running with music

Running with Music: Why Ultramarathon Runners Shouldn’t

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By Jason Koop,
Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning

I’ve done a lot of things in my nearly 20-year coaching career. I have worked with all types of athletes from team sports, cycling, triathlon, as well as ultrarunning. I’ve seen athletes through thick and thin, wins, losses, PRs and DNFs. Along the way, I’ve given out countless pieces of advice on training, nutrition, pacing, heat and altitude acclimation, and life in general. I’ve planned for athletes’ crews and advised on all manner of gear runners use to perform. There is, however, one thing I have never recommended to athletes, and likely never will: the use of headphones.

By full admission, one of my trail pet peeves is running up on an oblivious runner blaring something through their headphones so loud that no manner of shouting ‘on your left’ can get their attention. Upon a benign tap on the shoulder, said runners are so startled, I begin to mentally rehearse the many CPR classes I’ve taken over the years in the unfortunate case that I have to put that training to use. Personal pet peeve and bias aside, I do think runners are misinformed about music’s effect on performance. Additionally, the safety and etiquette issues presented by headphones all leave me with no course of action but to dissuade runners from their use.

Before you toss your $200 AirPods in the electronic recycling bin, here are the facts for you to consider:

Headphones will not help your performance

If you think jamming out to Justin Bieber will help you conquer that next climb, you’re probably wrong (and your taste in music sucks, but that’s a different story). While you can find studies indicating that listening to music will help your performance (Brooks 2010, Edworthy 2006, Thakare 2017), improve your cadence (Van Dyck 2015) or even reduce your Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) (Chow 2017) you can find just as many that will say there is no effect (Bonette 2010, Van Dyck 2019), and depending on the type and tempo of the music might even hurt (Van Dyck 2019).

Athletes should tune in, not tune out

The research aside, my real problem with using music as an ergogenic aid is that is detracts from one’s own sense of effort. As I’ve written about earlier, ultrarunners should embrace RPE as the preferred way to calibrate intensity. Calibrating your own RPE is a skill. It requires deliberate practice over time, which is primarily honed during harder and more intense workouts. Turning up the volume as a means to pump yourself up or somehow distract you from the pain is the exact opposite of what athletes should do during hard workouts. When the going gets tough, I would rather have my athletes look inside and be in tune with their effort, not deliberately drown it out.

To add to this, even if there is a small performance bump that could come from listening to music during a workout, I’d take the trade off of having athletes put the headphones away and be more in tune with their own sense of exertion. Managing effort on race day is far more valuable than any small benefit that could be reaped from getting yourself pumped up with music.

Derailed by distraction

Training for ultramarathons takes up a lot of time and, at times, can be boring. To stave off the boredom, and maybe as an attempt to multi-task and make the most use of their time, many athletes use their daily run to listen to their favorite podcast, audiobook, or catch up on the news. While this might seem benign, listening to headphones while you run is the distraction equivalent of texting and driving. Your focus is just not where it should be. It’s on the conversation between podcast host and guest, or on the next refrain. Is this really how we should be using the trails and outdoors? There’s a sad irony in the situation where we’re outside, but so consumed by the noise coming from earphones that we might as well not be.

More important, if you are using your headphones to make the miles go by, it can be just plain dangerous. The recent encounter in Ft. Collins where a trail runner fended off a mountain lion would likely have ended quite differently had the runner been using headphones. In areas where multi-use trails abound, cyclists, motorbikes, hikers and trail runners all share the same space, yet travel at very different speeds. Conflicts arise when the different users are not aware of each other, and headphones catalyze that lack of awareness.

Additionally, when you run, particularly on trails, you use all of your senses. This includes your hearing and vestibular system, for balance and coordination. The slightest audible change in the trail crunching beneath your shoes cues your feet, legs and upper body to respond appropriately to the terrain. Similarly, the tiny structures within your inner ear that provide balance and spatial awareness can also be impaired by loud or habitual use of earphones (Singh 2016). Sometimes I wonder how many ankle rolls and rocks catching trail runners’ feet are (at least partially) a result of vestibular disturbances caused by headphones.

The bottom line

If you are using headphones to pump you up and improve your performance, stop. They probably have no effect, might actually hurt your performance during a workout, and certainly will make you less in tune with your effort. As a coach, I have never recommended athletes use music to get pumped up for a workout, and never will. If you simply want to catch up on your favorite podcast or audiobook, do so during an EnduranceRun or RecoveryRun and do the rest of the trail users a favor by leaving one earbud out and turning the volume down.

References-

  1. Bonnette R, et al. The Effect Of Music Listening On Running Performance And Rating Of Perceived Exertion Of College Students. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2010. 24. 1. 10.1097/01.JSC.0000367073.45565.4b.
  2. Brooks, K.; Brooks, K., Enhancing sports performance through the use of music. Journal of Exercise Physiology 2010, 13 (2), 52-57.
  3. Chow E, Etnier J, Effects of music and video on perceived exertion during high-intensity exercise. Journal of Sport and Health Science, Volume 6, Issue 2, June 2017, Pages 252
  4. Edworthy, J.; Waring, H., The effects of music tempo and loudness level on treadmill exercise. Ergonomics. 2006, 49 (15), 1597-1610.
  5. Lopes-Silva J, Lima-Silva A, Bertuzzi R, Silva-Cavalcante M. Influence of music on performance and psychophysiological responses during moderate-intensity exercise preceded by fatigue. 2015. Physiology & Behavior, Volume 139, Pages 274-280.
  6. On the role of lyrics in the music–exercise performance relationship. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, Volume 15, Issue 1, 2014, Pages 132-138.
  7. Singh NK, Sasidharan CS. Effect of personal music system use on sacculocollic reflex assessed by cervical vestibular-evoked myogenic potential: A preliminary investigation. Noise Health. 2016;18(81):104–112. doi:10.4103/1463-1741.178511
  8. Thakare AE, Mehrotra R, Singh A. Effect of music tempo on exercise performance and heart rate among young adults. Int J Physiol Pathophysiol Pharmacol. 2017;9(2):35–39. Published 2017 Apr 15.
  9. Van Dyck, E., Moens, B., Buhmann, J., Demey, M., Coorevits, E., Dalla Bella, S., et al. Spontaneous entrainment of running cadence to music tempo. (2015). Sports Med. Open1:15. doi: 10.1186/s40798-015-0025-9
  10. Van Dyck, E., Musical Intensity Applied in the Sports and Exercise Domain: An Effective Strategy to Boost Performance. Frontiers in Psychology. 2019 May 15;10:1145.

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Comments 15

  1. Leaving the tunes home is like forgetting the gps. Not gonna happen. I would drive home and forget about the run without either. Our bodies love rhythm.

  2. Please, if you are going to listen to something, use a headphone. No one wants to hear your music/podcast/audiobook!

  3. Pingback: Ultramarathon Daily News | Wed, June 12 | Ultrarunnerpodcast.com

  4. The majority of my miles are run on flat paved roads through corn fields. That’s about all I have to stare at for hours. So I do listen to music a lot to break up the monotony of unchanging scenery. That said I also can’t stand how often I come up on people and just about give them a heart attack. I’m not a loud runner so often I have to fake a cough or shuffle my feet to make noise so they know I am coming. Often many of them have headphones in and don’t hear me and still jump a mile high. When I am on the trails it’s no headphones or very low volume so as to not drown out nature and fellow trail users. The one other thing I used to do is leave 1 bud out. A few months back I purchased some trex air headphones and can now hear everything around me while running and still hear my music. Without stuffing my ears and blocking everything out. That said I often skip music during races or wait till I’m feeling fatigued and sleepy to change things up and help me wake up a bit. I tend to think it pulls me out of a rut when I hit a low.

  5. 29 years of ultrarunning. Dozens of ultra finishes; a few in longer type ultras.
    Ran a race across the USA back in the day with headphones in most of the way and it helped me rev’ the engine and stoke the fires almost every day for two months. Rather than disassociating, the music (from a handheld Sony Walkman at the time) kept me sharp, focused and engaged. 25+-plus years later I listen to music in some of my ultras but not all, and in a few workouts, but not all. The fact is, one can be tuned out from one’s body for myriad reasons other than listening to music. Pretty sure listening to music while running (a race or a workout) is usually not about enhancing performance; rather, for many of us, it is about enhancing an already robust experience… some of the time. There is room in ultrarunning for many perspectives. I appreciate but disagree with your opinion.

  6. i’ve read multiple articles on the advantages/disadvantages of headphones. i personally don’t know anyone that has been swayed either way by the propaganda these articles present. i can respect that you don’t recommend the use of them by your clients. good luck in your endeavor, but i don’t foresee the masses taking heed to your advice. personally i use a speaker just loud enough for me to hear my music, podcast, audiobook, or whatever i please. i get being one with nature & i will run for hours without, but at some point i have to turn on the tech. running for 20 or 30 hours i don’t see how you would not want to use something.

  7. I was at a trail race once in AR, & there were several people running that day, mostly single track. We came upon a young man wearing earbuds & one of the faster runners had been chastising the guy, as wearing earbuds was “against race rules”. It took all of .5 seconds for the young man to physically & verbally remind the runner, “not everyone on this trail follows YOUR rules.”
    Many valuable lessons were learned that day, but the one I remember is that it’s not always “about you,” & if people want to listen to music while running, rock on & keep your pet peeves in your pocket where they belong.

    1. It is really simple, if the race says no “head phones “ then it is just that. Rules are rules. As a society we have really gone off the rails with individual “freedoms” being used to justify non compliance with the established rules.

  8. Jason. Strongly agree. When I approach a wired runner or hiker I give them the same breadth I would approaching a John Deere combine on a country road. I have also found that the interference with RPE also applies to treadmill/stationary bike workouts when using music and movies. The interest in the visual/audio seems to take priority over our ability to go deep into exertion. Even though we think of ourselves as marvelous multitaskers, our human mind is designed to do only one thing at a time and I’ve noticed that as I mature, I can not juggle as many balls as I once did. Fast trail running requires all my faculties and any assets bopping to Bieber will be sorely (ouch) missed. And Greg makes an equally accurate point where music can help finish an event as we near the point of mental exhaustion, such as the last 6 hot gravel road miles into Dayton, WY ending my Bighorn this Saturday.

  9. As someone who is partially deaf the use of ear buds or anything along those lines make me 100% unaware so I chose not too. My hearing aids are bluetooth and I could listen to music or podcasts but I’d rather hear nature as long as I can before losing all of my hearing, otherwise I might as well just stay home.

  10. I’m a “no audio on the trails” guy – but on hard surface rail-trails, park roads, the track or, heaven forbid, the treadmill I use my earbuds about 70% (treadmill 100% – I’m not very social) of the time. To each his own. I get the focus on the tasks at hand angle, but, sometimes, you just need some time on your feet and if it takes a podcast or some AC/DC and Sinatra to get it done…well, whatever works for you.

    Again, no audio on the trails for me – I have enough to think about keeping myself vertical so I don’t really need ant distractions and I’d much rather hear what’s going on in the woods around me than anything on a media player.

  11. Jason, I appreciate your up-front acknowledgment of the annoyance factor and etiquette issues presented, and I share those concerns. When running trail I just don’t use anything to distract me from 100% awareness for safety reasons, all of which you touch on. When training on road, however, I fight the urge to listen to music. I do know for a fact that I also fight against running to the music—I absolutely feel involuntary drips in heart rate, cadence and power when those slower calmer beats are playing and just as clearly feel myself pick up, deviating from the planned workout zones when I the Aerosmith comes up. As a competitive shooter, we commonly use music to prep to put us in a calm positive headspace, but the attainment of hyperfocus and flow doesn’t come from the music—just the opposite. Appreciate the article, although it’s not necessarily what I wanted to hear…wink.

  12. FWIW here’s the compromise I’ve come up with on long runs when I want the treat of distraction of a podcast or audio book for an hour or so, plus safety: I put my phone in my hydration pack’s pocket and play the podcast on the phone’s speaker, so my ears are still free to hear things around me but I also can hear the voice of the episode coming out of my pocket. I know it’s obnoxious for other trail users to play music out loud like this. But when I’m solo in the high country, I believe this “conversation in my pocket” actually enhances my safety by alerting large animals that I’m coming, because of the voices being broadcast.
    I hear what you’re saying about music affecting one’s sense of exertion; but, I’m OK with listening to a podcast or audiobook for a fraction of one’s long run (not race, just training run), as long as it doesn’t make the runner space out completely. I believe I stay alert to the trail around me with this setup.

  13. This is kind of a “yes…and…” thing. As a ultra-distance cyclist I do NOT train with music — for the very reasons you give. Frankly, it’s much more likely I’ll be run over by a speeding Jaguar than a charging mountain lion.
    AND, I carry a tiny iPod with only one ear bud on the bike…just in case. Many times, alone and exhausted on rides well over 100 miles, my friends Michael Jackson and Mick Jagger have supplied the energy I’ve needed. Again, just one ear bud, just in the right ear (left is for traffic), and just when I needed it…
    No matter what the studies show…it works.

  14. If there is data saying that it may help performance and data saying that it might hurt performance. How can you say that it will hurt performance? At best you can say it is inconclusive.

    Aren’t most ergogenic aids, even those that CTS promotes, role to alter RPE. Caffeine and nitrates certainly help you go harder then you would be able to otherwise, Amp certainly decreases RPE of hard efforts. If the right music did lower RPE, couldn’t you argue that this allows you to go harder in your workout so you get more training effect out of it?

    That music might enhance your mood to the point that you go from not being pumped or even contemplating not doing the workout, to doing the workout at all or better?

    Might music help put you in a flow state that better mimics the effort and mindset of an actual race?

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