The Music Never Stopped

“Do you listen to music when you run?”

This is one of the most common questions I am asked by runners and non-runners alike. I suppose it’s a pretty logical question, but it’s always struck me as a bit surprising that so many people seem to care whether someone else listens to music or not when they run.

As I was running without music today though, I found myself occasionally wishing I had some with me, so this got me thinking a little more about this question. Moments later I ran past someone who was listening to music without headphones, such that anyone within several hundred feet could hear. This really got me thinking about the music or no-music question, and for one of the few times ever I began to feel curious as to other runners’ music-listening habits.

I personally almost never listen to music when I run. I used to on a fairly regular basis, but over the past four or five years it’s become a very rare thing for me to do.

There are many factors for me which figure into the choice of music or no music. I used to run almost exclusively alone so this gave me much more opportunity to listen to music on the run. The vast majority of my runs are now with other people, which generally makes listening to music not an option.

Even when running alone though, I now almost always prefer to go without music. I think music can be a great tool to help pass the time as a distraction from the actual run itself. This can be a very appealing thing in many instances, but more and more over time I have come to run primarily for the experience of that particular run, not for some other reason like training for a race, staying fit and healthy, clearing my mind or processing thoughts, and others. All of these, and many more, can be very logical reasons to run, and in many of these cases it makes sense to want to distract yourself from parts of the experience of the run itself.

When, on the other hand, the experience of the particular run is the primary reason you are doing a run, it can seem very counterintuitive to do something which takes your focus away from that run. Generally I want to hear everything that is going on around me in the natural world, and I want to feel the pain, exhilaration, and challenge of the run. Music can make a hard run seem much easier, but more and more over time I have come to not necessarily want my runs to feel easy. I simply want them to feel exactly as they are. Sometimes that is easy, but more often it’s pretty damn hard.

I mentioned wanting to listen to music on my run today. I’m not sure exactly what instigated this desire, but I think it had a lot to do with being on a tighter-than-normal time constraint. I tend to schedule most of my runs so that I don’t have somewhere I need to be right away at the end. This way I can be totally present with the run itself, and have the flexibility to stay out longer if I feel like it. Getting out for a run can be a very healthy, vibrant, substantial, and therapeutic thing. There is nothing more valuable than being able to stay out longer when you’re feeling like all of these things are coming at you in large doses.

Today though, I had no option to stay out longer. I had somewhere I had to be about three hours after I started, and I was doing a loop that would likely take me at least two hours and 40 minutes. I didn’t feel like running fast today, but I pretty much had to if I was going to be done on time. Again, this is a situation I typically avoid putting myself in, but this is certainly not always possible.

Running hard today wasn’t really all that bad, but it was difficult enough that the run stopped being about the experience of the run itself and started being more about keeping moving as quick as possible so I could be finished on time. This became a recipe for wishing I had some music to distract me from this situation of needing to run faster than I really wanted to.

The most I’ve ever listened to music while running was when I competed in the 350-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational. Ironically this was also the most connected to the land and to my experience that I think I have ever been on any run. Eventually on that run I became so connected to the experience that I felt like I needed something to distract me, and to keep me from going insane while shuffling along in the snow, at 40 below, in the middle of winter, in Alaska. Sometimes a musical diversion can be a very wise choice. Sometimes it makes a lot of sense to distract ourselves from every nuance of a particular run.

Despite the lack of music, today’s run ultimately ended up being very enjoyable, and very swift, as I finished in about 2:25, much quicker than I expected. It would have been really nice to have music with me. Just a little something to tune out all of the focus that I was putting into making sure I was going to be done on time. Again, sometimes it can be nice to have a little distraction. After today’s experience, maybe I’ll even start carrying music with me a bit more often on runs. Just in case.

This is another thing about listening to music: you have to actually have it with you to be able to listen to it, and very rarely do I start a run knowing that I’m going to want music.

One other question I’m often asked in regards to running and music is what I listen to when I run with music? This is a much more straightforward, and logical (in my mind), question. For me this is an easy answer: almost always The Grateful Dead, unless there is a good baseball game I can tune in.

Call for Comments

At any rate, I’m curious as to other perspectives on this topic. Do you listen to music when you run? (I know, it’s ironic I’m closing with this question after starting by saying that I think it’s a bit of a surprising thing to want to know) Why music or why no music? I’m especially curious to hear reasons for listening to music that don’t fit into the category I touched on of seeking a distraction from the experience of the run itself. Also, for fun (and maybe some new ideas), if you do listen, what do you like to listen to? I promise not to judge you. Even if it’s as embarrassing as what the guy I encountered today was blasting without headphones for everyone to hear.