The Great Running Debate: Is It Better to Run With or Without Music?

An expert running coach explains why the answer is more complicated than you might think

Some runners would sit on the couch for all of eternity before heading out the door for a run without their beloved earbuds. Others argue that running with music is an absolutely unacceptable way to participate in such a sacred sport.

These two strongly opinionated groups could probably argue their side of this great debate for marathon amounts of time (pun totally intended), but the short answer is that one way isn’t necessarily better than the other. There are pros and cons to both, and whether you choose to run with or without music is totally dependent on your preferences and goals.

To get all of the details about both sides of the argument, I got in touch with Jess Underhill, a running coach from New York City and founder Race Pace Wellness.

Underhill says that choosing whether or not to run with music is simply an individual preference and she recommends training with a mixture of both.

“It really is an individual preference. If it works for you and it's not hindering your workouts or safety then it's your choice.”

According to Underhill, some of the benefits of taking some inspirational tunes along on your run include, motivational lyrics that might help distract you from negative thoughts, a beat to help maintain a specific pace, enhanced focus thanks to less distractions, and entertainment for those times when you get a little bored.

On the other hand, there are also benefits to running without music. Underhill says hitting the road without plugging into a playlist will help enhance your awareness, which will ultimately make for a safer run and also help you to pay better attention to your breathing and the sound of your feet hitting the ground. 

“You can tune into your body and your pace in a much easier way without the distraction of music,” she said.

Some other advantages of running without music that she pointed out include the ability to set the pace without relying on the beat of a song and less gear to worry about. “Charging your iPod, making a playlist, worrying about cords tangling, or earphones falling off…It’s one less thing to do.”

Both running with and without music have their equal share of advantages, but still, Underhill says there are times when she will instruct a runner who enjoys running with music to leave it at home.

She says to ditch your earbuds and iPod when:

  • It's dark outside.
  • You’re running in or near heavy traffic.
  • You’re trail running.
  • When you are learning to pace yourself and learning to run by feel.
  • When you need to pay attention to what you are doing without any distractions.

On the other hand, she offers these examples as times when running with music might provide an advantage:

  • During a solo long run, for when the going gets tough. 
  • If you can't shut-off your brain during the run, sometimes a distraction from our thoughts can be good. 

“If you prefer to run with music and are being safe by keeping it at a low level or running with one earbud in and one earbud out, then they by all means you should run with music. As long as it's safe, runners should do what works best for them as an individual,” she said.

Conversely, Underhill says that if you never run with music and are comfortable without it, there’s no need to include it as part of your routine.

“I would never tell someone they need to run with music,” she said.

So, there are some instances when running without music is the better choice, but if you struggle to stay focused or find that you easily become bored without it, what can you do to help keep your music-free workouts fun and interesting?

Underhill offered the following suggestions.

  • Make your run a moving meditation by focusing on your breath or the sound of your feet hitting the ground.
  • Focus on the rhythm of your stride, breathing rate, arm swing, and the sound of your feet hitting the ground and try to keep those things constant throughout the run.
  • Make a mental to-do list, plan your next vacation, solve a problem or just relax and enjoy the scenery.
  • Plan a new or interesting running route and enjoy exploring on your feet and seeing things from a different angle. No distractions are necessary when you're running in an interesting environment!

However you choose to run, the bottom line is that if you enjoy running with music it’s OK to do, but it’s probably a good idea to include a few music-free workouts in your routine, too. Underhill also emphasized the importance of staying safe when you do choose to plug your earbuds in.

“You must always be aware of your surroundings,” she said. “Never run with music in the dark, in isolated places or in high traffic areas. Always keep the music low, stay aware of what's going on around you, and try not to tune out the world around you. There are many things that can go wrong if the music is at inappropriate levels and you can't hear what's going on around you.”

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