I frequently see expressed the idea that listening to music or other artificial auditory input during runs somehow dilutes or sullies the experience, or is the domain purely of beginner runners who struggle with internal motivation and instead must rely on the inspiring chords of their pump-up music to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Similarly, my first thought when seeing someone run by with headphones on, wires flapping with every stride, is not ‘wow, that person must be a really dedicated, serious runner’. When I was running on competitive teams back in school, the only people who I ever saw run with music werepeople out for more fitness/recreation-focused runs, and college teammates who had been recruited from the campus rec center treadmills in a slightly misguided effort to cheat the Title IX scholarship balance requirements by bringing a bunch of recreational athletes who often refused to even race in meets onto the women’s team to swell it’s numbers. These recruits listened to music because that’s what they were used to doing while pushing through long runs alone on the rec center treadmill. Now they remained, a bit oddly, plugged in and deaf to the outside world as the rest of us chatted around them, bantering and discussing the latest team dramas.
Through high school and college I loved running through the music blared at XC meets and at the indoor track during workouts, but couldn’t run with headphones unless the music perfectly matched my stride. I never thought I’d be one of those wires-flapping music-listening runners.
And then I graduated. The banter went away, and every training run came to resemble those long, lonely summer and winter runs of solitary base training between team practice seasons. Running buddies were far and few between, and suddenly I had only my own thoughts and footfalls on almost every run, rather than just on a few morning and weekend runs as I’d had while on a team. But I still thought music was for non-serious runners, so I kept pushing through even when my own thoughts rattled dully around in my head and I was nostalgically desperate for the old running team chatter.
Finally, on some dark, repetitive run around and around my grad program university track, the music came out. I think it happened because I’d been doing more indoor cross-training (for which music was very much approved), and I knew that on the well-lit, somewhat protected track the safety concerns of music/ear buds were reduced. I also realized that I could now run even with slower or faster tempo music that didn’t match my stride, which opened up the option of adding a bit of extra motivation to my less delightful or more repetitive track and city park loop runs. Music substituted tolerably for the absent running buddy banter when I wasn’t able to run with Fish or the running club. A fellow runner on twitter inspired me to add podcasts and audiobooks, which even more closely resemble running conversation (if very one-sided). Now when I wasn’t able to meet with my fellow runners but dreaded facing a tired run alone at the end of a long day I could at least motivate myself with the thought of finding out what happened on the latest episode of Serial.
As I’ve gone through the snowy, dark runs of winter in new-job-town I’ve been listening to music, an audio-book, or a podcast on almost every early morning or late night run. I do try to do at least a couple runs a week sans audio, just to make sure I take time to take in my surroundings and listen for any asymmetries in my stride, particularly on the weekends when I can run during daylight hours and have the added stimuli of scenic views. Runs alone with my thoughts and the scenery are also much more inspiring when my mind isn’t already depleted from slogging through 8 hours of repetitive data-processing tasks at work. However, because I have been using audio to get through so many winter runs, I did find myself worrying about actually depending on sound to get me through training. I became concerned that in allowing myself to tune out I am allowing myself to become wimpier, less aware, and less focused.
But then I thought back to my more serious training periods back in high school and college. Was every run a mindful meditation on my footfall, my breathing? Hahaha, no. Most runs were full of chatter and laughter and goofy shenanigans. The talking mostly went away when focus was required, such as during workouts and races (as does my music/book/podcast now), and returned during the less intense miles in between. If I spend my recovery days listening to a conversation between Liz and Xine, the hosts of the PhDivas podcast, or to Diana Nyad talking about her long ocean swims in Find A Way, or to the nerd-tastic hilarity of the You’re the Expert science-comedy podcast, is that really so different from gliding along amidst the chatter of my XC teammates back in college? True, it’s less interactive, but one-sided listening still provides me with interesting perspectives and material for thought. Listening to music usually leads to breathless, gasping sing-along sessions if a particularly good song comes on (and there’s no one around to be injured by my off-key notes), just like the sing-along runs did back in high school and undergrad. If the lure of the humor, insight, and interest added by JustAthletics, Radiolab, NightVale, or my latest audio-book find gets me out the door into the dark and cold, is that a bad thing?
For now I’m going to say no, it’s not a bad thing. I don’t plan to listen to anything while out on the single-track this summer for safety and awareness reasons, and don’t ever see myself doing speed work with music unless it’s blasting over nearby speakers and can more easily be tuned out in moments of intense focus. Races that ban earbuds make sense from a safety standpoint, and I’d still much rather chat with a running buddy than listen passively to pretty much anything else during non-solitary run. In my experience both supplemental audio input and iPod/phone-free mental dialogue have their place in running. I want to maintain balance and the ability to focus through discomfort rather than distracting myself with songs or stories to pull me through, but have also learned that listening to songs and stories on relaxed runs adds a unique guided mental journey that parallels and supplements the physical journey.
Wow, that was a really long-winded way if saying that I don’t care if others listen to headphones while running (unless it causes them to obliviously run into me) and my views on plugging in during runs have changed with my running circumstances. What do you all listen to, or if you don’t, are your reasons different from what I wrote about here?