It is an accessory as common as a sweatband or a water bottle, a staple of the twenty-first century runner: music. On the trail, on the track, or on the treadmill, I see runner after runner swinging a music player back and forth to the rhythms of their playlists. Their headphones bounce gently against their necks and sides, hanging loosely as their shirts, as if the cords were a feature of the fabric. Voices ranging from Mozart to Taylor Swift cheer on runners everywhere as they attempt to surpass their previous personal records. In my experience I’ve found that many runners give a simple reason for running with music:
It motivates them to perform.
It’s hard to argue with that logic, especially since there are current studies which show that listening to music during a workout can, in fact, stimulate certain areas of the brain to increase muscle performance, focus, endurance, etc. Focusing on something other than the pains of the run can allow athletes to release their full potential. I understand why so many choose to go the route of the “wired run.” However, I noticed early on in my running life that listening to music did not always motivate me. Rather, it distracted me from enjoying my run.
After getting into the first few songs of a playlist, I find myself giving more attention to my screen than to how I am running, slowing down and speeding up randomly, becoming frustrated that my concentration had been broken. My breathing becomes unsteady and I feel the earbuds sliding very slowly out of my ears with every step. By the time I finish the run, I can’t remember if I’d run it very well at all, and sometimes I’ll finish the run with the earbuds dangling silently from the collar of my shirt, the weight of my iPod now useless in my hand. I don’t feel the normal sense of freedom that comes with completing a run. I feel cheated, disappointed by my own distraction.
For me, the freedom of running comes alongside the lightness of carrying nothing but myself. My run is the brief period of the day where I allow no distractions, where I grant myself a few moments of freedom, where what I want and what I need merge into a beautiful concoction known as “feeling alive.” I can easily monitor my breathing, I feel my strides more carefully, making sure I have correct form. I’m more attuned to my surroundings and, with the security of knowing exactly where I am and what I am doing, I can shift my focus to the run itself, instead of drowning out the more challenging details of the run in music. It’s a sort of zen feeling that I get from few other activities. The freedom comes from finding “the zone” without any guidance but from my own thoughts.
I will admit, I do occasionally break my otherwise “unplugged” routine. It becomes a treat for having run unplugged for a few weeks. However, I do encourage those who typically run with music to become in touch, perhaps once a week, with the music of the run itself. Feel the emptiness in your hands. Listen fearlessly to the thoughts which attempt to slow you down and convince them that you are stronger. Embrace the silence of a hillside trail, or the bustle of your city block. Feel the soles of your shoes slap the pavement or caress the dirt. Rely upon yourself, if only once a week, to coach yourself through your own run. Relieve Taylor Swift of her coaching duties and let Mozart return to his compositions. To those who typically thrive on a playlist, I challenge you:
Treat yourself to all the music you’ve been missing and be your own playlist.
Sound off in the comments (get it?): Do you run with or without music? Why?
About the author:
Ross Dohrmann is a writer and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2014, he graduated with a BA in philosophy from the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., where he began to merge his loves of trail running, writing and music. When he’s not doing any of the three, he is most likely reading or playing with his dogs. Dohrmann is 23 and lives in Moraga, Calif.