My Racing Without Headphones Experiment

I am not afraid to admit that I always wear headphones when running. When I wear them during races, I am respectful about it and aware of my surroundings. The volume is on low and I can hear people talking, important announcements, and I know where people are around me.

There are a number of reasons I wear headphones when running and racing. Sometimes I find myself stuck in my own head too much and need the noise, especially in races where the distance is long and the spectators are sparse. I can’t handle the sound of my own breathing. I have asthma and hearing myself breathe drives me crazy. I’m one of those people that always has music on everywhere I am. I work from home and often have music on in the background while I work. For me, music helps me focus on the task at hand. I train by myself in a small town, so music keeps me company.

In a recent #SaltyChat on Twitter, we discussed running with headphones, and many people encouraged me to try a race without them. The timing was a little too perfect, as I had an upcoming race where it was against the race rules to wear them.

Here is what I discovered.

I didn’t like racing without music.

I was running in the elite field for the Ottawa 10k, which is also the Canadian 10k Road Championships. There were Olympians in the elite field. There were national title holders there too. I battled with imposter syndrome and really felt out of place. I think this made racing without music even more difficult, as I was stuck in my head way too much. I went out too fast and when I started to fade in the heat, my mind took over. I ran past a spot on the course and could feel my pace pick up a bit, but then I found myself fading again.

Some people say that music is a distraction. Some say that running without music allows them to focus on the race and take in the energy of the crowds. I feel like I take in the energy of the crowds even when I have music on. For me, I can still focus on my race plan with music on. Maybe it’s the same feeling of focus that I get when I have music on when I work.

Would I have had the same thoughts and battled the same mental game if I didn’t feel the pressure of racing in the elite field? Perhaps. In order to really know, I would need to try racing without music more often and training without it too. I’m not opposed to going headphone-free for future races and training sessions. I think I’ll test it out more for shorter race distances to get comfortable and go from there.

Maybe I’m making excuses. Perhaps I’m using music as a crutch. But the day after I ran the 10k I went back for more punishment and ran the Ottawa Half Marathon, where I packed up my iPod and placed my earbuds in my ears when I got into my corral. I still high-fived people and talked to friends on the course. I wasn’t listening to my breathing and I was able to get out of my head. Sure, it begs the question, was it the music or the reduced pressure I was placing on myself because I had no expectations other than getting out there to run? It very well could be.

My headphone-free running experiment will be an ongoing struggle, but I’m willing to give it another a try.

Did you break the headphone habit? Do you regularly race with them?

A mother runner chasing big dreams.

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17 comments

  1. I used to run with music all the time. I slowly weaned myself off it by doing short easy runs without it and longer runs where I only used one earbud. Gradually I increased the distance that I would run without headphones. Now I usually don’t run with music. For me to go completely music-free was about a 2-year process, but I was doing this very slowly and it coincided with training for my first marathon. I know there was no way I could survive the really long runs without music, so I continued to use headphones. Now I’ve completed a marathon without music. Transforming yourself from a music-dependent runner to an independent one can be done!

  2. I’m with Cardamom in the sense that I have gradually weaned myself off of running with music and that it coincided with training for my first full marathon. I don’t train with music at all anymore, but I do still race with it at times. For half marathon and marathon races, I usually have it with me and just pop my ear buds in if I feel like I’m getting too in my head and need a distraction. I don’t use it for 10Ks and I don’t run 5ks.. because they hurt too much 🙂

  3. I used to train and race with music 100% of the time, and I realized how reliant I was on it. A few years ago I reached a point where I was getting a bit more competitive and running more races where I had potential to place/prize where there were headphone rules. While training for a marathon I started going without music on my short runs but had a hard time kicking the habit. But, when race day came I didn’t bring the headphones. I knew I was in contention for top 5 and wasn’t sure how strict they were going to be about certain rules. either way I didn’t want to risk it- so I ripped off the bandaid—in a marathon. It was tough at first but as the miles went on I chatted with others, and did the things I normally do with headphones- I thought about random things and I set small goals. There was torrential downpour for a few miles, and then the sun came out and it heated up. I had a hard last few miles but I cannot say that music would have made that much of a difference. I went cold turkey though, and haven’t raced with music since. As for training, I still run maybe 50% of my runs with music. All treadmill miles are with music, and some of my easy runs are as well (as long as it’s daytime).

  4. I never ran with music until I got a treadmill- used it as a way to kill the boredom and get pumped up for speed workouts. A new running friend brought me a pair of wireless headphones that synced with his so he played DJ on a couple outside runs– it was fun, but my hearing is sort of crappy and I didn’t like not being able to have a conversation because I couldn’t hear over the music. As far as racing– when I did CIM last year, I was seriously let down by all the people with ear buds in! I tried to talk to a few people (funny quips/observations/responding to people watching) and every damn time the person I said something to didn’t hear me. That said, run your own race or run- use music if that’s what you enjoy, but I do think that being able to motivate/focus/push without music or anything is important, too.

        1. Yes, treadmill is an automatic exemption – mine is in my basement facing the furnace, and I spend a lot of time training on it thanks to Canadian winters 🙁

  5. Interesting discussion! I NEVER train with music, but I listen to podcasts on all my solo runs (even workouts!) – though never when running with others. For racing, I don’t wear headphones for a full or half marathon – I like to soak up the crowds and interact with other racers (which is harder to do as more people wear head phones!). But, for a 5 or 10 k where I’m really going to have to ride the pain train? Bring on the music! I pull out an old ipod once or twice a year for those.

    1. I’ll still interact with others even with my music in. I find that when there are races where the crowd support varies, it’s tough to “be alone with my thoughts” when the course gets quiet. I also coordinate my playlists to the race and the course (if it’s a race I’ve done before) haha! Training alone and on the treadmill also plays a role. I’ll continue to try and wean myself off the music though!

  6. I almost always use music if I am running alone, whether racing or training. I am interested in running fast, but I also want to enjoy it and I just have more fun with music. I tried talking to people during my first marathon. I had heard all these stories of meeting people during the race, etc etc. It turns out I *hated* that! I don’t want to talk to strangers while I am trying to race! I will even sometimes pop in the earbuds but not turn on the music just so people don’t try to talk to me. When I am with a friend, it’s a different story. I love to train with my girlfriends and I can happily race in silence next to a trusted training partner.

  7. I started running long enough ago that “running with your iPod” wasn’t a thing yet because they weren’t so damn ubiquitous — I think I might’ve had a first generation Shuffle at some point. I also quickly found that the freaking cord flopping around makes me completely insane. (God bless the inventor of wireless headphones.) So it has just never been a “thing” for me. When I started running, it was by myself and without music. About 8 months later I started running with a group a couple of days a week, and that was great. I’ve never raced with headphones — I haven’t even ever considered it. Literally it is just not something I ever thought to do early on.

    That said, running WITHOUT headphones on the treadmill is one of the least fun things I’ve ever done and I’m sorry for all the random people at my gym I tried to talk to for entertainment. And, every now and then I’ll throw them on for an easy run and listen to a podcast. It does help break up the monotony of heavy training.

    I’m glad you at least tried it!

  8. Here in UK it is common not to be allowed to wear headphones in races as the roads are usually not closed. I have found that I take it all more seriously and focus more on performance without, so I never race in headphones even if it is allowed. Training is another matter. Podcasts or music?