Running And Writing Made Me Anxious. Here’s How I Got Better At Both.

After relinquishing control over my daily habits, I found a crucial lesson: It’s only worth it if it’s fun.

Like millions of other people, I’ve tried to fall in love with running many times. At least once a year for the past five years, I’ve gone through a running phase. There was the summer after graduation, when I became obsessed with self-improvement. There was the fall after I hiked the Long Trail in Vermont, when I was fighting to stay in backpacking shape. There was the winter when my friend and I went on daily jogs to catch up on gossip. There was lockdown, of course, in the spring of 2020, when I ran to fill the hours with something other than scrolling miserably through my phone. One night, I read Junot Diaz’s story “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” and — inspired by the literary merit of a running “addiction” — I took off on a spontaneous nighttime run. I came back panting so hard my neighbor opened his door to ask if I was crying. 

I always wanted to be a capital-R Runner, the kind of person who is recognizably and identifiably good at it, the kind of person who makes it look easy. But this attitude leeched running of all enjoyment. Whatever I did, it was never enough. It wasn’t as graceful, as easy, or as fun as I thought it should be. I could never run fast enough for long enough. Instead of a post-endorphin rush, I felt relief that the embarrassing part was over.

In the fall of 2021, I hit the same roadblock with writing. At the time, I was applying to grad school for fiction: I was trying to sell myself as a writer, but I found the actual process of writing excruciating. Whether I was drafting personal statements or revising the stories in my portfolio, every sentence I attempted embarrassed me. I deleted clauses and retyped them with minor variations — a different preposition here, a new adjective there — until I realized an hour had passed with no progress. This happened almost every day for the three months I spent working on applications. I’d waste time worrying, until I made myself sick from staring at my laptop screen. 

I started running again because I needed a reason to stop writing. If I didn’t carve out time to exercise at night, I would never leave my desk; I would let the anxiety keep me up not-working all night. So I started, quite literally, running away from my problems.

Unlike writing, which was torturous and unending, every minute I spent running brought me one minute closer to being done. Even the shittiest days, when I spent the last mile forcing myself to reach successive milestones — just get to the corner, just get to the mailbox, just get to the crosswalk before the countdown hits zero — gave me something to be grateful for when I got home. I had gotten something done. I had earned the right to enjoy my life. Often, the moment I got home from a run was the first moment I enjoyed in a whole day. 

I didn’t run every day. I didn’t run a set distance, or try to stay within a certain mile time. I just ran because I knew I would feel better after, and because lacing up my shoes after writing felt like waking up from a fitful dream. 

This day-by-day approach bore unexpected fruit. I realized that eating after I ran, when I was truly hungry, made food taste better. And running in the afternoon made falling asleep at night easier. Some days, I breezed through my usual route, and I’d tack on an extra mile just for the satisfaction of it. The realization that it wouldn’t take endless pushing and scrapping to run faster or farther — that my effort wouldn’t have to linearly increase with the distance I was running — surprised me. If I ran often enough, occasionally I’d just get an easy day.

In the winter, once all my grad apps were in, I shifted my focus to running. I found myself with a lot more free time, and it had been the best part of my fall. So I wanted to see what I could do if I really applied myself to running. I downloaded Strava and logged my sessions. I bought new shoes; my dad sent me a Fitbit as a gift. I started training to run a 10K race and kept close tabs on my progress, my baseline pace, my ankle stretches. 

It was fun to tinker with my routine: realizing what and when I should eat before a run to fuel me, figuring out my favorite warmups and cooldowns, watching my mile pace tick downward, looking over my schedule to see when I could squeeze in a run. I finally felt like a legitimate runner when I set out on a weekend morning, excited to sweat out in the sun. I started to see running not just as a thing to do, but as a lifestyle, an invitation to take better care of my physical health along multiple axes. I paid more attention to my nutrition. I tracked my food intake. Then I learned about the latest fitness trend of counting macros: optimizing the ratio of carbohydrates to fats to proteins that I consumed. That required me to track my calorie input and output; then I started tracking my weight. Everywhere I looked, there was some metric I could improve on. In the back of my mind, I wondered whether this was healthy. But mostly I loved how purposeful it felt to build my life around running and eating well, which struck me as straightforwardly worthy goals.

Everywhere I looked, there was some metric I could improve on.

In the spring, I wondered how my newfound sense of motivation and productivity could carry over to writing. I decided to write 1,000 words a day — not edited, just raw streams of consciousness — because with a quantifiable goal, beginning brought me immediately closer to finishing. I logged daily word totals so I could look at my achievements with pride. I started “warming up” to write, holding myself to a three-step process: Read, journal, then write. Prime my mind with other people’s polished prose, practice transcribing whatever thoughts come to mind without deleting them, then hit the ground running. 

With this new goal, I was writing a lot more than I had been when I was applying to grad school, and though I wasn’t finishing many pieces, I was enjoying the process far more. And I was learning from my daily experiments. By forcing myself to express my opinions or flesh out my characters, rather than deleting them off the page before they had the chance to take shape, I could see what I did and didn’t like about my writing. I honed my instincts for which ideas were worth pursuing. This was, by necessity, a process that took time. Only by writing a bad draft could I write a better one — though it often felt less intuitive than that. Some weeks, I came up with nothing good. Then I would figure out what I meant later. I had the same discovery with writing as I did with running: If I wrote often enough, occasionally I’d get an easy day. 

I nursed a growing conviction that all it took to become good at something I loved was to develop a structure that overrode neurosis. I’d always found productivity fetishists irritating. People who posted Facebook infographics about “the seven healthy habits of successful people” struck me as robotic and sanctimonious. But I was learning what they had been trying to teach me all along. 

I kept thinking about the fact that nuns’ robes were called habits. Maybe the holiest part of a religious commitment was not its moral stakes but its daily nature. Even lifelong devotion could only be constructed one day at a time. Before, I’d thought of the well-worn imperative to write every day as impossible. Write every day? I imagined an infinite scroll of months on a calendar, every small square demanding to be filled. Now it made sense. I had no control over any of those future days. They would come sooner or later, but I could write today. 

Even lifelong devotion could only be constructed one day at a time.

By April, I decided not to go to grad school. The process of applying had been so agonizing that I couldn’t imagine enjoying myself once I got there. This meant I didn’t know what I’d be doing come fall, but for the first time, I felt OK with that. I had found a rhythm of daily satisfaction and incremental progress. The possible failures of the future didn’t freak me out as much. 

In June, my smug new sense of purpose reached its peak. One day, I came back from work, decided I didn’t need to wait for the race, and ran 10 kilometers then and there. Then I finished a 1,500-word essay I’d been putting off. I’d been working against the feeling of impossibility, the fear that I would never be the kind of person who could run that far or write that much. What I discovered, simply by doing them, was that I didn’t have to be a different kind of person. Training consistently had transformed my capabilities, but I had not changed. That felt radical. I felt on top of the world. 

But by August, my life circumstances changed, and then kept changing. I was traveling a lot, working odd jobs and then no job, living in various places, including a loft and a van. Without the stability of routine, I found it harder to make time to run or write. And when I did, I hated how rusty I felt. When running, my lungs and legs gave out so early. When writing, my attention wandered, or my inspiration dried up.

There was plenty I loved about the time I spent traveling. Water-skiing with old friends at a beloved lake in Tahoe, road-tripping down the California coast, camping on the beach, backpacking in the mountains. But, privately, I stressed about my broken streaks of journaling or running. I’d spent months measuring the success of my daily life against strict criteria. Abandoning those self-imposed rules sometimes made me so anxious that I got dizzy with guilt on days I ate cake but didn’t run, or gave up on a writing session because I felt too blocked. 

I realized that my fixation with discipline had verged into disorder. My anxiety hadn’t gone away so much as relocated, manifesting as productivity instead of procrastination. I held it at bay with a daily log of words written and calories burned. I thought I’d stumbled into a mystical revelation about how to become the person I wanted to be through daily discipline and a philosophy of process over product. Really, I’d just found a different way to berate myself for not yet being good enough. 

Slowly, I began to recalibrate what I wanted for myself. The more plans I made to spend my evenings doing something fun — catching up with a friend, seeing a play, or cooking — the more often I found myself at the end of the day without having run or written. But savoring these special occasions felt so much better than stewing in guilt over dropped habits. I made my peace. Spending time with my friends, instead of single-mindedly grinding through my to-do list, was its own reward. 

Plus, when I stopped seeing success through such a narrow lens — running 5K three times a week, writing 1,000 words every day — I realized how much joy I derived from other ways of celebrating my body and mind. Even when I wasn’t running, I was climbing, playing tennis, and doing yoga. I was relishing the food I ate. I was resting, which my body deserved too. Even when I wasn’t writing, I was reading, listening, and watching. I was jotting down lines of poetry in the Notes app on my phone. I was talking to my friends about the art I loved or the ideas I was mulling. 

In relinquishing control over my daily habits, I found the last, unexpected lesson: It’s only worth it if it’s fun. 

To be sure, it can’t always and only be fun. Part of the euphoria of setting and achieving goals is that it makes the dull slog of progress worth it. But running and writing were ends in and of themselves, not means to becoming a worthy person. And the people I admire as great runners and writers only got that way from putting in a massive quantity of energy and time. How I perceived them from the outside was a small — and subjective! — side effect of their daily devotion. 

I had been seeking to legitimize my identity — as a runner, as a writer — but that was a distraction. The more pressure I put on myself, the less I learned from doing either. When I spent every run wishing I could go faster or farther, I steamrolled over my body’s cues. It was only when I let myself be proud of each session that I started to realize I ran faster and farther if I warmed up properly and ate beforehand. And only then did I get better.

Similarly, if I worried about how much or how little time I spent writing, I wasn’t writing. I was worrying. But if I let myself type, if I let myself get through a sentence, and then another, and then those two sentences made me think of something else, the writing time accumulated anyway. 

I still have goals — running a marathon, writing a novel — but it’s the work in progress that intrigues me now, more than the finished product itself. And I have a better sense of how to let that progress excite but not consume me. I’m grateful to have punctured the mythologies of running and writing alike. It has been a gift to realize that there is no great glamour in being a runner; the main rewards come simply from the act of running. Being a writer doesn’t necessarily feel like anything; it’s the act of writing that feels like thinking, like learning, like making something new. ●

a series of stories about the body. read more here.

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