Many people have taken up running this year during the lockdowns as a way to keep fit and look after their mental health. Figures showed that from the start of March to the end of June, there were 858,000 downloads of Public Health England’s ‘Couch to 5k’ app, compared to 448,000 during the same time last year – a 92% increase compared to 2019. Each person who goes running has different habits, and one that splits opinion the most is listening to music while running. This discussion has been happening since the invention of the Walkman in 1979, and it may just be a personal decision, but is there evidence to suggest that it has any benefits?
In 2012 The Sport Journal published a study conducted at Texas A&M University that sought to investigate how listening to music while running affects performance and perceived exertion. They had 28 undergraduate kinesiology students do two 1.5 mile runs five days apart, one without music and one with music. The times for the run without listening to music were 12.94 ± 3.35 min, while the times for the run with music were 12.50 ± 2.48 min. The perceived exertion without music was 14.7 ± 1.3 (measured by the Borg 6 to 20 RPE scale), and 15.2 ± 2.4 with music. They concluded that this showed a significant difference between running performance with and without music, but not a significant difference in perceived exertion. Many other studies have found similar results, including for other forms of exercise, but it isn’t completely clear whether it’s the music itself, the tempo of the music or the enjoyment of the music that helps running performance.
In 2016 Runner’s World, the UK’s largest running website, ran a survey that found that 61 percent of runners polled listen to something while running, and 82% of these runners listen to their favourite music. They suggest that listening to music may help motivate you while running, as long as it is upbeat and not too slow. Having this extra motivation may make your runs feel easier and more enjoyable, as the external stimulus of music can actually block internal stimuli like fatigue, meaning you may even feel like you can run faster for longer. Another benefit is that if you can find music that all has the same tempo, it can help with keeping your pace while running. However, the risk of having headphones in while you run is that you are less aware of your surroundings and may not hear or see approaching cars, cyclists or even other runners, which significantly reduces your safety.
Some runners who like listening to something prefer it to be a podcast or audio book. In such a busy, fast-paced world, many people don’t find much time for learning new things, but a 30-45 minute run could be the perfect time to listen to a podcast and educate yourself on a new topic or deepen your knowledge. It’s also perfect for listening to a few chapters of an audio book if you struggle to find time to sit down with a physical book. Learning something new or escaping into a fictional world can even help you feel more productive after your run.
Many people advocate running for the mental health benefits, especially during this difficult year. If this is your goal, listening to music will make it less easy to clear your head and get away from distractions. We live in a world that is full of technology, and getting away from it for even just a 30-45 minute run is highly valuable. ‘Mindful running’, which means running with no music and taking notice of your surroundings, is particularly beneficial for mental health. It can also include doing mindful breathwork before, during or after your run. There is so much evidence that being mindful throughout our daily lives reduces stress and anxiety, and lifts our mood. Bringing this into your run can increase the benefits you get in both mental and physical aspects.
Whether or not you want to listen to music while running will depend on what benefits you are seeking, and what your goals are. A number of us at Expressive Audio have used various different headphones with many types of music while running or doing other exercise, and we’d love to hear your opinions in the comments below!