I made a decision in September of last year to give up running music. I had just completed my running coach certification class, and the teacher had been adamant. “As a coach, you should be an example for the running community. That means no running music. No earbuds. Set an example of safety.” His message, which went beyond safety reasons, stuck with me.
Running is an individual sport in so many ways. But it’s also communal. If I start a group run and immediately plug my ears, not only am I less aware of surrounding traffic, but I also miss out on any potential conversations. As I think back, many of my favorite running memories involve conversations with other runners.
Lately, I’ve been tempted to charge up my iPod shuffle and plug in for a few runs. I get this urge especially on trail runs, where traffic isn’t a part of the equation. But this morning I came across this article posted to the Runner’s World Facebook page: “How I found motivation by ditching the earbuds and embracing discomfort.”
I identify with that runner’s story. One line stuck out the most: “my aches and pains were music, and I breathed, and breathed, and breathed.”
I needed distraction when I was a beginner, and I used running music. Fast-paced rock and rap were my go-to genres. As I got faster, I found myself running better to relaxing music. My favorite running music became slower beats I could run to in double time. No, not Celine Dion (like Cameron Jones once suggested to tease me). But Metallica and Lil Wayne seemed to create artificial pace. Sure, it was easy to get fast leg turnover to those songs, but it felt fake. Like it was the music moving quickly, not me.
The 2014 Chicago Marathon was my first race sans running music. It was my first world major, and I wanted to take in the whole experience. One problem: I didn’t train without running music. So when the spectators died down in sections of the second half, I struggled mightily. Without my running music, I couldn’t get back into any rhythm.
The 2015 New York City Marathon, a little more than a year later, was my first race after I gave up running music completely. I struggled in the second half again, but it had nothing to do with a lack of music. I simply bonked. But in that struggle, I found my rhythm. I pushed through, and I didn’t long for music to help me pick up my feet.
In January, I set a marathon PR. I lowered that mark again in February, and I had an incredible running spring. I believe much of my success this year came from my lack of headphones pumping an artificial cadence through my body.
There are no power songs to bail me out. Not even a relaxing song to force my breathing to steady. If a workout or race is turning into a disaster, it’s up to me to fight my way back.
With no running music, my mind is free to solve all of life’s mysteries and problems (sadly it’s not the best at completing those tasks). I have a better idea of how my breathing should sound and feel at every pace from mile repeats to the marathon and easy runs. I know when something is wrong much quicker now, and I can tell when I’m in a special zone.
Music is a huge part of my life, and I relate to many songs on a deep, spiritual level. Monday’s “Discover Weekly” suggested playlist on Spotify is like Christmas 52 weeks a year for me. There are many songs that defined my running life for the first four and a half years. But while I miss my running music sometimes, I don’t regret my decision to give it up.
The best part of ditching the running music? It doesn’t mean I can’t play songs in my head while I run.
Jane’s Addiction’s “Coming Down the Mountain” is a favorite while doing long downhill repeats. And I still revert to my favorites from the Avett Brothers and Mumford and Sons to Placebo and Snoop Dogg (sorry mom).
Sometimes songs stick in my head, bouncing around with every step of every mile. Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around,” reverberated through my body for a solid week a few months ago.
“Hear the trumpets, hear the pipers. 100 million angels singing. Multitudes are marching to the big kettle drum. Voices calling, voices crying. Some are born, some are dying. It’s alpha and Omega’s kingdom come.”
That guitar strumming pattern and measured beat makes me want to charge uphill right now. And it’s all saved in my own skull, ready for me to pull any time I need it.
I’m thankful for the running music that helped me keep going when I felt like quitting.
But now I make my own rhythm. And it is making me stronger with each run.
To anyone else out there who feels like running music is holding you back or creating false security and motivation — unplug your runs.
You might be surprised at the result.