What Can Writers Learn From Athletic Habits by Rusti Lehay

What Can Writers Learn From Athletic Habits by Rusti Lehay

The habits of athletes and writers, upon inspection, often appear similar. You may think they might be incompatible at first glance. Think of this example: morning writers tend to rise early and prioritize their writing practice first in the day. Many athletes drag themselves out of bed before first light, scarf down a breakfast to feed their muscles, then straight to the workout ahead.

My routine was slightly different when I worked out seven days a week. I’d wake, stretch out with some yoga in the dark, and walk to the dimmed glow of the stove hood fan in the kitchen for a simple breakfast of toast and tea, my eyes adjusting to the soft light as I approached. Then off to my desk for two hours, the first half hour consumed by morning pages and then looking through my notes for what I might write about for the day. Then, I switched to my computer to transcribe handwritten drafts, edit previously entered drafts, or complete a deadline. Then, around 8:30 or 9 a.m., I’d switch to riding the bike for thirty minutes of cardio, then lifting some weights.

The similarity is clear. Morning writers and athletes put their practice first before all else. Both also tend to put in extra time later in the day after school or work.
However, I find my muse loves to tease me when I am in the middle of a cardio stint or a yoga stretch. So I hung a notepad and pen near the Monarch bike I used before smartphones could be told to take dictation into notes. Cardio enhanced my dialogue scenes when I went for a run. The faster my legs churned, the more my two heroines rapid-fired their verbal exchange. I bought a hand-held voice-activated recorder for that dialogue. Before using that device, I could never remember the dialogue as rich as what played out in my mind when my body was on the move.

If you still think these two activities are opposed and require different devotion from the brain, read on.

Practice #1: Become Comfortable Before the Win

When athletes and artists fear failure in their vocation, it holds them back. We both must push through that dis-ease of not arriving yet at our desired skill level. Not knowing where we will place or when we finish can dampen our enthusiasm. Maybe more so for writers, as it is often a solitary venture where most serious athletes have coaches. When athletes don’t push through the pain and fatigue, they can lose their lead even though they might have more strength and a better technique than a competitor. Writers must push back on their inner critic and trust their first rough drafts. Writers can compensate for this by joining or forming writing groups that provide encouragement and can see our gems when we cannot. There is no subterfuge here. As you may know, I offer many resources, positive and safe groups, co-working sessions, and inspiration hints for writers.
If you have no exercise routine and identifying with athletes is the furthest thing from your mind, may I suggest looking at some of your routine habits where you can stack writing on as a regular activity. For example, leaving your journal with your morning beverage paraphernalia to remind you it’s time to write.

Practice #2: Give Yourself Grace & Space For Blasé Days

Just as an athlete can have a bad day where their energy is down, writers can have blasé days where they feel their words lack any punch. While some writing coaches say let them go and where an athlete might hit the shower and go home for a nap, I have found some shitty (yes, I swore) rough drafts may have minuscule phrases that reward persistent effort. One of my favourite books on writing was published in 1937. The author, Dorothea Brand, taught me that when left alone for a minimum of five days, a rough draft can reveal magic tidbits we don’t see when reviewing it too early. I like to borrow the phrase from a mentor that this critical voice is the ‘itty-bitty-shitty-committee’ ready to pounce on any of our grand ideas. The point here is to trust that each effort will lead you somewhere.


Practice #3: Celebrate achievements and milestones.

We writers can learn from athletes standing tall with gold medals and let go of any embarrassment or humility connected to a great writing day or achievement. This is why I often ask writers in my events to write a little note of praise in front of their name after a writing stint. It may take a long time to hear outside kudos for our writing. We must do that for ourselves. In all areas of life, to believe outside praise of our accomplishments, we must own it internally. Claim it when you have passed a milestone, such as tricky paragraphs or chapters, or achieved a set word count. When you show up and apply the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair, you deserve a celebration even if you are gazing out the window thinking up ideas, phrases, dialogue, blog ideas; remember – you are writing!

Practice #4: Change Up Your Routines and Habits To Serve You in Your Craft


Athletes vary their workouts. If you are hitting the wall with dialogue, try setting a scene. If you write long poetry, try a haiku, or if the plot isn’t stealing your imagination with possibilities, do characterization stints on your main characters. What do they seek to gain or stand to lose, and what stands in their way? I used to do my workouts backward when the weights weren’t challenging me anymore (with weights, you want to feel the burn) Switching up your approach to the page can feel lighter, freeing, and less daunting and give you a renewed sense of strength in your craft.

Plan for your writing times, aiming to be as faithful as pro athletes, knowing you can vary your approach. Write the middle or the end or transitions. One detective heroine who worked out swimming and running once ran up numerous stairs in a skyscraper after the villain. Out of breath, she muttered in her head, it doesn’t matter how fit you are in one capacity; another cardio challenge can show you your weaknesses. Exercise in all genres when you need a break from your own and want to test other creative muscles. You might find another area to play and excel in.
Another tip to push through the fog or resistance is to challenge yourself to tiny drills the way an athlete would. Such as a single paragraph, chapter titles, section outlines, or word clouds to develop your next idea.

Practice #5: Sleep & Hydration

Both athletes and writers require sleep to be able to perform. I am grateful to be a morning writer. My muse does not often tease me at night.
Our creative brains and our physical bodies need plenty of both. If athletes overdo their regimen when tired or dehydrated, they can experience injury. Watch out for that carpal tunnel. (Cancel. Cancel. You are free of that!) Our brains are mostly water, and our thought processes can become sluggish when dehydrated.
Writers can experience emotional injury. Say what? Guilt. Circumstances, family needs, and day jobs can steal you away from meeting your writing goals. Be kind to yourself and return guilt-free to your desk or favourite writing chair as soon as possible. Plan in rest periods to let your mind wander and play. You’ll know and feel it when a writing idea, scene, or plot begs to be landed on the page and screen. Then return to your writing times with a renewed vigour.

Practice #6: SMART goals

S - Specific
M - Measurable
A - Achievable
R - Realistic
T - Time

Just as athletes set out benchmarks to beat or meet, time trials to shave off a few seconds, and add more pounds on their lifts, writers need achievable marks to hit. Start with manageable goals like 100 words of prose a day. When you steadily hit your goal, and if you find yourself regularly writing more, you may decide to up your goal. I once decided to write a poem a day for a year. At the end of the year, I had more than 365 poems, so I did a crazy thing and challenged myself to write four poems a day for a whole year. Foolish me, some days, I strained to pull out two poems, and some days, I scratched out six to catch up.

But I did it and ended up with some stellar and definitely not-so-stellar poems totalling over 1,460 poems. Reach out if you want a free inspiration boost.
Knowing your specific strategic objectives for your writing and being aware of the aspects under your control is essential with S.M.A.R.T goals. Receiving best-seller status, making it on some key lists, and receiving awards are outside your control. Staying true to writing your very best, creating a support team, and choosing your book journey team members are all realistic aspects up to you. Look at all the steps to reach your goal. Break any step down that seems too big. Plot a timeline, then create a schedule and routine you can confidently follow to meet your spaced-out goals. With these tips in mind, you can and will achieve your desired result. You know where to find me if you want assistance anywhere along your writing/book journey path.


Rusti L Lehay, a global editor and book and writing coach, created over 40 articles guiding writers to authordom. Witnessing writers find and speak in their unique voice to serve the real boss, the audience, not the editor, is one of Rusti’s greatest joys. She offers bi-monthly online writing STAY-Treats and monthly lounges and teaches weekly creative writing classes. Her primary mission is to inspire, provide value, and make writing fun and easy.

Learn more about Rusti

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