In any race or on any running path, you often see more runners wearing headphones than not. Unplugged purists think being aware of your surroundings is an elemental part of the sport, but a growing subculture of runners wouldn't dream of taking a single step without their motivating playlists, but the clash between headphone lovers and haters continues. On the pro side is Costas Karageorghis, Ph.D., a sports psychologist, who has studied music's positive influence on athletes. His challenger is Jim Denison, Ph.D., a sports sociologist and coach, who thinks it is best to run to the sound of your footfalls. Here, the two have it out.
- What's the big deal about running with music?
PRO Music can sometimes make running feel easier. Studies find that music reduces your perception of how hard you are running by about 10 percent. An external stimulus such as music can actually block some of the internal stimuli trying to reach the brain—such as fatigue-related messages from muscles and organs. When these messages are blocked, this reduces a runner's perception of effort, so you feel like you can run farther, faster. (The exception is at higher levels of effort—the brain involuntarily switches its attention from the external to the internal.) Music also elevates positive aspects of mood such as excitement and happiness, and reduces negative aspects such as tension, fatigue, and confusion, so it can be used pre-performance to get runners into an optimal mind-set.
CON One big problem is that listening to music can remove you from the other sounds that running produces, such as breathing and footstrike, which are essential cues. They give you feedback on your effort. Running while listening to music also removes you from the environment you're in, which can be unsafe. You may not hear a car or person behind you. You may not hear thunder in the distance. And in races, it makes you oblivious of other runners and you can't hear the directions being given by officials. Would you ever drive or ride a bicycle with headphones on? Not likely, because doing so reduces awareness and increases reaction time. I want those things working for me. Finally, I believe runners can become dependent on music. Eventually, you can lose a sense of what might be truly motivating to you, such as the energized feeling you get on the run.
- Do some runners need music more than others?
PRO Yes, in fact, music is not effective for people who are "associators." Serious athletes tend to be associators, which means they focus intently on internal cues such as breathing, heart rate, and muscular tension. This type of athlete tends to not derive as much benefit from external stimuli such as music. Then there are "dissociators." Your average active person falls into this category. For these people, music can be a motivational force. Dissociators will seek it to distract them from the boredom often associated with exercise.
CON Elite runners may tend not to need external aid to overcome the so-called drudgery of running, but I don't want to give up on Joe and Jane Recreational Runner. I don't think everyone views running as a means to an end. We shouldn't assume that people view running as boring and need music to get through it. Many people enjoy running and being present in the sensation of moving. You don't have to be an elite athlete to be in tune with your body.
- People say running clears their heads. How does music affect that?
CON The ability to be at peace and be calm is something we've lost in our culture; we've lost it in favour of multitasking. I would argue that listening to music—or podcasts or audio books—while running is a form of multitasking. It keeps us too plugged in and prevents us from enjoying the running experience.
PRO In the "flow state," which is complete immersion in the task at hand, time almost seems to stand still. You're enjoying what you are doing, you feel at one with yourself. But there's good research showing that music can help enhance flow state during running. So it can actually be part of this holistic experience, not necessarily detached from it or a detriment to it.
- When running on a treadmill, music is necessary, right?
PRO Listening to music on the treadmill is probably better than using it outside. For one thing, there's no danger of traffic. Also, outside running comes with built-in distractions because of changing landscapes, and these external stimuli can provide a distraction and alleviate boredom. On the treadmill, you don't have those stimuli—or far fewer of them—so music comes in very handy. Less perceived exertion, less boredom.
CON I disagree. When you run with your iPod on a treadmill, you can't hear your footfalls or your breathing, so you're not learning to connect those cues to your effort level. You become cut off from your running. Why should things be different on a treadmill than when you're running outside? The same positive connection to one's body can occur in any context of running, and in my opinion that is always better than having music interfere with the sensations of running and movement. I watch athletes all the time running on the treadmill and outside. Regardless of where they are, it's always the case that when they listen to music, they're almost robotic. They put on the music just to get through their workouts. If you see people working with no music, you see a much different approach. There's better focus.
- What do you think of races that feature music along the course?
CON I think music during races can backfire if it throws you off your pace by causing you to surge up a hill, for example, because you happen to be passing a band. It is inefficient to run a race unevenly like this, and it will come back to haunt you. To guard against this, I would use your watch and check your splits early in the race to get a read on your pace. This will help you know exactly how your race pace should feel. The most important thing is to be aware of the possibility that music might be affecting you in ways that are not beneficial, and determine to not let that happen.
PRO Some of our most recent research has looked at music not being played throughout a task, but rather at predesignated points. This seems to be where music is most effective, so I would think music at specific spots along a race course would be beneficial.
- So how can runners use music to their best advantage?
PRO The benefits from music tend to occur at low to moderate running intensities. I would say it's best to use on your easy running days. There has also been investigations into the synchronous application of music. This is where an athlete consciously ties in his or her stride rate to the rhythm of music. This can actually result in more efficient oxygen use during running. To do synchronous running, you figure out your stride rate for your pace, then find music with beats that are slightly above that stride rate—one or two beats per minute higher than your normal stride rate should do it . It has also found that the optimal method is generally two sessions with music for one session without. If you use music for every workout, you can become desensitized to it or rely on it in races.