The Pros and Cons of Running with Headphones

Do you prefer to run with music?

According to a 2016 survey by Runner’s World, 61% of runners said that they do listen to something  during their runs, with 82% of them running to their music of choice. 

While more than half of runners prefer to run plugged in to their headphones, there’s still a significant number of fellow runners who choose not to. 

As someone who typically opts for music on my runs, I always wondered if running without music would somehow improve my performance, or at the very least provide a greater sense of focus and clarity. I think the only times I’ve ever ran without some sort of acoustic distraction was if it was raining, my phone’s battery had died, or I was running with another runner. 

Every time I start out on a run without something to listen to, I’m usually pissed off for the first couple kilometers and then my unsolicited anger teeters off as the kilometers slowly increase. Other than my mood, I don’t think I’ve noticed a tremendous improvement when it comes to my performance from running with vs. without music, but I thought it’d be worth looking into what the Internet makes of the question: is it better to run with or without headphones? 

In today’s blog we delve into the case for and against running with headphones. Read on to learn more.

What are the Pros of Running With Headphones?

running with headphones
Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

For many runners, running constitutes as “me time”. My “me time” when running will include listening to my favourite music, or podcast while also maintaining a subtle consciousness of my feet and how they are moving as they hit the pavement. Listening to music can affect your perception of effort. A study from The Sport Journal looked into the impact of listening to music on running performance and perception of exertion on college students, and in their findings stated that:

“…music diverts a performer’s attention from sensations of fatigue during exercise. This diversionary technique, known as dissociation, lowers perceptions of effort. Effective dissociation can promote a positive mood state, thus turning the attention away from thoughts of physiological sensations of fatigue”. 

It is that redirection of attention from the physical task at hand (running), to your fav bop that can alter your perception of difficulty – so ultimately, listening to music can distract you from the actual level of exertion and intensity of your run, making it seem easier.

Running with tunes can also help you maintain a consistent pace. When done properly, music can assist runners with pacing during their training sessions. A study by PLoS One found that runners’ performance actually improved when they matched their cadence to the beat of the songs they were listening to rather than when they ran without music. 

In fact, there are a number of playlists on Spotify that include high-tempo songs that match different beats per minute. A good starting tempo range is anywhere from 120-125 BPM for your casual runs, and 140-145 BPM for max effort workouts. If you’re looking to up your cadence, look anywhere from 150-180 BPM playlists. For example, my personal favourite 180 BPM song to listen to is “I’m Not Okay” by My Chemical Romance

There’s no question that listening to music can have a tremendous impact on your mood – even when you’re not running. So it would make sense that listening to music while on your training runs can can also affect your emotions and overall mindset while on your run. A 2012 study found that participants that were exposed to music they considered “pleasing” had higher levels of serotonin, the “feel good” hormone – which would imply that listening to your favs while on a run could put you in a better mood during your workout. 

What are the Cons of Running With Headphones

Arguably, one of the biggest issues to consider when it comes to running with headphones is safety. While music can change our perception of difficulty while on the run, it can also distract you from what’s happening in your surroundings – especially when your volume is turned all the way up. A study on Injury Prevention found that pedestrian injury due to wearing headphones tripled between 2004 and 2011 – with a majority of those cases occurring in traffic heavy urban areas. 

When your music is turned all the way up while on the run, you are are also blocking out the sounds of the environment in which you are running in. This means that your sense of hearing will no longer be able to receive information about your surroundings, therefore shortening your reaction time. The ability to hear a car come up from behind you, or honk at you from 30 ft away can end up being what helps you make it home safely. 

If you’re running in an unfamiliar area, cars aren’t the only safety concern.

A 2017 Runners World Survey known as Running While Female, shed light on the negative experiences women face while on the run. With over 2,500 women runners surveyed – more than half under the age of 30 said they had experienced some form of harassment while on the run. This is not a new issue. With it comes a familiar sense of fear and a calculated level of caution which for many involves a quick consideration of any number of factors before heading out for a run. For me it’s the sound of my mom’s voice telling me not to run at night, not to run in areas I’m not familiar with, not to run where people can’t see me, and not to run with headphones. I choose to run with them anyway. 

Another con of running with headphones, is that many road races either flat out ban or at the very least discourage the use of any sort of ear headphone device. Race directors are looking to mitigate risk by ensuring the safety of participants, a win for any organized sports event by any means. But if you’ve been training with headphones religiously, only to find out that headphones are banned on race day – it can throw you a bit. Especially when race day is all about keeping the habits you’ve formed through your training. Take it from me: running a half marathon listening to your thoughts when you’ve been listening to Beyoncé and My Chemical Romance for the past 6 months can really take a toll on your mindset.

When I first started writing this blog, I wanted to see what the Internet said were the benefits of running without headphones in terms of performance and mindset. Many who run without headphones claim they are able to achieve a greater sense of clarity and a heightened feeling of connectivity between their mind and body. Fidgeting on your phone while trying to select a new playlist, checking how much battery you have, or getting something caught in your headphone wires all become non-issues when you run without headphones. The lack of distraction can allow you to cultivate a greater awareness of your body, enabling you to focus and be more mindful of your running technique than you would be when running with headphones. 

running with headphones
PSA: I run with headphones.

Should I Run with Headphones?

If you’re someone who likes to run with headphones, might I suggest lowering the volume or running with one ear open to ensure you’re not completely unaware of what you can hear in your surroundings.

Regardless of whether you’re someone like me who enjoys the distraction of music through a routine run, or someone who has achieved a state of headphoneless nirvana – it’s clear that there isn’t a right or wrong choice. Ultimately, the choice to run with or without headphones all comes down to personal preference.