Sport and Writing

The benefit of exercise for the writing mind.

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B. S. Johnson reported on football matches, David Peace wrote The Damned United, Alan Sillitoe wrote ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’, and if we start looking we’ll find further connections between fiction and sport.

And yet how many writers of fiction would describe themselves as sporty? Drinky, smoky, walky, yes, but not, as a generalisation, sporty. I was pretty much the same until I hit a certain age and found myself consuming more calories than I burned and the next waist size up couldn’t be deferred any longer.

I’d always done plenty of walking and a bit of cycling, so had a base fitness but I wasn’t really into the strenuous cardiovascular stuff and so the burn wasn’t sufficient to address an ageing metabolism. One day after a searing remark from a relative, I decided it was time to take action. I extended my cycling miles, I started running and I began swimming in the sea.

It’s often difficult to find time for these activities among life, work and writing, but if I rise an hour early, and sneak out when the family is busy, it seems to work ok. And what are the rewards for donning a pair of trainers, or fumbling around on a beach to get changed before throwing myself into a cold sea? Moments of reflection and an oxygenation of the blood. It can clear the head and let me start afresh.

Being out in the air, watching the sunrise as you turn into the final stretches of a morning run (on the days when you can be arsed to get out of bed on a winter’s morning) it leaves you buzzing with energy afterwards, even if moments earlier your lungs felt like bursting. It also helps you to figure out those nagging plot difficulties and decide how you’re going to organise your day’s work.

I like to adopt what I regard as a punk attitude to exercise. I am inconsistent in my achievements, my Strava is all over the place. The benefit of the app is two-fold, however: not only does it enable me to track progress, it also applies the required amount of guilt to see more committed friends putting in the kilometres.

I always resume even if I pause for a month when the world becomes dark and cold.

Other motivators are a swimming group that I started, and which burgeoned in size, called the Kent Sea Swimmers. To know others are willing to walk into a freezing February sea means I have no excuse not to. With the group I also trained to swim a 1.5 km pier to pier swim in Herne Bay last year, having never swum a distance like that since leaving school.

There are other minor achievements along the course of my exercise life: a half-marathon in the North Downs, a hike from Canterbury to London, and a February 10k around central London. But the most rewarding is an early morning 8k before breakfast on the weekend, coming home to pancakes and the family waking up.

Exercise is not only a way to lift your mood, but also a means to make friends and maintain connections, which can be a good change from the solitary act of writing. There is a sense of being in it together when you challenge yourself either virtually via an app on which you have followers, or together as a group. And not all groups are super fit and speedy, there are plenty of ordinary folk out there, like the Kent Sea Swimmers.

In the time before exercising, I would sit in front of a screen becoming increasingly sluggish. Running, swimming, cycling, these things activate the mind and provide time for reflection, even if it’s only twenty minutes (which my midweek morning runs often are). The writing benefits from it, as does life and work in general. There will always be hiatuses but as long as it’s on my mind to return I continue to do so.

Tune into BBC Radio Kent around 4.10 pm on 11 October 2020 to hear a little bit more. I’ve been booked to talk about walking, cycling and swimming in the beautiful countryside of Kent.

Anthony Levings is a writer compelled by capturing moments in time and history.

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