Why You Should Run Without Music
An ode to running for running’s sake
“The world is too much with us.” So begins William Wordsworth’s 1806 sonnet of the same name, in which he laments of a society grown overly materialistic and disenchanted with the natural world. Though it was written over two hundred years ago, Wordsworth’s sentiments feel more relevant now than ever. And it’s not just the co-opting of our sacred outdoor spaces or proposals to turn our National Parks into corporate billboards; it’s also an insidious assault on our quiet moments.
The world really is too much with us. Remember when it was easy to hang out in a hotel lobby or airport terminal without being subjected to the drone of cable news? Neither can I. A friend of mine recently complained that his local gym had installed a TV in the sauna. His once tranquil sweat sessions are now infused with ESPN and Cialis ads.
All the more reason to value the few remaining moments we actually have to ourselves.
All the more reason to run without music.
Not everyone will feel the same way. I recently reached out to a few well-known ultrarunners to ask if they listened to music when they trained. Most did. For many people, running without some kind of aural stimulation is dull. For others, music provides additional motivation to push themselves harder.
Running is like a daily micro adventure for your brain. To infuse that with an element of predictability would defeat the purpose.
I understand such impulses. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll confess that there were a few times during a recent marathon training cycle when I listened to The Essential Bruce Springsteen on my long runs—which was enjoyable enough, but I stopped after a Prius nearly sent me to the hereafter because I was a little too immersed in the saxophone rhythms of “Spirit in the Night.”
Impaired traffic awareness is a strong argument for leaving the headphones at home, but there are good reasons to do so beyond ensuring one’s safety.
You might expect me to write something about how Kanye West could never compete with aspens in the wind or a Montana trout stream. I’m definitely sympathetic to such idealizing, especially since, in the age of urbanization, many of us are afforded fewer and fewer opportunities to listen to nature.
But there’s more to it. When you preselect a soundtrack for your run, you are trying to tacitly control your experience. And in many cases, that is precisely the point: pump-me-up music to get you through those painful final miles, for instance. But, as that example illustrates, so much of our music comes loaded with preconceived mental associations; we already know how a certain song is going to make us feel. One of the great things about running is that it can provide a chance to get away from all that, if only for an hour or so. “Letting the mind wander” may be a tired cliché, but one of the principal delights of solitary endurance sports is that, even if you’re doing that five-mile loop you’ve done a thousand times before, you never know where your imagination is going to go. In this sense, running is like a daily microadventure for your brain. To infuse that with an element of predictability would defeat the purpose.
In a recent Washington Post article, clinical psychologist Chris Friesen argued that rather than music, podcasts might be ideal to listen to while running. Since the sport is largely an activity that your body does automatically and it doesn’t require much mental energy, the available “cognitive space,” as Friesen puts it, coupled with the release of dopamine and serotonin renders you extra receptive to new ideas and information. What better time to listen to smart people talk? “I feel like I’m killing two birds with one stone when I’m getting knowledge and motivation from informational podcasts or books while I’m exercising,” Friesen said.
Killing two birds with one stone. Getting knowledge and motivation. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think we always need to be ticking off the boxes of some invisible checklist of life improvement—especially when engaged in an activity that is fruitful in and of itself. In his essay “In Praise of Idleness,” the 20th century philosopher Bertrand Russell derided this this kind of mentality as a “cult of efficiency.” As he explains it: “The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake.” Amen.
In fairness to Friesen, he doesn’t claim that runners should be listening to podcasts, merely that it might be a great time to do so. But the gist of the Washington Post story is depressingly utilitarian in its attitude toward running. Take the opening line, for instance: “Music can distract you from the monotony of running, but it is far from the only tool out there.”
I’ll take the monotony of running without the distraction, thank you very much. Perhaps that means I'll invariably miss out as we find ever more efficient ways to blast Taylor Swift (or the latest episode of Serial) into our craniums. Advances in technology will surely make it easier to forget that we’re actually running, but, in this sense at least, I’d prefer to be a smug purist than than another chump with an iPod.