What Marathon Training Taught Me About Writing

by Monica M. Clark | 33 comments

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It’s marathon season! Congrats to all the runners who finished the Olympics marathons, and good luck to everyone training for upcoming marathons!

Writing Goal: What Marathon Training Taught Me About Writing

Back in 2011, I was one of these crazy people running 26.2 miles for fun. It was a lot like writing a novel: both are long-term goals that require incredible patience and discipline to achieve.

In fact, I find myself applying lessons from my marathon training to novel writing all the time. Here are some of the most important things I learned to help me meet my writing goals:

Create a Schedule and Stick To It

When I first decided to train for a marathon, the idea of running a million miles was overwhelming. It was enough to make me want to quit on the spot.

But I didn’t. Instead, I found a training schedule with achievable milestones for the novice runner. In the beginning I had to run only three or four miles. As I got closer to the race, my goals changed until ultimately, 26.2 miles actually seemed like something I could do.

Likewise, the idea of completing a 300-page publishable piece of fiction seemed impossible at first. Thankfully, I remembered what I learned while training—create a realistic schedule.

To finish my first draft, I created several writing goals. I aimed for 1,000 words/day with a goal of getting the thing done in four months (you'll see that factors in some flexibility). Just like with the marathon, the mini-milestones were a lot easier for me to wrap my head around.

Write down your goals. Commit to them. Next thing you know, crossing the finish line will feel like a breeze.

Don’t Do It to Lose Weight

Hmm . . . I admit this lesson doesn’t translate quite as nicely, so let me explain.

If you’re running a marathon solely to lose weight, chances are you will eventually decide that it’s not worth it. If you're writing a novel simply to get rich/published/famous, I doubt you'll find yourself willing to put in the time and effort your project demands.

Why? Because you need a deeper motivation to push you through the tough times.

A desire to be skinny would not have been enough for me to force my aching body to run 20 miles in preparation for the final race, the most difficult aspect of the training. And your dream of living the life of the rich and famous will not motivate you to stay home Saturday night to edit your novel scene by scene.

To accomplish something as difficult as running a marathon or finishing a novel, you need to have something intrinsically motivating you, and these superficial benefits are unlikely to be enough.

Tell People What You’re Doing

When I trained for the marathon, I told only a couple of people what I was doing, and I hardly discussed it with family or close friends. To be honest, I was worried that I would fail. I figured the fewer people who knew, the fewer I would disappoint.

But I didn’t fail.

The day before the race, I knew that I would be able to do it and I wanted the whole world to watch! Unfortunately, because I hadn’t included my loved ones in my journey or shared how important this goal was to me, only two people could make it.

This is why I decided to blog about this novel-writing thing despite similar fears of failure. Should I get there, I want to have as many people to share in my success as possible.

I’m not there yet, but telling the world my writing goal has had the unexpected and welcome effect of causing family, friends, acquaintances and strangers to send me words of encouragement on a regular basis.

The marathon taught me that my fears are a reason to reach out to people, not exclude them.

You Will Cross the Finish Line

At the outset, running a marathon seems like an impossible goal. You might feel like writing a book is equally unattainable. But I promise you, it's not. You can cross the finish line in running and in writing, and with the right strategies, you will.

Create your writing schedule. Find your deepest motivation. Share your writing goal with friends and family.

Soon enough, you'll hold your finished manuscript in your hands.

If you'd like to finish your book, the deadline to enroll in our 100 Day Book Challenge is tonight at midnight pacific time. Learn more and sign up!

What motivates you to keep writing? Let me know in the comments.


Take fifteen minutes to write, and continue working on your work in progress. If you don't have a project underway, start something new, perhaps based on one of these story ideas.

Do you have a daily writing schedule? If you do, go ahead and start knocking out today's word count goal. If you don't, take this time to write, and come back tomorrow for more practice and accountability as you establish a daily habit.

When you're done, share your practice in the comments below, and don't forget to leave feedback for your fellow writers.

Free Book Planning Course! Sign up for our 3-part book planning course and make your book writing easy. It expires soon, though, so don’t wait. Sign up here before the deadline!

Monica is a lawyer trying to knock out her first novel. She lives in D.C. but is still a New Yorker. You can follow her on her blog or on Twitter (@monicamclark).


  1. Rebecca Foy

    Thank you, Monica!!
    Because I am a stubborn, contrary person, I don’t set up a real schedule. I write anywhere from 500 to 3000 words a day. I can’t seem to write regularly, since I hate doing what I’m told, even when it’s me telling myself what to do! (ahem, I’m working on that) But your post urged me to try something new. Today I’m knocking out two thousand words, whether I like it or not.
    NaNoWriMo is a lot like a marathon, I think. You spend all of October training and all over November writing, and when you cross the finish line on November 31, you know you’ve accomplished something worthwhile. Victory!

    • Monica

      Good luck! I also found that I just needed to stick with it long enough to make it a habit. After that, if you miss a day, it’s less of a big deal because you have greater confidence that you will pick it up again the next day. Enjoy NaNoWriMo. 🙂

  2. Renia Carsillo

    Love it Monica! I’m in the final leg of a marathon to fund, finish editing, and publish my 2nd book and also a runner. You’re absolutely right that the two have tons in common. It seems like many of the writers I know are distance runners. Maybe it’s a perseverance thing? Do you see the same thing?

    • Monica

      Awesome! Each goal will help push you to finish the other one. I really think they do have a lot of common and running analogies constantly come to my mind during this process. For example, the idea of the 15th mile–the point when you’ve gone so far but you have so far left to go. I really believe successful people are the ones who are able to continue after that point.

  3. Camilla

    That sounds a lot like Murakami “I talk about when I talk about running.”

    • Monica

      Oh you’re right!! I have that book, but I never finished it.

  4. Jodie

    I’m going to set 500 words as my regular schedule, on some days I will probably do more. I don’t want to set it too high or I will feel like a failure when I don’t meet my target.

    • Monica

      Realistic goals–I like it!

  5. Tegan VB

    I love this article! I just started writing my first novel (like, just started, last week). I have only told a few very close people for, you guessed it, fear of failure. Maybe I will put my goal out there! I like the idea of setting a daily goal. As a long distance runner [off and on] also (not up for a marathon yet though!), I definitely understand the connection . . . 🙂 Thank you!

    • Monica

      It’s really scary to tell people, but I’ve realized that–in both cases–people will respect you for even making the attempt, so why not tell them and get some encouragement along the way? I also told some of my co-workers about the novel-writing thing and found that I have much more interesting conversations with them now haha. They tell me about their passions instead of just what they’re working on. 🙂

    • Winnie

      I’ve always been told not to talk about the novel you’re working on, as you’ll “talk it out of your system”. When writers get together they seem to talk about everything but their current effort.
      The getting together of like-minded spirits must build a creative energy.


    • Tegan VB

      I did end up posting on FB that I am participating in NaNoWriMo, but I haven’t really told too many people about what my story is about. I’ve been really motivated by all the encouragement from friends and family AND I am having so much fun writing my novel (I’m about a 1/5 of the way towards the goal). I really appreciate your advice to share that you’re working on a novel Monica! Thank you! 🙂

  6. purple dragon

    Hmm, Monica, writing and long distance running – there seem to be more than a few of us! To your excellent list of applicable lessons for both I would add:
    The Improvement Path is Not a Straight Line.

    The improvement path is not a straight line on the micro level: Some days a new distance seems almost easy, and the next day a shorter one is brutal. What matters is that you do what you can; you are still getting stronger even if it doesn’t measure out that way in today’s results. Some days, you look up from the 2000th word and it’s lunchtime; other days after dinner you’re still hating every one of the 17 words that don’t even make 1 good sentence. That doesn’t mean your writing skills have diminished from one day to the next. What matters is that you keep coming back; Richard Nordquist says, “If the muse is late for work, start without her.” You’ll never find out when she’ll next be waiting for you unless you show up.

    The improvement path is also not a straight line on the macro level. I trained for the 1990 NY Marathon, but blew out a knee just at the “taper” part of the training schedule. (So unfair!) 3 kids and other logistics intervened; it was 10 years later when I began again. This time I needed a very different training schedule with more rest days, fewer miles and knee-friendly cross-training. My first “failed” attempt was far from a waste of time, though, largely because of the very lessons you listed. In writing too, some projects may hit a wall and have to gestate for long periods, or morph into something very different. Likewise, the schedule, writing workplace, and techniques may have to shift. There is value in what you did before, even if it isn’t what you thought it’d be.

    Now I juggle a part-time job with irregular hours, parenting, and some eldercare with trying to make my writing more regular and disciplined. As I write this, I am making the connection between changing my marathon training plan and changing my book/blog project plan. What kind of schedule can I make work this month, even if looks less? Last year I did NaNoWriMo as a (nonfiction) rebel; this year a blog post a day is a more realistic goal. In 2000 I did cross that finish line. My time was slower than what seemed initially like the “right” goal but the moment was no less sweet. May it also be so for my writing, and yours.

    • Monica

      Thanks for that additional lesson! I hadn’t thought of that, but it’s definitely true. Some days you’re motivated than others, and that’s OK as long as you keep going. That will definitely help me as I proceed with my novel–I appreciate the tip! 🙂

    • winnie

      “Some days a new distance seems almost easy, and the next day a shorter one is brutal.'” I find the same with writing. Some days you go to bed very satisfied with your effort. The next day you reread and wonder how you could write such crud.

    • Rhonda Kronyk

      What a perfect analogy. I also find it very difficult to be consistent from day to day. Sometimes I won’t write for a few days, then I will have one or two days where I write 3-4000 words. Time completely disappears. I don’t fight it anymore because I figured out that the days off are actually working days which is why I can write so much when I get back to it.

      And I’m so glad to hear that you did it as a non-fiction writer last year (sorry, rebel – a much better term!!) This is my first try at this and I’m doing it as a non-fiction writer. My goal is 30,000 words

  7. Jevon Knights

    Congrats on that marathon. I can relate to point 3: Tell People What You’re Doing. I also use to think the fewer people who knew, the fewer I’ll disappoint. I’m writing my first novel, and I didn’t want to tell anyone for a while. But I faced my fears and told everyone. Now I just have to prove to them all that I can do it, which I’m confident about since I’m almost finished.

    • Monica

      Plus if you tell people, they can connect with you contacts and provide encouragement along the way. What’s your novel about?

    • Jevon Knights

      It’s about a king who digs up his seemingly-dead queen from her grave and makes a dangerous journey into a land called the Insane World in an attempt to revive her and and fix his shattered life.

      I sometimes make the joke and say it’s my autobiography.

    • Monica

      Is it?

    • Jevon Knights

      If it were, I would surely be insane. However, even though it’s fantasy, I did borrow facts from real life.

  8. Kari Scare

    Running equates to so many areas of life, including and especially writing. I have kind of been a private person in both areas, but I am now trying to be more public in both. It’s amazing what having cheerleaders can do for both your writing & your running. Isn’t it interesting how both improve the more you “practice” them? I also love how one feeds into the other. Running gives me great time to think about writing, and writing makes me need running.

    • Winnie

      “Cheerleaders’ always put me off. But I find they provide invaluable advice and encouragement.

    • Kari Scare

      They definitely can do that. Picking the right cheerleaders is the key.

  9. EtienneT2013

    Good article! My plan is to commit at least an hour each day writing and knock out 500 words minimum. I am still exploring fiction writing, but as of right now think I would like to write a collection of short stories, delving into a range of issues/themes that young black professionals face in urban communities like NY/DC. We shall see how it goes . . .

    • Monica

      Hey, as long as you’re writing. I get into those themes a little bit in my novel. 🙂

  10. Adam

    Like this one, as I am a runner myself 🙂 My plan is to write between 1,500-2,000 words a day; As a student (Grade Seven) I find the best time for writing is getting up at 6AM and write till 7:30. Then in the after noon after I am done with homework and the nagging annoyance they call socialising, I write whatever I didn’t write in the morning. It works well 🙂 Done almost 10,000 words in the last five or so days!

    • Monica

      Awesome! Good luck!!

  11. winnie

    Last year I had a go at NaNoWriMo and managed to finish the first draft. As a learning experience the exercise was invaluable.
    Some people say it’s only after your fifth or sixth novel that you can chuck outlining and write by the seat of your pants. That’s so true! I tried the 50 000 words with just a short story and ended up with an incoherent tale. And one that was 5000 words short. Every time I re-read it I’m disheartened by how much more work it needs.
    I’ve spent the past month outlining what has become this year’s NaNoWriMo effort.
    I do a lot of walking – among other things it’s easier on the knees and joints than running marathons – which has taught me to approach something gradually and systematically. You can only get nearer to the end by taking
    one step at a time. And those steps is the procedure when you create the story, build the characters, the opening and closing scenes, the scenes to drive the story forward, etc.
    The hardest part of outlining was in fleshing out the story; I was rewarded as I got deeper into the process and found how everything – characters, settings, etc. -started to come together to form a coherent whole..
    It’s just like walking. When hiking up a mountain you never look up to the peak ahead of you. It’s discouraging. Instead you look back, down into the valley. You’re always surprised at how far you’ve come.
    Then you glance quickly at the peak. That distance seems so much shorter.

  12. Bruno Coriolano

    is a juicy story!

  13. Bruno Coriolano

    is a juicy story

  14. Adamant Flame


  15. Alexandra

    I have this ideas that I struggle so much to put them in words. I have all these broken pieces that I don’t know how to put together. I worry so much about the background story and to have strong characters that I freeze and I can’t move forward. It’s becoming quite frustrating, honestly. Even when I set up a daily schedule I am distracted by things like “Oh wait, I should probably learn some new words to expand my vocabulary” or “But I don’t know the name of this character’s best friend!”



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