When The Music Stops

Let me start by stating the fact that I’ve been running with music since the first day I laced up my non-running-specific sneakers and walked out the door. For a while, music was probably half of the reason I ran to begin with; to escape from whatever it was that was lurking in the back of my mind by drifting off into some Beatles-induced dreamland while feeling the wind rush past my skin.

My original playlists consisted of oldies and classics, the same songs that have comforted me since I was a child listening to mix tapes with hand-written labels. I was accompanied on each outing by The Grateful Dead’s Terrapin Station, Led Zeppelin’s The Rain Song, and practically anything from The Band’s Last Waltz.

(That’s me on the right. I’ll be running the Philly half with my cousin, on the left. Be jealous.)

Music was my safety, my comfort, my calm. It was as much a goal to steal an hour of “me time” as it was to make it to the river 2.5 miles from home so as to hit the 5-mile mark, something that was rare during those early days in my running “career,” though I’d hardly call it that — I just can’t quite place my finger on what else to name the last 6 years.

The less and less I relied on music to whisk me away from the confines of reality, the more and more I began to listen to the kinds that would pump me up for 5 miles or more. And while tunes like Taj Mahal’s Lovin’ in my Baby’s Eyes still popped up from time to time, and I’ve been known to begin several half marathons now to the melodies of The Beatles Magical Mystery Tour Album, I nevertheless shifted my penchants toward heavier, more uplifting selections — you can find a handful of them here on my Running Jams page.

Recently, however, I’ve shifted yet again.

If you haven’t noticed, Running Jams has remained stagnant for quite some time now, and it’s not out of being lazy or listening to the same music over and over again (though that does often tend to be the case). It’s that I’ve found music to be irritating lately. Sure, I usually head out with headphones around my neck as somewhat of a safety net, but I’ve found myself lowering the sound so that it’s barely audible — and sometimes even shutting it altogether for the duration of my runs — and instead spacing off completely.

It started during the Governors Island 10kย when, after about a lap, I became annoyed with the music altogether and had to pause it for about a mile or 2 mid-race.

And then there was San Francisco. With a 9-mile run planned on our first morning in the city, I knew I’d want to take in Golden Gate Park’s sights unadulterated by electronics, and so Noah and I both left our iThings at home.

Then last week, jet lagged and cranky, I decided to sleep in on several mornings and to plan short 3-mile jogs home from work instead. Both days, I forgot my headphones even though I distinctly recall reminding myself over and over to pack them before work. Bottom line: I didn’t mind the quiet East River runs.

Nope, not one bit.

But perhaps the last 2 runs have been the most surprising to me of all. After 11 miles on Saturday around the tip of Manhattan without music (that’s about 2 hours of silent running and spacing out), I thought I’d be itching for normalcy. For me, that’s a 5-mile run from my apartment, around the lower loop of Central Park, and home to the beats that have pumped me up while working out at 7am for the last 3 years.

As soon as I hit Central Park, I knew something was wrong. I was irritated. I felt tired and angry. I shut the music, and almost immediately felt a sense of relief. Then I finished the last 2.5 miles in silence, only listening to the sounds of the cars, the people, the city life. I had found my calm again.

Anyway, maybe this is just a music lull. Or maybe, the past couple of weeks have been a total fluke. Either way, I’m glad to know what it’s like to actually enjoy running without the burden of headphones, if only for a moment, and I’m hoping that I can incorporate more of these mornings and evenings into my already loose and scattered repertoire if only to add a little variety to my life.

  • Do you prefer to run with or without music?
  • Are there certain settings that are better for one or the other?

31 thoughts on “When The Music Stops

    • Eh, most races “strongly suggest” running sans music. Then you show up, and everyone has headphones in. I doubt any race will truly ever forbid it, unless it’s a trail run for safety purposes. I don’t think I could show up to a race without music either still. Not sure if I’ll ever either.

  1. crazy, i was just thinking about that this morning on my run. usually i am rocking out, but my ipod has been acting up lately and i’m too cheap to buy a new one just yet. this morning when it died only 0.2 miles into my hour-long run, i didn’t really mind at all. i only don’t like hearing my heavy breaths (which is a constant reminder that makes me think about how hard running is…not a positive reminder at all!), and, of course, city traffic. looks like you do a better job at tuning these things out…

    • Well, there are moments of both I guess. I find myself spacing out, and then I find myself totally buried in car horns and people and cigarettes and OMG THIS IS CRAZYNESS. But then it goes back. Trust me, I’m no music-less running pro; there is something kind of nice about listening to your breath and feet and making adjustments based on something you never really paid attention to before!

    • It’s been, like, 5 runs total! It’s been nice, but I’m by no means labeling myself a music-less runner. I’m just a runner who enjoys experiencing different things while out there, and listening to what my brain and body are saying. Lately, it’s been silence. I’m sure the music-itch will return.

  2. I’ve been running more and more without tunes. Anything 4 miles or less and any trail runs I definitely leave it at home. Also, pretty much any areas where I need my wits about me (like downtown). I am almost paranoid now about someone sneaking up on me with the tunes, so when I do have, the volume is very, very low.

    • That’s smart, actually. My problem is that sometimes, in NYC, I get so overwhelmed by the foot traffic that the music is the only thing that brings me back to any sort of center. Then again, sometimes it just adds to the commotion. As for trails, I can go either way. Lately, I’ve enjoyed them without music though.

  3. I prefer running with an audiobook. Maybe it’s because my childhood comfort was always found in books, but I look forward to long runs where I can get through a good chunk of a novel.

    In the rare cases when I don’t run with an audiobook, I usually put on some tunes. But I, too, find myself getting annoyed–especially when the playlist isn’t right for my mood, the wrong song comes on at the wrong time, or I just feel like I’ve heard these songs a million times.

  4. I started to run with music when I started to run solo. Then I started to not use it around the neighborhood for safety reasons and never when I ran with someone. But for those long solo runs, I’d put in my earbuds and bop along. I looked forward to my music. But I never wore it for racing, and started to listen less and less. It’s been months now since I’ve run with music. Sometimes I miss it, mostly I don’t. I think it has its pros/cons. It can help you get pumped up and it can carry you along. But if running in neighborhoods, I definitely think it’s dangerous. Plus without it, you can still get lost in the rhythm of your footfall, your breath, nature….

    • “Plus without it, you can still get lost in the rhythm of your footfall, your breath, nature…” That’s exactly what I began to lose myself in on Saturday’s 11-miler. I’m still not sure how I feel about a race without it though.

      • I guess for me, I get so caught up in the race itself, the people, spectators, just the atmosphere of it that I don’t need the music. Plus I worry about tripping someone else by accident. Though, there is one race I did where there were some rather lonely stretches where I was wishing for my music LOL

  5. When I first started running I always listened to music. I loved making various playlists and adjusting. But recently I run with headphones over the ear, not in my ear. Music is on, but I don’t always hear it. I like to enjoy my surroundings more and more. Get lost on some crazy thought, like if I fell could I crawl home from this spot, or how many shoes do I actually wear in a week (answer 3 my flip flops, running shoes and my black wedge heels for work). It’s odd, but having time to think about things I don’t have time to think about at any other point in my day is pretty relaxing.

    • Exactly – and I used to be able to think about all of that while I was listening to music. Now I find it more of a burden than anything else.

  6. For me it really depends what mood I am in. Sometimes I will head out without music because I need to think and relax. Other times I need motivation r I am super happy and the music cheers me on..
    It’s great bcse that way, when I forget or can’t find my mp3 player, I don;t mind as much ;)

    • I think that’s a good way to look at it. You’re right, there are just some times when it’s more or less appropriate than others.

  7. Currently, I definitely prefer to run with music for most of the time. I think its not only to pump me up, but also to drown out my heavy breathing.. a sound that can sometimes play headgames with me. This weekend, however, I did run the last of 3 miles without music and it was pretty calming. I’d love to be one of those runners that finds peace in the sounds of your own pace.

  8. I’ve always listened to music but my first 12k didn’t allow headphone and being a newbie I didn’t know how serious breaking the rules would be so I went without and I felt fine. Then at home without music I hear my steps and breathing and it drives me crazy! Music helps me keep my pace but it’s nice to know I don’t need it.

    • That’s a really great point…I think it’s totally OK today use it. Heck, I still use it all the time. The main thing is that, as you put it, “it’s nice to know” that you may not need it after all. It makes it much less of a crutch in that way.

  9. AGREE 100% with this. Your zone out space is what you need; sometimes it’s music, sometimes it’s silence. I vary when driving to work between classical and silence. I did speedwork yesterday with ZERO pumped up jams. I enjoyed it and did well. Sometimes solitude to complete a task is preferable!!! Loved this post.

    • It’s amazing how your zone out needs can vary so much from one day and one environment to the next. I have a feeling that speed work would actually be great without music. (Though I’ve done official speed work once, so I may not exactly be the authority on this.)

  10. Pingback: Will Run For Wednesdays: Personal Commitment, 8 Days a Week « Will Run For Glitter

  11. I think I might have already shared with you the dangers of starting a long race with the wrong paced track..for example: the Black Eyed Peas “I gotta feeling”….. Nanna cannot maintain that sort of pace for more than a kilometre without keeling over……and that’s not a good thing when you still have 9k’s or more left to go….having said that, I was mightily peeved when many races over here started ‘discouraging’ whilst not actually ‘banning’ i-pods. So now I have to listen through one ear piece only so I have some awareness of what’s going on around me. Without any music to distract me all I’d have would be the dreadful gasping sounds I make – zero motivational, and more of an excuse to sit down and demand a cup of tea and a support vehicle to get me to the finish line :)

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