Coming Unplugged: Music and Running

iPod shuffle 2nd generationI was talking to some running friends the other day when one of them brought up the subject of music. I hadn’t realized how divided the running community is over music; nearly every runner I know goes out with an mp3 player and upbeat playlist. Nevertheless, one friend’s adamant opinion that music absolutely ruins the running experience provided excellent fodder for rumination.

Right at the start, I’ll admit to favoring music; I run more with it than without it. Nevertheless, running purists make several valid points.

First, music creates risk. How often do we become “lost in the music” and fail to heed our surroundings? Distraction can be both dangerous and deadly; every runner knows this. Most pro-music runners would say “That can’t happen to me!”, but like the cautious new driver that turns into the reckless “experienced” driver, humans rely on routine. We grow familiar with our route and the world it inhabits and become complacent. Distraction and complacency are anathemas to safety; this is a special concern at intersections: drivers aren’t always looking for runners (or cyclists for that matter), and no runner wants a detour through the emergency room.

Second, music distracts from thinking. My blog is centered around my running thoughts, so this argument may have more credence with me than with others. As a society, we’ve become so used to being connected – and distracted – that we simply can’t spend time with ourselves. When running is an escape, why insist on running with the flavor-of-the-week teeny-bopper? When running is supposed to relieve stress, why bring the caustic talk radio host? I’ve heard the claims that music helps people think, but it is more accurate to say that music directs our thoughts. Do we really want the Top 40 or another political talking head to dictate what we think about? Running should be refreshing a relaxing; Justin Bieber and Rush Limbaugh are neither.

Finally, music can negate the camaraderie of running. Personally, I find this argument the least defensible since it assumes most runners belong to clubs or attend many events throughout the year. Although I am not this type of runner, I understand the sentiment. Meeting new people, learning about other parts of the world, giving and receiving tips and tricks – all of these are a part of the running experience. With earbuds planted firmly in our heads, we tend to ignore others and miss wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.

In contrast, there are very few arguments in support of music. One valid argument is that the beats per minute (BPM) of a song can help improve one’s pace. I’ve tested this theory over the last several months by running to music with 152 BPM, and my personal pace has improved roughly 13%. I don’t know how scientific the argument is; I imagine that, like most running aids, it depends on the individual.

Personally, I think most pro-music runners’ opinions are based on preference rather than any perceived benefit. In addition to being uncomfortable with our own company, we (as a society in general) don’t like to be told what we can’t do. People everywhere, and Americans in particular, value their rights, and I think pro-music runners view their headphones as a personal freedom. Such runners see any attack on their music as an attack on them. There are even some extremists who will skip an event – even one already paid for – if headphones aren’t permitted. In my opinion, this kind of reasoning shows misplaced priorities. We don’t go to the movies to hear the soundtrack, so why treat running any different? Sometimes life is best enjoyed in the raw.

So how can the two factions get along? Well, there are a few things we can do:

  • Remember there are times when it simply isn’t smart to run with an mp3 player, such as when visibility is low or when running unfamiliar terrain. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Speaking of which . . .
  • There are also times when you shouldn’t run with music, particularly when it’s prohibited. If you’ve entered such an event, then train without the iPod. Trust me, doing so will make race day easier.
  • Be excellent to one another. Coexist. Get along.  Purists, we’re all out there for the same reason, so don’t get bent out of shape when others don’t share your opinion. Music lovers, if you’re running with friends but absolutely need your tunes, try running with one earbud in – and remember to keep the volume low. You’ll still get your beat, but you’ll also enjoy running with a companion, and not everyone has that opportunity. Share the road.

So, what will I do now? Unplug more – not totally – and get back to running for running’s sake. What you do is up to you.

Until next time, get out there and enjoy the run!


5 thoughts on “Coming Unplugged: Music and Running

  1. I used to be plugged in all the time. The thought of running without music actually made me feel anxious. Then I joined a running group and we were encouraged to run without music on long training runs and I began to really enjoy the chit chat that goes on when you’re out there for hours.

    BUT, I always road race with music. Once I’m out of the crush of people and in my own running space, I like to tune everyone else out and play my own game. I don’t like being able to hear the laboured breathing of others…or my own wheezing! I never have it turned up so loud that I can’t hear anything else and I never use it during trail runs when terrain is treacherous and narrow. But it helps me through the dark miles…

    It is a contentious issue though – you will never get the music out of some people’s “cold dead hands”!


  2. I always have music when running, because I like to use the time, if I don’t get distracted, to think about stuff I’m working on and visualize story concepts. Music really helps with that, so I prefer it. Also, I run in my very quiet neighborhood, so it’s a little easier to stay aware of my surroundings.


  3. I’ve done both, and my current preference is to run without music. That may change, but I’m sure I’ll have a good reason then, too!

    By the way, I loved your Bill & Ted homage: “Be excellent to each other…”

    Party on, dudes!


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