Just over two months ago, just before we moved from Valparaiso to Seattle, I made a change to my running that in this short amount of time improved my training and enjoyment of the sport. I honestly anticipated that this change would prove a struggle for me, but the experience has been quite the opposite.
What did I change? I quit running with music.
I should qualify this statement by acknowledging that, when I run on the treadmill, I do still listen to music, but that is because the radio blaring over the speakers at my gym plays the type of music that makes me want to rip my ears out, so I use my own music to block that out.
I used to listen to music on every single run, including outdoor runs. Since I could go for miles in Valparaiso without seeing another runner or pedestrian on my path, I would play my music quietly on my phone without earbuds. I avoided wearing earbuds because I wanted to be aware of my surroundings just enough to be safe, yet I still wanted music to entertain me and sometimes distract me while I run. Music served as almost a crutch for me during my runs, something I felt I needed to have with me in order to run.
In late April, however, I decided to quit listening to music while running outside. Two factors influenced this decision. First, I felt out of touch with my effort at the Go! St. Louis Half Marathon. I went out too fast, burnt myself out, and ran a positive split. While I still ran a PR, I missed the goal for which I had trained. Second, I was nervous about running in Bothell. Most of the trails are bike paths and the last thing I wanted to do was get hit by a bicycle. Valparaiso is also almost idyllically safe, and so I could not help but worry about how safe the King County trails would be. So, in order to become more in tune to my effort and to increase my awareness of my surroundings, I ditched music all together.
Within a couple weeks of running without music, I was hooked to my silent miles. I soaked in the sounds of nature, paid careful attention to my breathing and effort, and felt more connected to my running. When it came time to run my goal pace tempo workouts and long runs for marathon training, I was nervous: would I struggle to push the pace or run long without the auditory motivation of a rapid rhythm? Quite the opposite: my goal pace runs and long runs felt easier.
While every runner benefits from different training methods, running without music can enhance your enjoyment, keep you safe, and tune you in closely to your effort. Here are some of the benefits of running without music:
- You stay more in touch with your effort. Without music, you have to listen to your breathing. This lets you truthfully monitor your effort and helps you keep each run in the appropriate training zone.
- You don’t push too hard. It can be too easy to get caught up in the rhythm of your music and run faster than your training prescribes on an easy or long run.
- You are more aware of your surroundings, which keeps you safer on your run. You also focus more on how beautiful your running route is and how nice the fresh air feels than you do when music is distracting you.
- The silence relaxes you and makes running an even more de-stressing experience.
- Whether you are running on a trail or in a race, it is more courteous to those around you. No one else wants to hear your music.
- Without the distraction of music, you can devote more of your concentration to your running form.
- Without distraction, you can build your mental toughness and fatigue resistance.
- Running without better music will make you more likely to achieve your race goals.
Not to mention you don’t have to worry about getting wrapped up in earbud (like I manage to do every race).
What about that last one? Don’t studies show that running with music helps you run faster?
You may run faster without music, but as I have stressed throughout this post, music disconnects you from your run and therefore from your effort. During a race, the adrenaline and excitement can already throw you off from your race strategy, and music can only add to that.
Instead, running without music will improve your associative thinking. Associative thinking is the complete absorption of your thoughts into the current task at hand, such as running. When you use music to distract you from your run, you are engaging in dissociative thinking, which is the opposite of associative thinking.
Dr. Tim Noakes noted in his tome Lore of Running that almost all elite runners practice associative thinking. “[T]heir thoughts were totally absorbed in the race itself. They concentrated on strategy, on staying loose, and on running as efficiently as possible by closely monitoring subtle physiological cues from their feet, calves, thighs, and respiration. Their marathon pace was governed not by the clock but by their bodies.” Meanwhile, “dissociative thinking patterns, particularly during races, probably indicate that [the runners] are not running optimally” because they are distracted from the physiological cues from their bodies.
Noakes proceeds to argue that, because these runners were so in tune to their effort and their bodies, they were able to override the sensations of fatigue and discomfort later in the marathon and keep on race pace during the miles in which many runners hit the wall.
Of course, the primary rule of racing commands nothing new on race day. Your marathon is not the ideal scenario to ditch your music for the first time. Instead, you should slowly work yourself up to running longer and longer distances without music during your training so that you are mentally prepared to run without music and practice associative thinking on race day.
To cultivate the power of associative thinking during your running, follow these tips:
- Turn off the music, podcasts, or audiobook.
- Choose a few physiological cues to focus on for the duration of your run, such as your breathing, cadence, arm swing, stride length, and the sensations of your muscles.
- Pick a mantra related to the goal of your run, such as “run strong,” “run fast,” or “run relaxed.”
- Alternate between assessing and (as necessary) adjusting your breathing and form based on your selected cues and using your mantra to enforce a habit of positive self-talk.
- After your run, record your time, pace, effort, and how you felt in your training log. More likely than not, you will notice that you become more attuned to your running than before!
Running without music is not a guarantee that you will run your best marathon or love every single moment of running, but if you feel like you have plateaued, still feel stressed at the end of a run, or struggle to control your pace, consider running without music and learning how to practice associative thinking.
Questions of the Day:
Do you run or race with music?
Do you practice associative thinking on your runs? How?