fitness · motivation · running · training

Running with headphones, or not

Image description: drawing of a line of musical score with a trebal clef and notes, with the lines diverging apart, curling off in a different directions at the right end.
Image description: drawing of a line of musical score with a trebal clef and notes, with the lines diverging apart, curling off in a different directions at the right end.

When Sam posted a link to Peter Sagal’s article, “The case against running with headphones” I was ready to object. But I kind of liked what he had to say (which I’ll get to in a minute). Personally, I like running with headphones sometimes and other times I don’t.  In the morning, it helps me get going when I’m feeling sluggish. But I occasionally reach a point, especially on a long run, where I just want to take in the silence, be alone with my thoughts, focus on my body and my form, on my immediate surroundings, and listen to my breathing.

I have friends who feel differently, who specifically listen to music when they run so that they don’t need to hear their breathing. But I find the sound of breathing, even the exerted breathing of a run, to be meditative.

Peter Sagal started his journey to music-free running by wanting to present for big events:

It occurred to me that if I was going to train and practice and focus on achieving something, when the time came to actually do it I could at the very least pay attention. A race, most especially and counterintuitively a marathon, requires more focus on the moment than someone who’s never done it might imagine. We scan our bodies for discomfort, we check our pace, we count the miles and measure our remaining strength against the remaining distance.

On race day, I go both ways. When I got my personal best on the 10K in September, I ran to a playlist for much of the time. But when the last couple of K came, I turned off the music and did exactly as Sagal described. I didn’t want to zone out to the music, I wanted to be mindful and present to what was happening. My thoughts also narrowed to exactly what was going on and positive affirmations and reminders from my training.

I did the same for the recent half marathon. For more than half, I ran without music because I was with Anita. But at a certain point, we agreed to do our own thing and we both put in our earbuds. I enjoyed my new playlist, but as is my habit, I don’t play the music all the time. Periodically, I hit pause and focus on the people around me, the sound of my feet on the pavement, my stride, my breathing, the next sign post, the feeling of the wind on my face, my body position and whether I’m relaxed or tight. Music tends to distract me from that sort of thing. Sagal agrees.

If I don’t leave my headphones behind when I run, I wouldn’t spend a single minute of my waking life free from input.

In other words, in a day there are few opportunities to unplug. Running can be one of them. And in place of the noise from a device, running let’s you work through thoughts — conversations you wish you could have, perhaps some venting, all the build-up. I also experience some creative bursts when I’m running. Or insights about areas of my life where I’ve felt stuck and then, on a run, especially a long run alone, I can sense a shift. These are all the more likely if I’m not listening to music.

The upshot of Sagal’s article is that the only way to run mindfully is to run without music as a distraction. Of course, not everyone wants to run mindfully. Or perhaps not all the time. When I run with people, for example, it’s even more likely that the social aspect will overshadow the running itself. We run, but we use each other as a distraction. Anita and I comment all the time about how quickly the time passed on a given run when we were together, chatting. True, we check in once in awhile with “how are you feeling?” and true, we are “unplugged.” But if Sagal is making a case for more of an inward and mindful approach to running, then that would require going solo too.

My formula is to mix it up. I include a combination of group runs, solo runs, runs that include music, runs that don’t, and runs that have a bit of both. There are times I want to be mindful, times I want to be distracted. It sometimes depends on the type of run. I am less likely to want music during fast intervals because I need to be very focused on what I’m doing to maintain my speed during the intervals. So I’m far from all-or-nothing when it comes to headphones. In fact, making and running with a fresh playlist is one of life’s little pleasures for me.

Where do you stand on running with headphones?


2 thoughts on “Running with headphones, or not

  1. I liked this a lot, because on “policy,” I agree with you 100% — I want to run mindfully, I want to be present. AND I am super-challenged on this — I am almost addicted to running with music, now. Back in the pre-ipod days, I ran without noise and — when sony invented it — a little yellow radio that I could bind around my upper arm. So I would do long runs and listen to the cbc and meditate on thoughtful programs like tapestry. My runs had a spiritual inflection because of that. Then somewhere along the way, with the explosion of input, I got dependent on running with music — not even with podcasts, which I listen to a lot of the time otherwise (walking, household chores, etc.). I even seem to need to start my run with the same song (Ho Hey by the Lumineers, for the record) — it’s like a signal to my body to get into a different gear. I don’t *think* this is such a good thing, but if I turn it off, I can’t find the rhythm anymore.


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