Tuesday, March 23, 2010

iGnoring Yourself and the World Around You

This past weekend I had the chance to watch a little bit of the NYC Half Marathon. I was blown away by the number of runners with iPods. I've run thousands of miles in my life and wouldn't need all the fingers on one hand to count the times I've run with headphones.

There are really only two reasons why I shun the portable music devices – they screw up your training and they're dangerous. (a view I share with my friend Blaine, who also happens to be a pretty good coach.)

There have been a studies linking listening to music and performance while running. The studies say pretty much the same thing – When you've got your iPod on, your pace will sync up with the tempo of your music. If the music picks up the pace, so will you. However, when the music slows down so do you.

Your body will tell you all sorts of things when you are running, you just have to listen. Heart rate, breathing, muscle response all give valuable clues as to how we are running, whether our pace is too fast or slow or if a discomfort is temporary or something more serious. When you have your headphones on you ignore these messages and run to match the beat of your music. That can lead to overtraining which causes injury or burnout.

Unfortunately, that's not the real danger to running with you iPod.

Runners with headphones tend to be oblivious to the world around them. While the dangers are probably limited to bumping into another runner or missing a turn on a closed road race course, most of us run in the roads between races.

You don't own the road. You're sharing it with drivers and cyclists. A runner involved in a collision with a car is going to lose every single time. Getting hit by a bicycle isn't much fun either, for the runner or the guy on his bike.

It is in the best interest of runners to be able to hear cars and bikes approaching. There is plenty of time to get out of the way when you hear a car coming. Of course, you have to hear it first. You're a lot less likely to hear someone coming if you're rocking out to your mp3 player.

Just last week I witnessed a runner with headphones head full speed into a busy intersection against the light and right in front of a car. Luckily the car stopped, but I'm convinced that had she not had her ears plugged she probably would have heard the cars coming, looked and stopped instead of being startled by a car coming to a screeching halt.

Because I'm probably starting to sound like an old crumudgeon, I'll cut my ranting and raving short. But for your training's sake and your safety's sake leave the headphones at home the next time you go for a run. Trust me it won't be that hard. You might even find the soundtrack provided by the city and mother nature quite enjoyable.

You'll also have an opportunity to learn the age-old lesson that running teaches us:
The challenge in front of me can be completed one step at a time.

You won't learn that lesson when you're zoning out, running with your iPod.


  1. I obviously can't argue with anything you've said here...in fact, you've used almost the same words as me at times.

    Apparently, as of last week, there's a new danger to running with headphones...you might not hear a plane making an emergency landing right behind you:

  2. john! saw the link to this blog from one of blaine's posts on facebook (about this entry). I love your illustrations!! hope you are doing well. I have a 2 month old now named Isaac. He is pretty awesome.

  3. I'm not sure that categorical statements add much to the ongoing discussion. Used properly, headphones don't screw up your training or put your life or health in danger.

    I'll run 3,000 miles this year, and I'm guessing that no more than 500 of them will be on roads or adjacent sidewalks. The vast majority of the time I run on closed-access paved trails. Sometimes I run on real trails. Very occasionally, when I have no choice, I run on a treadmill.

    I only wear my headphones when running on closed-access paved trails or on the treadmill. I don't wear them on roads or sidewalks. I don't wear them on real trails. And, on top of that, I don't wear them during most workouts.

    But that still leaves 2,000 miles when I'm running recovery or easy or general aerobic pace --gettin'-in-the-miles miles--on a closed-access paved trail. There is absolutely no reason not to listen to something if it makes the miles go by faster.

    I also keep the volume at a reasonable level. Almost without fail, I can hear cyclists coming up behind me before they pass. (If I'm struck by a silently-gliding airplane from behind, so be it. That's an acceptable level of risk.)

  4. In response:


  5. Hi Randa, Congratulations on becoming a mom. that's awesome.

  6. John Fenton & rjmorley,

    It seems like you guys have put a lot of thought into your training and safety.

  7. I've tried the iPod a handful of times. I thought it would help me get out the door for marathon training. It was an interesting novelty, but I soon gave up on it. I didn't like the feeling of wires bouncing up and down, and preferred to disconnect from speakers for a while. Plus, it made me too nervous crossing streets.

    As a coach at John's high school, we ban the use of headphones during practice. Mostly because high schoolers are impossible to coach even when they are actually listening to you. Also, I don't want to be caught in a lawsuit if one of my runners has an accident, God forbid.

    If you're an adult, it comes down to personal preference, although I have to agree with John and Blaine on this one.

  8. It's not about the iPod, it's only about the people ... as always!!!