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.

There are 3 comments

  1. stayvertical

    I direct some races, including a 100 miler. I had no idea how passionate a person could be AGAINST music on the trails. This year, one of our runners made a really big deal out of another runner's choice to listen to music with 2 headphones, then ignore his requests to remove his headphones. In all my travels to big races around the US and abroad, I had never considered this an issue. I have raced along side some great runners with everyone wearing headphones and still carrying on a conversation. 2500+ thundering through Chamonix with music blasting and headphones in…no big deal. However, to this runner in my race, it was the greatest evil one could do and was reserved solely "for road runners and triathletes." Is this really a thing? Do people really care about whether another runner wears headphones? Or, is this just a pet peave of one runner?

    1. @vonbrucken

      What a bully! Yep and they will tell you it is for your own good, you should converse with people etc. Personally I like going on the trails alone and when I race I like listening to my music when I want to, if someone wants to talk to me then I remove a earplug but if I don't feel like talking I just speed up my pace. We are not in some kind of AA meeting or in a therapy session when we have to engage with Bob or Mary or whoever… I heard they did it for Comrade marathon, I will never race in an event when earplugs are not allowed.

  2. stan8613

    I have no issue with people listening to music with headphones- I myself do it from time to time – but what KILLS me during a race or trail run is those who "boombox". Nothing is more distracting or annoying than somebody running behind or in front of you whose iphone is blaring whatever their choice of music is. Please please please keep it in your headphones!

  3. FernandoNBaeza

    Im not particularly for nor against music on the run. Everyone at some point has done it im sure. Its one of those topics that can be highly controversial, especially amongst those runners who are naturalists and believe the sounds emanating from your surroundings should be music enough. I have nothing against this notion; its a noble notion. However, not everyone believes the same thing. I run with music half the time as I run in places where I rarely see anyone, and in places where I really have to "grind" as Mr. Roes indicated, as to get back in a reasonable enough time. I suppose one of the only inappropriate ways that one can use music is when one is out on singletrack and you CANT HEAR whose coming behind you or whose coming at you right around the corner! Ouch! Mountain bikers especially…tolerance is a hard thing to learn, for some, but we must practice it wisely as not everyone believes as one does. Happy trail running!

    San Antonio, TX

  4. @brookswmitchell

    Music is a big part of my life, and one of the things that originally got me into running was the ability to listen/discover new music 6-8 hours a week. Like you, I love listening to a new Grateful Dead show from start to finish on my long runs (I knew I'd like this article when I saw the title). There are of course, exceptions — group runs, heavily crowded runs, night time runs — where I don't listen to music and often times on trail runs I pop out the ear buds for miles at a time just to enjoy the sounds of nature. I do like having the option, though.

  5. @TrailMaster57

    For me this speaks to the question, are you associating with your activity (running) or disassociating from it? I have no interest in adding music or podcasts to my running because i am that much into the activity. It is its own entertainment. The run itself holds my attention. I can't recall once in 40+ years of training and racing that I wished there was something in addition to my companions, footfalls, breathing, nature sounds or traffic, to listen to. How can one train effectively when disconnected from the effort?
    I try not judge others on their choice of wearing headphones. But I am disappointed when I say hello to a fellow runner on the road or trail and get no response because they could not hear me…

    1. EmersonTA

      "I try not judge others on their choice of wearing headphones"? It looks like you do judge: "How can one train effectively when disconnected from the effort?" "I am disappointed when I say hello to a fellow runner on the road or trail and get no response because they could not hear me… " Lots of us "train effectively" while cranking tunes, podcasts, or listening to books on tape (albeit "train effectively" is a subjective term which likely means different things to different people) . Sorry to disappoint you, but to each his own.__

  6. Joey

    Some people listen to music when they write, some don't. When I recently heard that, I dropped my stance on running without music. Depending on the activity, some like to listen to music, some don't.

  7. dotkaye

    I started running before it was possible to carry music with you and never really formed the habit. On winter or injury runs on the treadmill, I'll use music to distract from the miseries of indoor running. On outdoor runs I dislike the distraction, prefer to hear the sounds of the world: so usually do not, though sometimes on long solo runs will carry some.

    In races headphones on some runners can cause hazards for other participants, so it seems to me rude at best and dangerous at worst. That's presumably why it is banned in triathlons and road races. In sparsely-populated trail races, perhaps it is not such an issue.

    Use the Zen Stone player with 8G, which covers most of my music collection. The Stone lets you skip entire folders easily, so on runs will skip over let us say the Goldberg Variations and on to the Swedish death metal.. ha.

  8. robsargeant

    Since the bulk of my training has switched to trails I haven't run with music. I find on the winding forest trails it's better this way. I can hear if someone is appraoching on a bike or if there's wildlife up ahead crawling through the underbrush. I've had encounters with bears and elk, and saw them far enough away that they weren't startled. If I was fiddling with an Ipod I might not have been so alert.

  9. Archangel_Tex

    Some advantages:
    1) Picks you up and gives energy
    2) Can serve as a distraction, which is a technique for surviving long runs without overthinking.
    3) Can provide a beat or metronome that keeps you on pace, or at a faster pace that you might run on your own.
    4) Good for beautiful people who want to present an "I'm all business and here solely to work out" image
    Some disadvantages:
    1) You can't hear birds calling.
    2) Isolates you from nature and from others. You look like you want to be left alone.
    3) Less likely to hear danger and avoid collisions.

    I don't get music while running trails, since the point for me is to get away from technology, and it's more interesting to use mantras or my own mind or the rhythm of my feet on the trail as a way to put my mind in neutral as a distraction technique. But music can be deeply tribal and close to nature itself — and singing as you run has long roots in human history. I just prefer to make the music with my own mind instead of getting it from technology.
    No right or wrong on the issue — as long as the isolated guy with headphones doesn't veer in my path and trip me.

  10. SCottieB

    My brain is not your brain. I envy the folks who can run without their brain striking out into unwanted territory. The folks whose brain can either shut down to its essential function or focus like a laser on one thing (I don’t know which it is exactly since my brain does not do those things). I use music when I run (one ear bud only, always) to keep my brain from driving me totally nuts by catching every distraction (internal or external), hooking onto invented, annoying music loops, and wandering like a toddler. I use playlists by beats per minute to help focus my brain by guiding it into a rhythm that compliments my running and movement (trail running, by necessity is a form of dance if you think about it). Music helps me find joy in running when all I have is my goofy brain for company.

    1. SCottieB

      And I would add that for me, music serves as a memory trigger. When the right song comes together with the right moment on a run, all the times that song plays afterwards takes me back to that moment. Moments I might otherwise lose to the fog of time. Black Keys’ ‘Lonely Boy’ is the joyful finish of the 2012 Elkhorn 50 miler, Love Jones’ ‘Paid for Loving’ is midway at the Snow Joke half marathon, Amadou and Miram’s ‘Dougou Badia’ is sunrise at the Moab Red Hot 55K and David Gray’s ‘Dead in the Water’ preceded my passing out for my first disastrous DNF (ah, good times).

  11. mathieuvanvyve

    Well, I never have listened to music while running. But then I rarely listen to music in general…Maybe I like too much to think. I mean, really thinking on a very specific thing, or letting my mind wander, with least interference as possible.
    (Disclaimer: I am doing research in mathematics)

    Some people ask me if I actually think about mathematics while running. At least for me, this seems very hard. Running on trails means that your brain must consistently analyze the terrain, think about directions for orientation, pay attention to your your body to monitor the effort, etc…This consumes already way too much processing capabilities of my brain to be able to do anything else complicated simultaneously. So the answer is: not at all. Running is precisely a pretty nice way to force me to pay attention the here and now of the physical world. And I feel music would make that experience less integral.

    But then I fully agree that different persons will have different goals while running and different affinity with music…

  12. harrymattison

    Thanks for the thoughtful post. I've never listened to music but seems like it might be nice to have for my first 50M coming up next month. Can anyone offer some headphone recommendations?

  13. thorhammer24

    I do listen to something on most runs. More often than not, nowadays it's a podcast rather than tunes, but I have something going on. This is mostly because I'm a chronic multi-tasker and simply must, if there is the remotest possibility, be doing at least two things at any given time. Preferably three.

    The other reason is that when I run, I don't feel peaceful. I feel harassed, stressed, terrified of what others think of me (runners and Muggles alike), and very focussed on the end-point of the run. Adding music or a podcast takes away the mental noise that drives me batshit and gives my brain something to do other than ever-decreasing circles. It's quieter in my head with music.

    I also agree with SCottieB about the momentous soundtrack thing. Jonsi's "Go, Do" and Dead Letter Chorus's "Run Wild" will now be forever linked to my beautiful if alarming solo run in Thingvellir National Park, Iceland, this August just gone.

  14. northacrosseurope

    I love music – can't imagine a world without it, and I feel exactly the same way about running. Both music and running are things I can lose myself in entirely. Emotions soar; the rest if the world falls away. If I had to choose between giving up music or giving up running the choice would tear me in half- it'd be an impossible choice to make. So it might seem natural that the two should go together. And yet I've never run with music. Not once.

    The very idea of it feels like it would be a distraction. Surely, my gut reaction tells me, it would break that remarkable connection I frequently find where mind, body and environment merge. Plus, I'd have to carry some device, and I'm seeking simplicity out there; I don't want to carry extra technology if I don't absolutely have to. But then again, perhaps I'm totally missing out. Some of the posts above, like Jason Violadork's thoughtful response, may have to force me to re-consider.

    Trouble is, I'm a dinosaur, and don't have a smart phone, or an ipod, or any kind of portable music device. And I'm frugal by necessity with what I spend my money on. Would I rather buy an ipod or use the same amount for an extra weekend away in the mountains? Hah, easy choice…

    So perhaps I'll just stick to the music in my own head… but man, I hate the idea now lodged there that I may be missing out. Thanks guys for that! ;-)

  15. bafter72

    I was completely against running with music for years, as the run was my escape from, life, work, technology, worries and problems, although, ironically, I often figured out my problems while running. There was nothing better to me then hearing my steps, my breathing, nature, the padding of my dog beside me and getting lost in nature. Now my dog has passed, and i have a small child in my life, and i can barely run with out music, my runs are shorter (I can't wait to get back to the little guy) and I often look forward to the podcasts, or latest show from my favorite band I have downloaded, the music has become the escape. I think running with music or with out music is individual and often has to do with what you need in life at that particular time… Just enjoy the run!

  16. MJTrail

    Music is a large part of my life. Always has been. I have a family with small children and carve out time to make it work with my training. This means I normally trail run alone, sometimes at night. For Safety, I run with my Iphone blaring the tunes I love. This alerts the Rattlesnakes, Bears, Elk, and Moose that I am coming their way. It prevents me from startling other hikers I am passing or mountain bikers I am passing on an uphill. It is very effective for announcing that I am coming. I had a lady on a horse actually thank me for playing the music because as I came around a blind corner, she yelled out "Horserider coming" and I was able to stop and move out of the way without seeing her yet, and not startle the horse. I do not want to put in headphones because I want to be able to hear things around me. Gunshots from hunters, a rattle from a snake, etc.

    As for race day, I trained with tunes the whole time, so yeah I am going to go with my same setup. A majority of the people in races love the fact I am playing tunes and sometimes run with me just for that fact. I am a social guy, so after all the solitary training, I want to meet every runner I can on the course. Headphones do not offer me that. If the music helps the ability to meet people, it is enhancing my experience as a whole, so I roll with it. This is why I pay to race. Have I had people give me weird looks, or say “Seriously?” Yes. But they are few and far between and typically I will give them the biggest smile I can and say “It is a beautiful day to be alive” regardless of the weather. That normally takes the edge off.

    I tire of hearing someone telling me if you DNF you cannot wear that shirt, or that I am not allowed to listen to music from my phone out loud, or you must not do this or that. This is not why I got into trail running. Our lives are filled with people telling us what to do and when to do it. Rules governing use of the land is one thing, some other person’s preference is another.

    In conclusion, everyone is different, but I would expect trail runners to be some of the most tolerant folks around (and I think they mostly are). I will add that I have a specific playlist for races that is generally ambient or classical music. Still, I like my occasional Social Distortion.
    Thanks for writing this article Geoff.

  17. tobyruns2

    I could care less what gets someone going down the trail as long as I get the same respect in return.

    As for me I don't listen to music when I run. The concentration of every footfall, breathing, etc. keep me in a nice meditative state so no need for music here. I run in the early dawn to avoid the distractions of the modern world coming down the trail. I'm usually the guy to thank for getting all the spiderwebs out of the way. :-)

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