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The Signal Without the Noise: Why Running with Headphones Doesn't Work for Me

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Despite the benefits of utilizing running time to clear my podcast backlog, I find I train better without listening to podcasts or music on the run.

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I get it. We all lead busy lives in which it feels important to make every moment as productive as possible, so devoting an entire hour or so to just running feels inefficient. I had a teammate in college who, during a particularly demanding semester, downloaded books on tape of his course readings to listen to on his run. As Caleb pointed out on Friday, the mass proliferation of podcasts offers the potential to turn a run into a culturally rewarding experience. For some, listening to podcasts, books on tape, music, anything really breaks the monotony of an hour spent with oneself.

I understand the benefits and, honestly, am sort of envious of those who have found earbuds that fit just right and/or can make running with headphones a beneficial addition to their workouts. But, it just doesn't work for me.

There are, of course, safety concerns with listening to music or podcasts while running. There is the potential that these can distract one from paying sufficient attention to traffic, falling tree limbs, or the attempts of other runners and bikers to safely pass. I'm not particularly concerned with these hazards. Just listen to your audio device at an appropriate volume and you'll be fine.

My issue is more personal. As a naturally competitive person and idiot, I tend to push myself too hard on easy runs and overtrain, and, while a GPS watch certainly helps me reign in my pace on easy days, that number alone fails to provide an adequate check on my training intensity. While I realize that going faster than, say, 7:15 or 7:00 pace on a recovery run is too fast and ease off when my watch tells me I'm going faster, I also find myself setting an arbitrary minimum pace (around 8:00) on my runs. Absent an accurate reading of how my body is feeling, I will never allow myself to go slower than 7:45 of 8:00 per mile on an easy run.

That's where the distraction of podcasts or music get in the way of my training. In a debate from over five years ago on Runners World, Jim Denison, a sports sociologist and coach, presented a compelling argument against headphones that I'll quote because it resonates so strongly with my experience:

One big problem is that listening to music can remove you from the other sounds that running produces, such as breathing and footstrike, which are essential cues. They give you feedback on your effort.

And later:

When you run with your iPod on a treadmill, you can't hear your footfalls or your breathing, so you're not learning to connect those cues to your effort level. You become cut off from your running.

Even the psychologist on the "pro" side of this debate acknowledged that music can reduce your perception of how hard you're running by 10%. When you're training seriously for a race and trying to balance demanding workouts with the need for recovery, you're usually walking the line between training at an effective level of difficulty and challenge and overtraining. A 10% difference in your perceived effort level, though it sounds relatively small, can easily be the difference between appropriate training and overtraining.

Aside from the logistical concern that my ears seem to be a weird shape that doesn't easily accommodate headphones, this is the reason running with any sort of distraction from being in tune with my own body doesn't work for me. I depend on having an accurate gauge of how my body (particularly, for me, my calves) feel each day to know where I am with regard to training the right amount. Listening to music and podcasts on the run is scientifically proven to impair that sense.

When I'm training, the most important thing is that the hour or so I spend each day running is most effectively geared toward the goal of running fast in races. If that means missing out on the latest episode of This American Life, Serial, or Effectively Wild, that's a cost I'm more than willing to incur.