No matter the race or running path, you will often see more runners than not wearing wireless workout headphones. Runners without are known as “purists,” and believe that being aware of your surrounding is an essential part of the sport, but there’s a subculture of runners that couldn’t imagine a run without their motivational playlist. Which is why today we’re focusing on running with vs without music.
Flashback to 2007 when the USATF (United States of America Track & Field), the governing body of distance races in the country, actually banned the use of portable music devices in their sanctioned events, and in that same year officials at the Twin Cities Marathon disqualified 144 runners. USATF later amended the ban – it now only applies to those vying for prizes in championships – but that didn’t stop the debate between headphone lovers and haters. Here’s my list of pros and cons of running with headphones.
PRO – It Can Make Running Feel Easier
There’s no denying that music can make those miles feel easier, countless studies show that. Studies also find that music helps reduce your perception of how hard you’re running by about 10 percent. This is caused by an external stimulus like music blocking some of the internal stimuli trying to reach the brain – like fatigue-related messages from your muscles and organs.
When these messages are blocked, this reduces the runner’s perception of effort, meaning you’ll feel like you can run farther, faster. (The exception is at higher levels of effort – the brain involuntarily switches its attention from the external to the internal.) Music also elevates positive aspects of mood such as excitement and happiness – which is why those with depression are recommended to listen to music – and reduces negative aspects such as tension, fatigue, and confusion. So it can be used pre-performance to get runners into the correct mind-set.
Con – You’re Not Aware of Your Surroundings
The number one thing I recommend to beginning runners, those not progressing as they should, or those who are dealing with injuries back-to-back is to listen to your breathing and footstrike because they are essential cues. They give you feedback on your effort. You might be striking the ground to hard and can be heard from a mile away, causing your issue, something you wouldn’t be able to tell if you’re wearing headphones.
Running while listening to music also removes you from the environment you’re in, which can be unsafe. You may not hear a car or person behind you. You may not hear thunder in the distance. And in a race, it makes you oblivious of other runners, and you can’t listen to the directions being given by the officials. Would you ever drive or ride a bike with headphones on? Probably not, because doing so reduces your awareness and increases reaction time. I want those things working for me. Finally, I believe that runners can become dependent on music. Eventually, you can end up losing a sense of what is motivating you.
Pro – It might be essential for “dissociators.”
When it comes to athletes – you included because running is a sport – there are two main categories that they tend to fall into. There are the “associators,” and the “dissociators.” Serious athletes tend to be associators, meaning they focus more on internal cues such as breathing, heart rate, and muscular tension. This type of athlete tends not to get as much benefit from external stimuli such as music. Then there are dissociators, which is usually your average active person. For these people, music can be a motivational force. Dissociators will seek it to distract them from the boredom often associated with exercise.
It doesn’t matter if you’re an “associator” or a “dissociator,” it doesn’t make you a better runner, it’s just a question of how external stimuli like music may or may not benefit you while running.
Con – Elite Runners Tend Not to Need External Aid
Elite runners tend not to need any external aid to overcome the so-called drudgery of running, but I also don’t want to give up on Joe and Jane Recreational Runner. I don’t think everyone views running as a means to an end. Nor should we assume that people see running as boring and need music just to get through it. Many people at all levels enjoy running, and you don’t have to be an elite athlete to be in tune with your body.
Pro – Listening to music on the treadmill is better than using it Outside
The number one concern when running outside is traffic, but on a treadmill, that danger doesn’t exist. Also, outside running comes with built-in distractions because of changing landscapes, and these external stimuli can provide a distraction and alleviate boredom. On the treadmill, however, you don’t have those stimuli – or far fewer of them – so music comes in very handy. Less perceived exertion, less boredom.
Con – You Become Disconnected While on The Treadmill
We’re back to what I said earlier of how you can’t hear your foot striking the belt or your breathing, so you’re not learning to connect those cues to your effort level. Resulting in you becoming disconnected from your running. Why should things be different on a treadmill than when you’re running outside?
The same active connection to one’s body can occur in any context of running, and in my opinion that is always better than having music interfere with the sensations of running and movement. If you’ve ever seen an athlete run on a treadmill or outside, regardless of where they are, it’s always the case that when they listen to music, they’re almost robotic. They put on the music just to get through their workout. If you see people working out with no music, you see a very different approach. There’s a different focus.
Con – Music can throw you off your pace
Unless I’m listening to my pace specific playlists like my recovery day playlist which is a 15min/mile; meaning that every song is at the same tempo helping you keep your pace with very little thought. However, I know most runners don’t do this, and instead throw together a playlist of the hottest tracks and call it a day. Which can backfire, because you have songs of different tempos causing you to run at different paces.
It’s inefficient to run unevenly like that and will come back to haunt you. To guard against this, use your watch and keep an eye on your splits early on during your run to get a read on your pace. This will help you know how your pace should feel. The most important thing is to be aware of the possibility that music might be affecting you in ways that aren’t beneficial, and be determined not to let that happen.
Pro – Only at Certain Points
Recent research has looked at music not being played throughout a task, but only at predesignated points. This seems to be where music is the most efficient; so I would think music at specific spots along a race course would be beneficial.
Pro – Music Benefits at Low to Moderate intensities
The benefits from music tend to occur at low to moderate intensities. I recommend using music on your easy running days. Recent research has also been focusing on the synchronous application of music. This is where an athlete consciously ties in their stride rate to the rhythm of the music. Which can result in more efficient oxygen use during running.
To do synchronous running, figure out your stride rate for your pace, then find music with beats that are slightly about that stride rate – one or two beats per minute higher than your normal stride rate should do it. I also recommend that the optimal method is two sessions with music for one session without. If you use music for every workout, you can become desensitized to it or rely on it in races.
To learn more about running with music, check out this fantastic infographic from my friends over at JayBird:
Ally Gonzales is the founder & editor-in-chief of RunningSoleGirl. Along with blogging she is also juggling attending college and majoring in Exercise and Sports Science with a Sports Management minor.