by Tracey Ellis in Training Tips, image by Mike Baird

The Debate on Running with Music

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You either love it or hate it.  But do the benefits outweigh the disadvantages?
Many runners wouldn’t dream of stepping out the door without their mp3 player and powersong playlist to run with. For them it’s an essential piece of running gear – as important as good trainers or a Climacool running top.

Some runners however, prefer to ‘run naked‘; in other words, gadget-free, with the only the sounds of nature as their music.
Is there a right or a wrong way?  Can running with music really increase your performance, or is it just a personal (and potentially hazardous) preference?

The Facts

According to Dr. Costas Karageorghis, sports psychologist from Brunel University, running with music can improve athletic performance up to 15%.  He explains that music not only enhances performance, but also ‘lowers the perception of effort’, thereby making us work longer and possibly harder than we would without it.  Sounds a bit deceptive, but is it true?

Physician.com supports Karageorghis’ theory, at least when it comes to respiration and endurance.  Basically, if an individual is listening to faster/harder music, the heart rate rises, along with the respiration. If the individual is listening to lighter music, the heart rate will decrease, along with the respiration. So when it comes to running, music can be a good guide to what pace you should, or shouldn’t be running.

Music and Motivation

So, does music really motivate you? For me it certainly alleviates the boredom that can set in and transports me to another place where the effort does seems less somehow.  I sing along to the tunes in my head, and seem to find my running rhythm easier with music than without it.

But that’s just one girl’s perception, so I decided to investigate further and wider and found a research project testing how music affected the motivation of 1100 people from Runners World (in conjunction with Audio Fuel).

The results? Music proved beneficial once again, with participants improving their performance and ‘emotional control’ when exercising with it.

Ok, enough with the science, what do people say and think?

With all the services that specialise in music just for running, there seems to be a large number of people who like to ‘rock and run’.  Audio Fuel is just one example, specialising in music playlists that keep you moving longer and faster.  Jiwok is another, but takes it one step further and adds the voice of a coach to the musical medley.  Is that really necessary, or taking the audio enhancement too far?

Speaking to many Jiwokers, it seems it’s not only necessary for them, but a magical motivating tool. They say having that vocal encouragement along with music pushes them to new heights of exercise, keeping them running when they may have otherwise given up.

The Debate Continues

Running ‘naked’ may seem to be the new ‘runner’s high’ for some, but what about those who don’t have the luxury of mountainous scenery to revel in on their run, or the roar of sirens around them instead of birdsong?

I love nothing better than a run in the country myself, but living in a busy city I have no choice but to run among the endless noise pollution which can be annoying as well as suffocating.  So I plug in my iPod and go into my bubble, focusing on my stride and losing myself in the music.

But running with headphones can be dangerous, especially in the city.  You simply cannot tune out to the world with so many cars, cyclists and pedestrians around you.  However, there are sensible and safe options to let you move your feet to the beat of your favorite tunes without losing your legs:

  1. Buy sound safe earphones such as marathon-friendly iHeadbones, Yurbuds, or Safe Sound Personal Speakers.  They provide great quality sound but allow you to hear the outside world as well – a good compromise.
  2. Turn your music down or just use one earbud.  Don’t go so far into your bubble that you are oblivious to the world around you.  That is just plain silly and selfish.
  3. Be extra aware of everything; traffic, cyclists, pedestrians, other runners, obstacles in your path.  If it means you have to stop or slow down, so be it, it won’t affect your run, or choose running routes where there are less distractions.

Running Races

In 2006 the USA Track and Field banned headphones from most road races, for safety reasons.  Some people who run with headphones are less aware of their surroundings, but if they are worn on a sensible head, it does seem harsh to take away a runner’s motivational tool.

Of course there has been a backlash from those who rely on music to get through such a gruelling race.  Their argument; there is no traffic so why can’t we?  As long as runner’s etiquette is followed, what is the problem?

Consequently the USATF amended their rule in 2008, letting race organisers decide for themselves.  Purist runners may shake their head in disbelief, the thought of missing out on the race atmosphere and excitement is unthinkable.  Yet other runners swear that songs can ‘save’ them and get them through to the finish line.

What say you?

There are many long term benefits of running with music: they can improve a person’s enjoyment and commitment to a fitness goal, keeping them running or exercising longer, and just make running more fun.  Yes, there are some dangers wearing headphones, but there are also solutions as well as more awareness of the issue.

It truly comes down to personality, preference, and environment.  Do you like the solitary aspect of running, to free your mind and thoughts?  Or do you find running quite difficult and need every ounce of help to keep you going?  Do you have a riverside running path which is traffic-free, or do you have to weave through obstacles on the city streets?

In any case, it is an individual choice based on personal preferences.  Whatever studies prove may sway your decision, but most runners have already decided which camp they are in.  It’s just a case of being wise about it, if you’re not in the ‘naked’ camp that is.

How about you?  Which camp are you in?  I look forward to your feedback on this endless debate.




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