Two runners run side by side into a sunset

Growing up in a time before wireless headphones, I became accustomed to running without music. Back when I was a kid if you wanted to run with music, you had two options, Walkman or CD player, neither of which were excellent, especially the constant skip of the CD after every stride. Instead, my runs were filled with sounds of the places I was running.

We now have the technology capable of allowing us to run with music, podcasts, or radio. But what are the costs of running with these? What might we be losing out on? When I tell people I’m a runner; they often ask what I listen to while I’m running. And while I won’t pretend I’m a purist and never listen to any music, I do think something is lost when you throw on those headphones.

Running is different than most sports. It is more primal because, like the evolution of our species, we evolved to run as a tool to survive (insert book plug for “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen”). Apart from that, there is something to be gained by not running with headphones. You’re able to take on an active role in your surroundings. Experiencing all of it, the birds chirping on a morning run, the crisp sound of leaves crunching under your feet, and the silence that happens after that first winter snow. When you’re out there, moving through time and space, you start to find a more basic version of yourself. You slip into that zone where you’re utterly focused on the task at hand, and you begin to meditate.

I have a theory that the real reason people don’t like to run without headphones is the same reason people don’t like to meditate. We don’t like to be confronted with our true selves. And while I understand that this is probably a bold statement to make, I know that it’s tough to mask the real you when it’s just you and your thoughts (no distractions). Running as an activity doesn’t require a lot of brainpower– but it does require you to push through some pretty tough mental barriers. Most runners will tell you that the mental game is far more complicated than the physical aspect.

However, even if you drop the meditative aspect of running without music, there is still a good reason to ditch the headphones. When you run unencumbered, you can monitor your breathing and steps. Breath is critical, regardless if you’re running or just sitting at your desk. We tend to be disconnected from our breath (insert second book plug for “Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art”). We don’t often see the connection between physical well-being and how much air we’re breathing or how often said air fills our lungs. While you’re running, it’s essential to know how you’re breathing — because it’s a clear indicator of how your run is going (i.e., is your breath shallow, heavy, relaxed, etc.). These are signs we often don’t pick up on if we aren’t paying attention to them. On the flip side, how is your cadence, are you pounding the pavement, or are you flowing naturally through your gait? When we can’t hear our footsteps, we missout on how well our stride is working. Hitting the ground hard can lead to issues with the ankle, knees, hips, and more. Sometimes, our footsteps’ sound can give us an early indicator of how well our gait is working.

So take a few runs, ditch the headphones and see how running was meant to be experienced. I promise it’s not as bad as you think.

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