September 5th, 2010

Running Without Headphones

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Running Without Headphones
On my last post about marathon training, a reader commented that I should start running without headphones. After all, during the NYC marathon, I wouldn’t be wearing them (most races have banned the use of headphones). There are also the safety concerns- with headphones on, it’s more difficult to hear cars, cyclists, and other runners. And if you look at elite runners, none of them wear headphones, as they need to pay close attention to their body and competition.

Initially, a few hesitations ran through my mind. What if I get bored? Am I relying on my music to keep me going? Especially on my long runs, music provides a good distraction. Or even worse- Am I using headphones as a form of protection and insulation from the outside world, in the same way that people use sunglasses to avoid eye contact? Will I feel like I’m running naked without them? Or maybe I’m just over-analyzing things…

In Central Park, a large number of the solo runners I see have headphones on. But the majority of runners in groups do not. Tonight, I gave this “running without headphones” thing a try for the first time since I started training for the NYC marathon. In reality, for most people, this would be a very small change. For me, it was significant. I’ve been putting in mile after mile every week, all with a track playing in the background. So what was it like?

Increased Awareness

In one word, my run felt more… Natural. I thought I would get bored without headphones. But I didn’t. I just started to notice lots of different things. I became less internally focused and more externally focused. Hearing the sounds of my inhale and exhale. Or the sounds of my footsteps as I propel myself forward. And the rhythm of my footsteps and breathing together.

I also heard the footsteps of other runners. I heard walkers, fragments of conversations in different languages, and a crowd cheering at a baseball game after a baseball hit a metal bat. I heard a baby crying, dogs barking, and rock music playing. I felt a sort of connectedness to the Central Park atmosphere that I never had with headphones on.

With this new external focus, I started to notice the people around me more, and sometimes felt more competitive around the other runners. When I have headphones on, if I am running behind someone at a similar pace, I will usually continue at my same pace. But without headphones, sometimes I feel the urge to pass them. I’m not sure why this is. Maybe listening to music distracts my competitive side.

All in all, the run had a more natural and increased-awareness feel to it. It was a better balance between internal and external focus. I will definitely be running without headphones more often. I can’t completely give up my tunes, but I’m willing to give them up part of the time for this increased awareness. Adding more variety and increasing my awareness while running will make for a better marathon training experience.

Update: 17 Miles Using The Off-On-Off Technique

On my 17 mile run today, I tested out wearing my headphones for only part of the run. For the first 20 minutes, I ran with my headphones turned off. This gave me adequate time for warming up. After this warmup, I ran with my headphones turned on (at a low volume) for one hour. This helped push me through the first half of my run. For the remainder of the time, I took my headphones off. This was a good variety. I was able to run with more awareness when I needed it most (warmup and second half through finish). I did notice that the last mile was a little more tough than usual without music. It was definitely more of a mental game without headphones. I ended up counting my strides to stay focused on finishing- normally I have music to distract me.

Update (3 weeks before marathon): No longer wearing headphones!

I have completely stopped wearing headphones when I run outdoors. I still wear them when I go to the gym. I am happy about this adjustment. It has given me more awareness and willpower… I no longer rely on music to get me through the last few miles. I just use the mantra “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”

Do you wear headphones when you run?

What are your experiences running with or without headphones? Which do you prefer?

Creative Commons License photo credit: busbeytheelder

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