More and more, runners are using headphones to drown out the distractions in their heads to push them through a run. That’s according to a 2016 survey conducted by Runner’s World, with 61 percent of runners polled saying they listen to something while on the run, and 82 percent of those runners jamming to their favorite music.
Even though the statistics suggest more runners are training and running with music, there are still purists who consider it sacrilege. (According to the same survey, 27 percent of runners think you should ditch earbuds when on the roads.) This conversation has been happening since the invention of the Walkman.
Over time, research and experience have been able to piece together some positives and negatives of running with headphones that may help you decide whether to tune in or tune out. Here are three reasons you may want to put some earbuds in for your next run, and three arguments against cranking up the volume.
Pro: you get pumped up for runs
Every runner experiences a day (or many days) were training for that 5K, 10K, half, or marathon is the last thing you want to do. For those days when you need a little extra motivation, your favorite playlist may be exactly what you need.
Costas Karageorghis, Ph.D., a sports psychologist who studies music’s positive influence on athletes, agrees that compelling tunes can help get runners into an optimal mindset to tackle that dreaded training run.
“Music elevates positive aspects of mood such as excitement and happiness, and reduces negative aspects such as tension, fatigue, and confusion,” Karageorghis said in a Runner’s World Running With Music debate.
Research from The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research backs this up, finding that listening to music before a training run or 5K will help get you fired up and better prepare you for what’s ahead.
Pro: you learn to keep a consistent pace
Many runners prefer to run without music so they can focus on essential cues, such as their breathing and foot strikes to help them control their pace. Music or podcasts—with their sing-along choruses and own stories—distract from that, right? Not necessarily.
If done correctly, music can actually help runners with pacing while training. In a recent study conducted by PLOS One, runners performed better when the beat of the music matched their cadence than when they ran without music.
Karageorghis suggests listening to fast-tempo sounds exceeding 120 beats per minute (BPM) for high-intensity workouts and music with less than 120 BPM for workouts requiring less effort—like your weekend long run. (Another bonus: The right music can actually help you recover from a hard workout.)
Pro: your runs could feel easier
Training for any race is difficult enough as it is, so why not make it a little bit easier on yourself if you can.
According to a study conducted at Keele University in England, playing your favorite tunes while you are running reduces exertion levels and increases your sense of “being in the zone.”
- How it works: The external stimulus of music is actually able to block your internal stimuli like fatigue, which is trying to tell your brain how tired you are starting to get in the middle of a run. When a runner’s perception of how hard they are running is reduced, they feel like they can run faster for longer.
Con: you’re blocking out your surroundings
One of the main reasons to leave your headphones at home is for your own safety. Even around Runner’s World headquarters, there’s barely a run we don’t come across distracted drivers, cyclists, or oblivious walkers (sometimes with their own headphones in).
If you are consumed in your music on a run, you might not be able to hear approaching cars, people trying to communicate with you, or even bad weather in the distance. In 2016, there were more than 3,000 deaths caused by distracted drivers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
If you know you’ll be on a busy road or packed towpath, it might be best to ignore the headphones for one run.
Con: you could throw off your race pace
While training with music has been proven to be a valuable tool, it isn’t something you want to bring with you on every training run. You don’t want to become dependent on music to get you through a run because, on race day, you might have to be your own inspiration.
U.S. Track & Field (USATF) originally banned the use of portable devices for all runners in its sanctioned events in 2007. It later amended the ban to only apply to “those competing in Championships for awards, medals, or prize money.”
It is always a good idea to check the rules and regulations associated with each race in the early stages of your training. Even though the original ban has been relaxed, some race directors still strongly discourage the use of portable music devices, especially in crowded fields. If a race does not allow it, you want to know as soon as possible so you can incorporate running tuneless into your training regimen.
In addition to potentially becoming reliant on music to get you through a run, it can also throw off your pace during a race. Jim Denison, Ph.D., who is a sports sociologist and coach, used the example of a runner surging up a hill because they passed a band during a race.
“It is inefficient to run a race unevenly like this, and it will come back to haunt you,” Denison told Runner’s World.
Cons: you impair the running experience
In today’s society, distractions from technology are everywhere, and a person without a phone in their hand is a rare site.
Running is a way for many to clear their heads and get away from these distractions, and Denison believes music negatively affects that experience.
“The ability to be at peace and be calm is something we’ve lost in our culture; we’ve lost it in favor of multitasking. I would argue that listening to music—or podcasts or audiobooks—while running is a form of multitasking,” Denison said.
“It keeps us too plugged in and prevents us from enjoying the running experience.”
While there are days you might feel like you need the extra motivational boost from your favorite tunes, there is something special about being alone and running with only your thoughts and nature.
Top 10 reasons to run without headphones
- Run as you will in the race– many if not most races don’t allow the use of headphones. When you train with music then run without during a race, you put yourself at a disadvantage. Have you ever heard of chewing mint gum while studying for a test, then chewing mint gum during a test? The same concept works here. If you train with music and run a race without music, you are running in new territory at the wrong time. Don’t sabotage your race.
- Safety – It’s a fact that running with headphones on increases your risk of injury (or even death) significantly. With headphones on, you can’t hear traffic, dogs, or other runners coming up to pass. I don’t know about you, but considering how many drivers I ran past last week alone that were staring at their phone as they drove past, I’d like to put some of the odds in my favor. Remove the headphones, remove some risk.
- Pay attention to your body – When there is music blaring in your ears, how much are you actually listening to your body? Probably not that much. When you’re running, you should pay attention to running, and how your body feels. How your shoe sound hitting the payment. Are you running with a quick enough cadence? Pay attention to your body to run at your best.
- Stick within the zone – Music, especially fast inspiring music, makes us want to go fast. That may be helpful for faster-paced workouts. It is the death roll for slower runs, as it makes you go faster than what you’re supposed to go for that training session. The same thing goes for using slower songs for faster runs. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve not heard my heart rate monitor telling me my heart rate is too high, or that it’s the time in my workout to slow down. Without the music, you let your body lead the way (or heart rate monitor, which is ok, too).
- Breathe!– There have been articles published that talk about the benefit of breathing rhythmically with your footsteps. This can be a very effective way to breath, making you more efficient passing oxygen to your body. When you are listening to music, it is very difficult to sync your footsteps with your breathing. In fact, you are more likely to breathe with the beat of the music, which changes song to song. When race day comes and you don’t have your music, you may find yourself having difficulty syncing your breaths. Train the way you’ll run the race
- Protect your ears – Here I am sounding like your mother – “turn those things down!” Although this isn’t exactly something that will help your training, it could help you in future years. After all, wouldn’t it be nice to hear your significant other more often (aside from selective hearing)?
- Run whenever you want – How many times do you have your workout gear with you just in case, but didn’t include your headphones. On travel, at work, at your in-laws during a holiday. Your first thoughts are “Dang it, now I can’t run!” I actually have skipped runs before because I didn’t have the music. Those days are over when you stop depending on the music. No more excuses!
- Carry less – This may be a small thing, but you have one less thing to pack. You don’t have to remember it when you’re going to the gym, on travel, to work, etc. Don’t have to pass it through security at the airport, and don’t have to carry it during a run. Just one less thing to worry about.
- Run with a partner – Running with someone else can be a great thing, either keeping a run truly “conversational” or pushing you past your limits. Like running in a race after always training with music, you could be thrown off your game if you are music-dependent and go out for a run with someone else. Convinced yet?
- Enjoy the world around you!– I know this sounds a little corny, but when you run without music, you actually get to interact with the world. Hear nature, hear a storm coming, say “Hi” to a neighbor. I actually wouldn’t have bought into this if you would have told me, but after a few weeks of running without music, I actually enjoy training, no matter what speed, more. Give it a try – you never know until you try!
Running without headphones may not be for everybody. Chances are you can find at least one thing on the list above that you would benefit from. However, there are many people who will continue to run with headphones on.
One thing you might consider if you are going to continue using headphones is to choose music with a beat at about 90 beats per minute or slightly faster. This way, at least you have something to help you keep a good cadence during a run. Other than that and motivation, there are too many reasons to take off the headphones and get back to just running.