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Should You Run with Music? [Science and Experts Have Their Say]

I honestly don't know how people endured running or any kind of exercise before you could have your music playing where ever you went.

Imagine the old days of running, mile after lonely mile in complete silence...

...maybe that's why so few people ran before Walkmans and the iPods and smart phones that are their logical successors were invented.

Happily, my running history is filled with music and I see nothing wrong with combining two things that I love: music and running. I don't know if I could have kept up my running without music.

Probably since the first runner took the first step to music, there has been heated discussions in the running world about the pros and cons of running with music, so I thought I would look into the discussion to see what the experts and amateurs are saying.

I'm not convinced that any argument will prompt me to unplug before I go out for a run, but I may be surprised; heck, if it will help my time, I might even try it!

When considering this topic, I examined my own thoughts and feelings to better understand what would convince me to unplug. Based on my conclusions, I began my investigation.

I thought the opinions of running experts, scientific studies and knowing how the best of the running crop feel about the topic might influence me if the information behind those opinions were convincing enough. Here's the data I have collected; I hope you find it useful.

Opinions of the Grand Old Man of Running: Runners World

running with music on treadmill

Who better to consult on this issue than that blue blood of running, Runners World? In not one, but several investigations into this hot topic, the grandfather of running has invited experts to debate the running with music issue. In one instance, Dr. Costas Karageorghis, Ph.D., a sports psychologist who has studied music's positive influence on athletes and Dr. Jim Denison, Ph.D., a sports sociologist and coach presented their respective endorsement and rejection of the practice.

Experts For and Against

Dr. Costas Karageorghis presents his experience and evidence that music helps athletes focus their energy on the task, continue working until complete, and prevail over what can be the boredom of long distance runs.

Dr. Jim Denison, drawing on equally impressive experience, testing and understanding of the issue, replies that music prevents athletes from turning their focus inside, where it properly belongs, enabling the athlete to understand the details of breath, muscle exertion and pace to make the best possible progress; he enforces this standpoint by the oft observed view that requiring constant entertainment causes us to lose our ability to be silent and at peace, which is a loss greater than any distraction from running.

Additional Arguments in Runners World

Addressing this topic multiple times, the Grand Dame of running, has enabled additional experts to present their views. In a subsequent presentation of the argument, Runners World writers Scott Martin and Caitlin Giddings took the pulpit to debate.

Mr. Martin focuses his arguments against by emphasizing that having your ears covered when running on the road is foolishly dangerous, prohibits connectivity with your body and encourages disassociation from running.

Ms. Giddings makes a strong argument against the tired safety issue by stating that listening with a single earpiece in place entirely obviates any danger, that you don't need that constant self-observation of every breath and drop of sweat for each mile, and that few people would ever move without music to encourage them.

Neither the debate of the PhDs in the first article or the discussion of expert runners and fitness mavens appears definitive to me, so I had to keep researching.

What Does Science Say? 15% Endurance Jump

Modern Americans tend to be influenced by science-based arguments - how many of us are now eating the despised kale just because of recent scientific support for its attributes?

Many people, influenced by recent scientific studies, refuse to serve their children milk, when scant years ago it was the stable of childhood beverages. So perhaps we can hope that in science we will have answers for whether or not we should run with music.

The Brunel University's School of Sport and Education as part of a program comprised of over 20 years studying how and if music motivates exercise, conducted a study from which they concluded that running to the correct music can improve your endurance by 15%.

Thirty participants were included in the study. They exercised on treadmills with motivational rock or pop music with instructions to keep up with the beat as much as possible.

The results were that the subjects' endurance was improved by 15% and that the positive feeling associated with exercise, sometimes described as a "runners high", was prolonged even with more exhausting activity. This seems to point to music as a must for runners.

Improvement in Time

In 2003, fitness gurus Atkinson, Wilson, and Eubank published a paper with the results of how sixteen physically active subjects responded when listening to fast-paced music over a simulated 10km cycling time trial on a stationary bicycles.

The published results are of limited help to concluding our argument. Overall, the athletes outperformed their unplugged control group, but oddly, the improvement was measurable only in the early and late parts of the pretend race.

Music and Motivation vs. Performance

Kenny and Kristal Brooks at Louisiana Tech University in a 2010 found that music improved performance because it was motivational, but there has been little or no study on the many other types of motivation involved in athletic performance such as weather conditions, necessity of doing well to reach some benchmark or even waking up in a superior mood. For runners to be convinced by science that plugging or unplugging is best, we need vastly more detailed studies.

What does USA Track & Field Rule 144.3 Add to the Discussion?

The USA Track & Field Federation is the ruling body for running races in the United States. In 2007, they banned the use of headsets and earphones of all kinds during races in now infamous rule 144.3.

Many people, runners and non-runners alike, think this amendment to rule 144 was based on safety; too many runners were causing or contributing to accidents during races because they were wearing headsets and consequently could not hear each other or race instructions.

This is immediately refuted by the placement of the rule. Rule 144 addresses issues related to the wide variety of assistance available to runners who have limitations of sight, hearing, movement etc. Rule 144 is not safety-based but equality-based.

The intent is to ensure no runner has mechanical advantages over any other. In the case of headsets, it is not a rule to stop the music, but rather to stop electronic coaching... that it also prohibits music is at least secondary.

In many races that include reiterations of this rule, directors, managers and competitors also state that listening to music while running increases insurance liability. The basis of this is statements from Jill Geer, spokeswoman for USA Track & Field, that the ban was "basically an insurance issue."

She stated that insurance rates increase substantially if headphones are allowed because each sanctioned race receives liability insurance from USA Track & Field. If the ban were not enforced, the races would incur the liability in the event of an accident caused by someone using headphones, Geer said.

So, even the august governing body of US racing is not taking a stand on plugged or unplugged running but rather just protecting the bottom line as dictated by their insurance parameters. Sadly, this does not add anything to the essence of our issue.

New School Training: Running Apps

While the plugged vs. unplugged debate rages, our app-crazy world is already deeply invested in combining music with training. There are numerous apps that combine music and running to coach from beginners to experts in the fine art of running.

Get Running, an iTunes app, is a very popular plan that includes your music with coaching to take beginners from non-activity to running a 5K. Upbeat Workouts for Runners appropriate for more advanced training, calculates your stride-per-minute rate and finds a song on your iPhone with the corresponding beats-per-minute... it the takes the guesswork out of constructing a running playlist.

Cruise Control adjusts your music in real-time to control your running and keep you on track to hit your target pace, heart rate, or cadence. While increasing or decreasing the speed of your music, the app makes automatic adjustments that prevent your tunes from sounding like squeaking mice or Darth Vader.

Whether listening to music while running is better than silence is still under discussion, but the app world has effectively and creatively embraced "team plugged" and uses your own favorite music with loads of mysterious algorithms to design unique training programs.

Expert Testimony

Why not listen to the experts? If the scientific data is inclusive and the governing body of running doesn't have a real opinion, perhaps we can just do what the premier runners do.

Sadly, this is not helpful either because there is no consensus. Many athletes practice with music playing and just as many insist it's essential as insist it's a poor idea, so the experts can't help us either. The super-elite tend to say that they run without music more often than with, but that's based on an overview of comments in various articles and YouTube videos, though I have not found a survey of a substantial sampling of high level runners or indeed runners on any level to at least provide an understanding of conventions.

Is there a Right Answer?

Having conducted a fairly extensive review of the available data, I still don't know if there is a right answer.

The biggest argument against running while listening to music, that I have read over and over and over, is that being unable to hear while you're running is dangerous. This is so easily obviated by either keeping one ear unplugged, using headphones that do not completely close off your hearing (such are available) or simply making the music quieter that I have to dismiss it as a non-issue.

The second most common argument against running while listening to music is that it's a distraction from concentrating on the mechanics of your running and thereby, it inhibits progress. Again, this is only persuasive if you always listen to music when you run. If you take breaks from the music or use music while running judiciously, this point is also moot.

It just seems that the arguments in favor of running while listening to music are much stronger than the arguments against. Also, there seems to be increasing evidence that the right music at the right pace does help you run better.

Amateur Runners

Few of us make money running and perhaps even fewer place in very competitive races so maybe losing a few seconds in a long run is not as important as the joy and interest that running while listening to music imparts.

I don't know any runners at any level who do not want to improve, but I have to believe that plugged or unplugged, if you run with dedication and take normal steps to improve, you will.

As for the pros and elite, their workouts and lifestyles must be so dramatically different from mine, that following their lead is as inappropriate in training as it may be in running while listening to music.

Your Thoughts and Feedback

Let me know what you think. I am convinced that as long as I take precautions to ensure that I can still hear even with my headset on, I can run in safety. However, after reading about the Zen-like experience many unplugged runners enjoy, I am open to experimenting with that also.

If you found this post interesting, please share it with your running and otherwise athletic friends and let me hear your thoughts. It's a topic that's not going away and with all the apps streaming into the marketplace many of which enable recording your running data, we may soon see interesting, new data available.

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