Whether or not listening to music while you run is a good idea depends on why you want to do it. Let’s look at the specifics so you can find the best answer for your situation.
To Tune Out Pain and Discomfort
Some research suggests music effectively does this. But it doesn’t report how the runners who ran through pain and discomfort felt the next day.
My guess: not good.
While some of your running workouts might be very intense and therefore involve that particular kind of pain and discomfort, most of your runs should involve zero pain or discomfort. There shouldn’t be any to tune out.
The purpose of pain is to indicate that what you’re doing is likely to harm you. If you tune out your aching knees, the pain in your feet, or your overall unpleasant sensation of pounding day after day instead of responding to it by taking care of your body and improving your form, you likely will get injured.
Drowning those sensations out with music is like turning up the music in your car to distract you from the beeping that says your gas tank is down to its last drops. Not a sustainable strategy if you want to keep driving for very long.
If you’re not sure whether your discomfort is connected with intense effort or whether it’s a warning indicator you should heed, here are my guidelines on that.
To Run Faster
Some research suggests that listening to “motivational songs” before or during a run helps you run faster.
But when and why are you trying to run fast?
If you’re trying to make every run a fast run, that’s a problem. Running too hard too often raises your injury risk and damages your health. It’s a big mistake. Occasional hard workouts as part of a well-structured training plan makes you fitter and faster; more than that just breaks you down.
If you’re trying to run faster in training so you can be faster in races, you’re only focusing on one piece of the puzzle for racing well. In order to turn your fitness into good race performance you also need to develop the skill of listening to your body, knowing what you have in the tank and regulating your effort so you don’t run out of gas too early or finish the race realizing you actually could have run faster.
For this reason, elite athletes normally tune in to their bodies, not out. In an interview with Runners’ World, sports psychologist and music researcher Costas Karageorghis explains,
…music is not effective for people who are “associators.” Serious athletes tend to be associators, which means they focus intently on internal cues such as breathing, heart rate, and muscular tension. This type of athlete tends to not derive as much benefit from external stimuli such as music.
If you want to perform well, learn to be an associator.
It’s also important to understand that running faster means not just running harder, but actually running differently. You need to be able to make changes in your form, and in fact those changes often increase speed without increasing effort as much as you’d think.
So that pumping beat you’re using to amp yourself up to an intense level of effort is not the same as aiming for a higher speed. The result is almost certainly not as fast as you’re capable of running if you improve your coordination. And of course to learn that, you need to become an associator as well.
To Avoid Boredom
My guess is that you’re afraid you’ll be bored on your run because you’re used to always having external stimuli. So running seems like it will be boring without something to listen to.
If you’re running on a treadmill, you’re probably right. Go ahead and listen to music, and please read my blog series on treadmill running.
If you’re running outdoors, though, you are missing out.
I’ve been working with runners since 2003 and the vast majority of them say their main reason for wanting to stay healthy and able to run for the rest of their lives is because running is their sanity, their form of meditation.
Although listening to music while you run can put you in a good mood, and exercise in general does the same, your brain doesn’t get to go through that great process of sorting through the stuff you’re dealing with, you’re worried or angry about, etc. and then gradually moving past that to a calm, quiet, state of balance that people describe as meditation.
Unlike sitting meditation, which frustrates a lot of people, just running without music or anyone to talk to and letting yourself think and notice the world around you pretty much guarantees this process will happen. It’s automatic and frustration-free.
You’ll also be able to engage with and appreciate the world around you. Without being able to hear your environment, you’ll find that the rest of your senses aren’t engaged much either, except occasionally to notice the view much as if you were looking at it through a car window.
Don’t be afraid, you won’t be bored. Your brain is desperate for you to stop pumping stimulation into it 24/7.
To Get Going When You Don’t Feel Like Running
Going back to this study on music and 5k runners, the researchers found runners who listened to motivating music before they ran improved their performance, and those who listened to calming music after their run recovered better.
So that may be helpful if you find yourself dithering and wasting time before going out the door, or even just not getting out the door at all.
You might even keep listening to your music for the first 5-10 minutes of the run until you’re really underway, and then turn it off and take your earbuds out so you have the opportunity to discover that the run itself is valuable to you, and not just the music you were listening to. That’s how you turn yourself into a runner.
That said, building a strong habit for getting out the door is probably going to be necessary anyway, regardless of whether you use music or not. Every runner drags their heels sometimes–after all, evolution has predisposed us to prefer sitting on the sofa so we don’t burn unnecessary calories.
Most runners get over this hump by doing things like putting their running clothes by their bed and their shoes by the door so deciding which running tights to wear today doesn’t become an excuse to procrastinate.
Work out your routine and stick to it like your life depends on it until it’s easier to follow it than to deviate from it. Then the music becomes optional–but still possibly beneficial and enjoyable.
No discussion of running with music (or podcasts or anything else involving headphones) would be complete without a mention of the safety issues. It is simply dangerous not to be able to hear what’s going on in the world around you–cars, dogs, bikes, other people. Some of these things are actually very quiet and if you’re not listening well you really won’t hear them.
I also think our connection to other humans is a fundamental part of our health, our safety, and our sanity. If you’re running along in your own world, listening to your music and disconnected from what’s going on around you, you can seriously drive a runner who comes up behind you on a narrow path crazy by not shifting a little aside to let them pass. And then when they do squeeze past you, they’re mad at you.
We do a semi-instinctive dance as we move through the world together, hearing each other, seeing each other, engaging with each other, and working together so we all get what we need. When you’re checked out because you can’t hear what’s going on around you, you’re like someone striding through the middle of a dance floor, making everyone else break their dance. It’s rude and it’s also lonely.
Be where you are, hear the birds, make brief, friendly eye contact and give a little nod to other runners, let your mind roam free, and keep yourself engaged with the beautiful symphony of your body in motion. That’s so much more than music.
And if you’re struggling with discomfort or with how to run faster, start resolving those problems with my free Mind Your Running Challenge. It’ll help you start to recover that fun, free, flying feeling you had when you were a kid (or maybe just wished you had):