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  • Caroline Leech

How a triathlete’s training secret helps me write


GBR triathlete, Morag McDowall, in action

I have a friend—Morag McDowall—who is an international triathlete, and the other day, she wrote a fascinating Facebook post about her training regime and what she calls her 10-Minute Rule.


In it, she talks about having days when she just can’t be bothered with the training she knows she ought to be doing. Now, that sort of lethargy coming from an athlete who has represented Great Britain in triathlons all over the world, is very reassuring to someone like me who spends most of every day glued to her desk and has never, even for one second, considered training for a triathlon (though for the record, I did once run a 2K race—never again!) So apparently, even the best athletes have days when it’s hard to focus.


And that’s the reason this post caught my attention, even though it’s about a sport I will never try, because there are days when I too can’t be bothered to do the training, I mean the writing, I’m supposed to be doing. Or I do want to do it, but I’m stuck staring at an empty page, or my head is spinning so fast with ideas I can’t grab hold of one to get it down onto the paper, and/or I’m finding it hard to concentrate when so many other things are shouting at me.


For Morag, her 10-Minute Rule says, Try your training for ten minutes, and if you still can’t face it, only then you can give up and go home. And very often, she says, those first ten minutes create their own energy and she ends up really enjoying that day’s training session on her bike, in the pool or pounding the road.


But how does that rule help me with my blank page, or spinning head, or my sudden and urgent need to peer into the refrigerator or fold the laundry or clean that three-week old coffee ring off the glass table? Well, I do Writing Sprints. Yes, the irony of the name hasn’t passed me by considering I stay sitting on my butt in my office chair throughout, but it follows the same principal as Morag’s.

If I’m struggling, I simply switch on my phone’s timer for 20 minutes and write. Easy? Surprisingly it is. I know that for those 20 minutes and no more, I am not allowed to look at my phone, look up anything on the internet or get another drink. I’m only allowed to write. I don’t even care if it’s complete crap either because I know that you can’t revise or perfect words that haven’t been written down first.


Like Morag, I often find that an enforced 20-minute sprint can get my writer’s mind to focus. Often I end up enjoying myself so much that I keep hitting repeat on the timer and end up writing for 40, 60, 80 minutes or more before I need to come up for air, or for tea.


Writing Sprints are not a new idea that I created. Far from it. I was simply a lucky recipient years ago of some other writer’s wisdom. But since it works for me, let me gift to you that nugget of wisdom now and set you off running.


Now, what I haven’t admitted is that the point of Morag’s 10-Minute Rule FB post was that sometimes, when you listen to your body, it’s okay to give up after 10 minutes if you really know that you are not in a good place to train that day, and your body needs a break or a rest. The same thing goes for writing. Sometimes—very occasionally—a 20-minute sprint won’t clear my head and help me focus, and in that case I know that my brain is craving more thinking time without the pressure of a page waiting to be filled. So I walk away. I go fold laundry, or do some jumping jacks or star jumps (only kidding, I go lie down on the sofa) or I take the dog for a walk round the block, just to let my writing brain prepare itself better for the writing. That’s when I find ideas start to settle, or an opening line of dialogue suddenly comes into my head and I have to repeat it to myself all the way back to my desk so it doesn’t vanish.


Believe it or not, Writing Sprints can even be a team event, just like international triathlon competitions. Put the hashtag #writingsprints into Twitter, and chances are you’ll find someone inviting you to join in a sprint “on the hour” or “on the half hour” (to take in time differences). So why not reply and join in? At the end of the sprint, send a message telling everyone how you got on, or even better, just keep writing.


Oops, hear that buzzing? That’s my 20-minute timer just going off now, and look what I’ve managed to fill up my blank page with today! Tempting though it is to press START again, I really need another cup of tea!

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