Monday, April 2, 2012

Distracting Ourselves to Death: Running and Music

“One way of looking at the history of the human group is that it has been a continuing struggle against the veneration of "crap.” ― Neil Postman
Reading through my little "Welcome" pamphlet for the Boston Marathon I was surprised and disappointing to read that iPods and such are permitted during the race.
"Although the B.A.A. discourages the use of iPods and headphones. they are allowed except for those who declare themselves eligible for prize money"
When it comes to opinions concerning running and music, runners tend to fall, devoutly, on one side or the other of the pro/con fence. I'm pretty old school on this, though I try to fight my Luddite tendencies - so I'm in the process of trying to figuring out why I think running with music isn't such a good idea, either for the runner or for the running community.

Yesterday I ran the Boulder Spring Half Marathon. The conditions were fairly harsh - unseasonable hot, dry, and windy. Nonetheless, the race had a large turnout. As I stood a few rows back from the starting line I surveyed the crowd. Many many runners were wired for sound. Interestingly, none of the runners at the very front were. They stood, shaking out their legs, jumping around in place, and talking with those nearest them.

As we took off down the dusty rutted road, it seemed that at least 50%-75% of the runners were rockin' to their own personal beat. Many had the volume cranked so loud that I could easily hear their music. At one point I went past a pair of women running together. One held a phone with music playing at full volume so that both could enjoy the tunes - No ear-buds/headphones in sight. Okay. That's not okay! Why am I so cranky about this? Well, because I don't want to listen to your music. Period.

So here are some of my personal, biased, completely unscientific and unsupported thoughts concerning this fairly new development in running and racing.

1) I think this newish trend is bad for the running community. It seems that during races we are no longer running together. Rather, we are off in our own little worlds in the sense that it doesn't really matter if anyone else is there or not. I don't think that's good for the running community. Can you really have a "community" of isolated individuals. I've been running for long enough to notice that this has changed the feel of races. I can't put my finger on it, exactly, but I'm working on it.

What do you think?

2) It can be dangerous - and that's up to you if it's only dangerous for you. I subscribe to the view (convincingly argued by John Start Mill in "On Liberty") that we should be allowed to do stupid things if the only person at risk is one's self, but when your decisions effect me (or more generally, anyone else), that changes the situation. I have had numerous experience where plugged-in runners cut me off. Once, during a race, I was pushed off a bike path and nearly plunged into the Platte River in Denver (an icy, January Platte River) by a runner who passed me and then moved over too soon. He couldn't hear me. I enjoyed great satisfaction in passing him and leaving him in the dust at mile 9. Can you really blame me?

What do you think?.

3) Music while running distracts you from many of the thoughts that might present themselves in the absence of music. I'm not saying that music negates thinking, it doesn't - I'm saying that music, to some degree creates a mood that directs thinking in particular directions. We are constantly multitasking, sometimes out of necessity, but also perhaps in an attempt to avoid thinking too much. Many of us are unable to spend long periods of time with ourselves, alone and quiet. We look for distractions and they are everywhere.

What do you think?
“Technology always has unforeseen consequences, and it is not always clear, at the beginning, who or what will win, and who or what will lose...” ― Neil Postman 
So the question is: Why are so many runners so attached to their iPods? They often respond to challenge as though they will fight to the death for their right to wear their iPods. On many running forums I've heard runners claim that they will not run races that prohibit iPods and some go so far as to claim that they simply "can't" run without one. They would quit running if they were denied their beloved iPod.

That kind of fanatical, somewhat desperate, attachment (addiction?) seems to indicate a problem, if you ask me.

All this said, today I bought an iPod Shuffle. Am I drinking the Kool aid? Am I taking the "blue pill"? Am I just being a hypocrite? - I say 'No'!

Technology is neither good nor bad - it's how we use it that matters, to us as individuals and as a community. I bought it primarily for hanging out in the Athlete's Village for 2+ hours before the start of the Boston Marathon. No, I won't be tuning out the whole time, because I want to meet people and talk to people. But when I start warming up, alone, I may enjoy this technology as away to tune out the masses and the energy around me, just a bit. There is something to getting jazzed up to music you enjoy prior to a race, and I'm always blasting my car stereo when I drive to races (assuming I'm alone;).

Will I ever run with it? I don't think so because I enjoy running alone and quiet, even when the world around me isn't. I will NEVER race with one. I believe that one aspect of racing is the community coming together, and that can't happen when everyone's in their own worlds. Be honest - when you're plugged in there is a degree to which you are removed from those around you.

Has this distraction gone too far? What do you think?

“When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.” ― Neil Postman 


  1. I've gone back and forth on this several times. I started running w/o mp3 player, but at the time I was doing most of my training on an indoor track, and it was crushingly boring w/o music. For two years I ran almost every race and training run w/my Shuffle, doing most of my training with loops around a local park. My iPod made running more fun and relaxing, it helped me turn my brain off and not think about work.

    Then, I started training for a half marathon on a route w/winding roads, hills, narrow shoulders, and no sidewalks. As this became my usual long run route, I left the shuffle behind for every run on that route and most of them, in general.

    Over two years, I ran two half marathons, a ten miler, countless 5Ks and training runs of varying lengths with no music. But when I was hitting the wall at my first marathon, I thought, "I sure wish I could turn on the music now."

    I started using it again this past summer when my long runs were run mostly on the local rail trail, a very safe and, after the first time or two on this stretch, boring, straight route. It also was helpful during hot, humid weather long runs to help me concentrate on something other than "It's so gross..."

    I did use it in my second marathon. So much went wrong for me that I can't really say that it helped, but I've continued to use it for most training runs and races.

    I've sort of settled on not using at a 5K, 8K, or 5-miler, which are the distances where I feel that I pass more people than I'm passed by and end up running "aggressively" (closely watching the field and looking for opportunities to pass), but probably will continue to use it at 10K, half or especially marathon distances, in which my concentration needs to be on pacing myself, not passing others.

    Have a great time and a great race in Boston!

  2. I too go back and forth. I had a Shuffle that I use often for running, but it depends on the time and place.

    I never run with music if I am running with friends. I don't understand that at all! I take that time to enjoy the conversation or even the respected silence between us! And I never run with music if I am running in the wee hours of the morning when it is pitch black out.

    If running long distances alone, I will take music with me. And often, when racing alone, I will listen to music; but this is if it's a half marathon or longer.

  3. I was sooo impressed that you mentioned Mill's On Liberty, and then I remembered what you teach!

    I'm really torn on the ipod issue. Having been run into physically by an older sweaty guy using an ipod during a turkey trot (he was distracted by his music.) I used to really hate them.

    Then when I started doing really long runs on my own (15-20 miles is really long to me!) i found about an hour in, plugging into my shuffle sort of broke it up. I listen to Beethoven symphony or Grateful Dead's Terrapin station...not loud and not your normal "Black Eyed Peas- which I also like! After about another hour of music, I want to turn it off.

    I carried my ipod for my last half. Used it for about 5 miles at the turn around...but really low, because I didnt want ot be the sweaty lady running into anyone!

    one thing I totally agree with you on: the folks who carry these portable radios- no headphones. Totally annoying and very invasive.

    I recently ran a 10K that was tough for me. I did it without music, and chatted with tons of folks all the way through...So yes it was tough music might have helped, did the camraderie of others who were also having a bit of a tough time with the race!

    I am excited about your Boston Experience!!!

  4. I have three sons: I run for peace and quiet. I never run with my i pod outside. I enjoy the scenerey, the birds chirping and scary enough, my own thoughts. I love the action of running and feeling my own body. If I get a song in my head and it carries me through a race or run, then good.I can write off anyone at a race with music as not in contention for a medal. I am also there at a race for the comraderie of talking to a fellow runner. I love running so why do I need music.

    Oh right I need my i pod when I am stuck running on my Y's indoor track and the areobics class has their techno rave music on and I need it to drown out their "music."

    One last thing: a few years back a woman was running in a safe park in Philedelphia with her music. She did not hear a tree branch crack or people yell. It fell on her. I remembered this when I heard a crashing from a tree. I ran away out of the way just narrowly missing a squirrel that could have fallen on me.

    This society is too oriented to "multi - tasking" and just running is too boring.

  5. I tried using my iPod when I started running last year... it worked a bit, but I primarily used it when running around a track. Even then though, I didn't like being able to hear what's going on around me.

    I later discovered trail running, and never put the ear buds in again. There is just too much to experience to drown it out with music. Not to say I don't often have a tune running in my head.. earworms can be a curse :-). But I am certain I won't ever run with music.. just seems too distracting.. I do some of my best thinking when running on the trail and taking in all it has to offer.

  6. I go back and forth on music. I like it for short races where the beat helps me push my pace, and for the end of longer races where it gives me a late boost (and therefore helps me either keep or push the pace, depending on how I'm feeling). When I ran the Houston Marathon in January, I turned it on at Mile 18 and was glad to have it. Before that, I just soaked up the vibe, chatted with other runners--and I agree with you that it made me more aware of my surroundings in the inevitable crowd at the beginning of a big race.

    Right now, since I can't run and am allowed by my PTs to do my only cardio on a recumbent bike at the gym, the music is absolutely crucial (hate to say it--maybe I'm just a gigantic wimp!). It helps me push those pedals faster. It helps me visualize the day I can run (hopefully faster than pre-injury). It takes me out of the deadly dull view of the other cardio machines and the gym floor and lets me pretend I'm Desiree Davila. I guess it performs the same function it did when I was a teen dancing alone in front of my mirror to Duran Duran, pretending to be anywhere other than where I was. You don't always want (or need) to be in the moment.

    Good post.

    1. Any distraction on gym equipment seems fair enough. I'd rather run 4 hours outside rather than bike one inside!

  7. I began running alone, sans music. I tired quickly when I listened to my body get out of breath or seem to struggle as I started in the sport. Eventually, I gave in and loaded music on my iPod Touch and took it with me. I no longer felt as tired as quickly, and didn't focus on every little bit of my form or stride, rather I let my mind do other things and found running a bit easier.
    Then I joined a team and started running with groups, and lost the music. I don't do my regular runs with tunes any longer, but I do race with it. With the group, I talk to the others and we run together. In a race, I am not running 'with' anyone, I tend to be on my own unless I find pace with another racer. Then I hear myself, I focus on minute details that don't help me in the race.
    Another thing I like about having tunes on board is that I've renewed my love of music. The only other time I hear music is in the car, usually with the kids, and with that I get a kid channel or a kid CD. I don't hear adult music, or "my" music, unless it's on my terms, and for me, that's when I'm running.
    Running helped get me back to enjoying music, and expanding my listening genres.
    I also listen to podcasts. I love the RLAM podcasts, among others. I am not the type of person who can sit through a book on tape or a podcast while at home. I don't sit for long enough, and there's too much going on at my house to allow me to hear it anyway.
    I only use one earbud when I'm out running alone, and try to keep the volume reasonable in a race so I can hear others, and the sounds around me well enough to stay safe and respectful. I think I would go nuts if I didn't have something to listen to in a race, though.

  8. Re: #1: I'm just beginning year 3 of running, so my knowledge of "the way we were" (sing it, Barbara!) is really limited. I used to run to music, but haven't in almost a year now. In a limited way due to your #2 comment, but mostly because of #3. Life is too noisy, too busy, we can't even hear ourselves think let alone hear what might be whispering to us from our hearts.

    But yes, on the way to races (if alone) I also blast all kinds of music to get me in the mood. So, enjoy your pre-race tunes! Have any favorites lined up? Do share!

    1. Working on the playlist! I'm a real novice a this stuff ;)

  9. I rarely run with music -- usually just indoors for obvious reasons -- it's deathly boring being on a treadmill or being on an indoor track.

    As for racing I'm guilty of using music on two occasions: 1) The last six miles of the marathon when I'm in pain and looking for distraction from it; and 2) When I've run fast 5Ks -- again pushing pain threshold and wanting distraction. Also, to give perspective, I used music to listen to when I was in labor when my two kids and it allowed me to give birth naturally (no drugs or epidurals).

    OK, that said, I think you are on to something about how our society distracts itself and entertains itself to death.

    I think running with music can be dangerous, especially if you get distracted and aren't paying attention to your surroundings.

  10. Thank you Caolan and all the other someone who only recently ran today with an iPod (one I bought in 2011 and never used until now!) I am thankful for all the places it seems appropriate: drown out the other 'noise' when on the 'dreadmill', when working out in the gym otherwise, when training in a 'safe route' perhaps. I love what you wrote at 1) that running is a community activity and not just a solo pursuit when in a race. In the half marathon I did earlier in the year I heard that one runner suffered one of those dramatic injuries and fell and others almost ran over her because they were distracted by their tunes. I have seen runners running with their eyes closed sometimes to tune in more. YIKES. I am further concerned about the safety issues and try to stay as far away as possible from runners who insist on using iPods or similar devices while running. At least I can hear them.
    Today I ran with one earpiece just to try the combination. I hear better in one ear than the other so if I am to use this again in a race I will be torn which ear to wear the earpiece in if at all. As an earlier commenter I love hearing the sounds of nature as I run and am frequently glad to hear a car honk or as it approaches me as commuters start out super early to get to work in the Washington DC area. Thanks for your thoughts!


Any comments that could easily fall under the definition of "Cyber-Bullying" are promptly deleted.

Cyber-Bullying is a crime punishable under Federal Law and in some cases Individual State Laws. By posting a comment to this blog, you acknowledge that you understand and accept these laws and are aware that you will be prosecuted for offenses under the full extent of these laws. By posting a comment to this blog you also agree to waive your anonymity, and any rights associated with that anonymity, by having your computers I.P. Address tracked.

Everyone Seems to be Looking for "Motivation"...

  "Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going" ~ Jim Ryun It's January. For many of us that means cold...