are equals. Long. I didn’t invent the advice to write fast, but I can tell you how you it works. Stop Googling every detail, and use placeholders. You don’t really need to know right now, but you do want an excuse to open a browser with the world (Facebook) at your fingertips. TK is your new best friend. Sure, a first draft that spills into existence as quickly as bumping a sports drink will need time to be great. Real truths take more than five seconds. But you have time for that later, even if you’re on deadline. You can’t revise a piece that doesn’t exist.


Evaluating running form requires studying arm swings, hip rotations, and foot positions. Such visual analysis plays a role in how readers approach a piece. Fleet dialogue provides a jolt compared to dense text blocks that force readers to plod. A one-liner after a string of long paragraphs lets a reader catch a breath, and variety in the opening words of paragraphs averts boredom.


The best work ages well, and even quick revisions can bless a piece with harmony and lasting impressions not found in the initial attempt. Go walk outside for 10 minutes. Practices elevate running techniques and mechanics, and drafts provide writing with timelessness, tight prose, and tenacity of ideas.


Runners don’t become Olympians in their first races. Every team needs a coach, and every writer needs an editor.


Stringing together words doesn’t have a reputation for twisted ankles or tweaked hamstrings. And writer’s block doesn’t count. “Writer’s block is a phony, made up, BS excuse for not doing your work,” wrote Jerry Seinfeld. But eye strain from computer work is a real nuisance. Doctors recommend the 20–20–20 rule. Look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds — say, a motivational poster about running — to let your eyes adjust for every 20 minutes of screen time.


Studies have linked caffeine to boosts in athletic performance in moderate doses. The correlation between coffee and words is anecdotally sacred but scientifically as muddy as the brew.


Runners love the “quiet satisfaction that comes from being part of a winning relay team,” wrote Brother Marshal of C.F.X. Xaverian Brothers in his column about the life of a track athlete. A sense of ownership for a larger whole accompanies an individual’s membership on any team, whether it’s men and women on a track or in a newsroom. Excellent writing, by itself, fails to reach its full potential — great work demands teamwork. Graphics, data, print layouts, digital audio and video, and social media all play a role.


Racing tests your training and makes you a better athlete. In both running and writing, the author of the final outcome is often judged on the most recent effort. You are as good as your last race or your last story. Each article, essay, poem, blog post, or short story provides another opportunity to experiment and improve.


People smile at the end of a race because they can see the free beer and because of the energy that surges from the cheers of a crowd. Readers are a writer’s race supporters: a bunch of strangers with a few friends and family scattered in the mix. Furthermore, readers should act like runners too. They should keep moving through a piece and stop at a prescribed finish line.


The Pulitzer is a gold medal. Plus, both writing and running offer immortality if accomplished with excellence. We still read Sappho and Marcus Aurelius. We still celebrate Pre and Fanny Blankers-Koen.


An existential question: are runners who write the same as writers who run?