Last weekend I ran the Daufuskie Island Half-Marathon, off the coast of South Carolina. There were fewer than 150 runners; I felt like the only person without earbuds. You could say, Well, that’s because it was a tiny race. Of course runners need to listen to music to get through 13.1 quiet miles. (There was also a two-loop marathon and a three-loop ultra. Faint!)

But the same thing felt true in New York City’s 50,000+ New York City Marathon, despite the fact that the use of headphones is “strongly discouraged.” Everyone, it seemed, had headphones.

(Years ago, race organizers tried to outright ban the use of headphones in the NYC marathon. Runners revolted. And the ban proved just too hard to enforce.)

Don’t worry, this is not a manifesto against running with music. Nor a prescriptive FOR it, for that matter.

running with music

Daughter Nina, then 6, with her Boston Bear at the 2011 Boston marathon.

I have run a few marathons with music, notably the 2011 Boston Marathon, which I ran during the unmooring surprise-divorce year. My playlist was full of angry Alanis Morissette, Courtney Love, Nirvana, Foo Fighters, Pearl Jam. Sadly, I also ran both my daughter’s and my iPod minis through the wash. And I am just not motivated enough to create a new playlist and take my phone on the road. (Lazy runner/DJ!)

“Do you run with music?” A runner mom acquaintance asked me the other day. “I can’t get out the door if I don’t.”

Yep: 60% of runners run with music, according to Running USA’s 2017 National Runner Survey.

Music is, in fact, study-proven to get you out the door.

The famous music-running researcher Costas Karageorghis, PhD, of London’s Brunel University published a study in The Sport Journal in 2008 reporting that “music has the potential to elicit a small but significant effect on performance.”

Karageorghis notes five key ways music helps: “disassociation, arousal regulation, synchronization, acquisition of motor skills, and attainment of flow.”

That is to say, music is distracting enough to make running feel 10% less hard, especially on a treadmill.

running with music

Evidence of running with music in the 2014 Boston Marathon. Hey, that’s a hard marathon! I needed all the help I could get.

The right music can pump you up before an event or workout OR calm you down if you’re over-anxious. (Science proves what you already knew.)

Matching the beat of your preferred music to your footfall helps you attain and maintain a specific pace, according to a 2013 Dutch study published in PLOS One, which is why 160-180 BPM (beats per minute) is recommended for fast, hard efforts and 130-150-ish for easy runs.

Spotify has BPM playlists. Podrunner offers super-specific 45-minute-plus lyric-free electronic dance music from 120 to 185 BPM, as well as varied workouts. Techno doesn’t turn me on, but I’ve used Podrunner’s mixes as an effectively mindless way to lock into a pace on tempo runs. It works.

What about the safety issue?

There is no one-size-fits-most answer to that question. It’s a personal calculus based on familiarity with your surrounding environment multiplied by common sense. A common recommendation is to run with just one earbud so you can “hear” with your other ear. AfterShokz’s “bone conduction” headphones send music into your brain through your cheekbones, leaving your ears uncovered to hear your surroundings: The new, lightweight AfterShokz Trekz Air has gotten rave reviews.

I do confess that runners with earbuds in the New York City marathon annoy me. The race is SO crowded, and it’s frustrating to try to get around an oblivious earbud-plugged runner weaving in front of you. But then again, pretty much anything in the end of a marathon is annoying when you’re glycogen-depleted and just trying to get one step closer to the finish line: Why are those people cheering me on? SO annoying!

If you DO run with music—always, sometimes, during races—you are in the really good company of marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe, who has said: “I put together a playlist and listen to it during the run-in. It helps psych me up and reminds me of times in the build-up when I’ve worked really hard, or felt good. With the right music, I do a much harder workout.”

These days I put the headphones in mostly to do solo long runs. The rest of the time? I enjoy the quiet.

Running with music

So pretty! And so quiet! Daufuskie Island, SC, Half Marathon (and marathon and ultra). See you there next year? I won’t wear headphones! xoxo