Running with Music: Distracting Ourselves Toward Physical Health

Image by James F. Clay

When it comes to listening to music while running, most runners split fairly clearly into two camps: those who never listen to music, and those who insist that they “need” music to run. I’m actually somewhere in the middle and like so often is the case, I imagine that there’s a silent majority who aren’t so polarized about this topics. Most of the discussion regarding this is probably the vocal minority arguing.

Most of the time, I do not listen to music while I run. To me, running is a multi-sensory experience, which is one of the reasons I don’t enjoy running on treadmills, either. A large part of my experience running is paying attention to what is around me, all of the sounds, smells, and feelings. I’m able to let my thoughts drift away from my physical exertion and pay attention to my surroundings. I like to let my thoughts drift in and out, taking in the stimuli around me without really focusing on much of anything for extended times.

In addition to connecting with what is around me, I’m finding that running also helps me connect with my own mind and body. Like those who meditate or do yoga to help them center themselves and quiet their mind, I find running to help me in similar ways. When I run, my thoughts drift in and out from various topics. I can center on my breathing, my pulse, my running tempo. I can concentrate on the ways my body is moving through space. I can feel my body. I can hear it. This is one of the main reasons that I run, that I get to connect with myself. When I listen to music, it is harder to do this, and interferes with one of the things I like best about running.

But there are times when I do listen to music in a deliberate attempt to block out the world and the message my body is sending me. The first is on the treadmill at the gym. I think there’s too much going on at the gym for me to really get into my happy running mind. Too many people, TVs, and music. And I’m not usually a fan of the music. When I run outdoors, the changing scenery pulls my attention, sure, but nothing like at the gym. And while I’m easily able to run for an hour or more outside without losing focus or motivation, 45 minutes at the gym is pushing it. And so I load up my iPod with music or listen to an audio book.

The other exception is when I’m on an especially long run. I can maintain focus and energy for about 8 or 9 miles. But after that, I sometimes need the boost that energetic music gives. I try to hold off as long as I can, but my experience shows that the various research about the motivation of music is correct: it can pump you up when you need it. Like an energy drink during a race, however, I train myself to increase my endurance and need it less. I try to train my brain to go just a little farther, hold it together just a little longer.

I’ve been at the gym quite a bit this season due to a foot injury. In my time there, I’ve noticed how many distractions people want when they exercise: TVs, music, cardio classes with a sexy man dancing in front, and so forth. I’m sure that all of these distractions work: they allow people to get to the gym and exercise their bodies. For me, at least, that’s only half of the workout. I don’t want to distract myself to physical health. I want to train myself to both mental and physical strength. Especially in our distracted world, training ourselves to be mentally strong is important to me.

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