By Jason Koop,
Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning
I’ve done a lot of things in my nearly 20-year coaching career. I have worked with all types of athletes from team sports, cycling, triathlon, as well as ultrarunning. I’ve seen athletes through thick and thin, wins, losses, PRs and DNFs. Along the way, I’ve given out countless pieces of advice on training, nutrition, pacing, heat and altitude acclimation, and life in general. I’ve planned for athletes’ crews and advised on all manner of gear runners use to perform. There is, however, one thing I have never recommended to athletes, and likely never will: the use of headphones.
By full admission, one of my trail pet peeves is running up on an oblivious runner blaring something through their headphones so loud that no manner of shouting ‘on your left’ can get their attention. Upon a benign tap on the shoulder, said runners are so startled, I begin to mentally rehearse the many CPR classes I’ve taken over the years in the unfortunate case that I have to put that training to use. Personal pet peeve and bias aside, I do think runners are misinformed about music’s effect on performance. Additionally, the safety and etiquette issues presented by headphones all leave me with no course of action but to dissuade runners from their use.
Before you toss your $200 AirPods in the electronic recycling bin, here are the facts for you to consider:
Headphones will not help your performance
If you think jamming out to Justin Bieber will help you conquer that next climb, you’re probably wrong (and your taste in music sucks, but that’s a different story). While you can find studies indicating that listening to music will help your performance (Brooks 2010, Edworthy 2006, Thakare 2017), improve your cadence (Van Dyck 2015) or even reduce your Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) (Chow 2017) you can find just as many that will say there is no effect (Bonette 2010, Van Dyck 2019), and depending on the type and tempo of the music might even hurt (Van Dyck 2019).
Athletes should tune in, not tune out
The research aside, my real problem with using music as an ergogenic aid is that is detracts from one’s own sense of effort. As I’ve written about earlier, ultrarunners should embrace RPE as the preferred way to calibrate intensity. Calibrating your own RPE is a skill. It requires deliberate practice over time, which is primarily honed during harder and more intense workouts. Turning up the volume as a means to pump yourself up or somehow distract you from the pain is the exact opposite of what athletes should do during hard workouts. When the going gets tough, I would rather have my athletes look inside and be in tune with their effort, not deliberately drown it out.
To add to this, even if there is a small performance bump that could come from listening to music during a workout, I’d take the trade off of having athletes put the headphones away and be more in tune with their own sense of exertion. Managing effort on race day is far more valuable than any small benefit that could be reaped from getting yourself pumped up with music.
Derailed by distraction
Training for ultramarathons takes up a lot of time and, at times, can be boring. To stave off the boredom, and maybe as an attempt to multi-task and make the most use of their time, many athletes use their daily run to listen to their favorite podcast, audiobook, or catch up on the news. While this might seem benign, listening to headphones while you run is the distraction equivalent of texting and driving. Your focus is just not where it should be. It’s on the conversation between podcast host and guest, or on the next refrain. Is this really how we should be using the trails and outdoors? There’s a sad irony in the situation where we’re outside, but so consumed by the noise coming from earphones that we might as well not be.
More important, if you are using your headphones to make the miles go by, it can be just plain dangerous. The recent encounter in Ft. Collins where a trail runner fended off a mountain lion would likely have ended quite differently had the runner been using headphones. In areas where multi-use trails abound, cyclists, motorbikes, hikers and trail runners all share the same space, yet travel at very different speeds. Conflicts arise when the different users are not aware of each other, and headphones catalyze that lack of awareness.
Additionally, when you run, particularly on trails, you use all of your senses. This includes your hearing and vestibular system, for balance and coordination. The slightest audible change in the trail crunching beneath your shoes cues your feet, legs and upper body to respond appropriately to the terrain. Similarly, the tiny structures within your inner ear that provide balance and spatial awareness can also be impaired by loud or habitual use of earphones (Singh 2016). Sometimes I wonder how many ankle rolls and rocks catching trail runners’ feet are (at least partially) a result of vestibular disturbances caused by headphones.
The bottom line
If you are using headphones to pump you up and improve your performance, stop. They probably have no effect, might actually hurt your performance during a workout, and certainly will make you less in tune with your effort. As a coach, I have never recommended athletes use music to get pumped up for a workout, and never will. If you simply want to catch up on your favorite podcast or audiobook, do so during an EnduranceRun or RecoveryRun and do the rest of the trail users a favor by leaving one earbud out and turning the volume down.
- Bonnette R, et al. The Effect Of Music Listening On Running Performance And Rating Of Perceived Exertion Of College Students. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2010. 24. 1. 10.1097/01.JSC.0000367073.45565.4b.
- Brooks, K.; Brooks, K., Enhancing sports performance through the use of music. Journal of Exercise Physiology 2010, 13 (2), 52-57.
- Chow E, Etnier J, Effects of music and video on perceived exertion during high-intensity exercise. Journal of Sport and Health Science, Volume 6, Issue 2, June 2017, Pages 252
- Edworthy, J.; Waring, H., The effects of music tempo and loudness level on treadmill exercise. Ergonomics. 2006, 49 (15), 1597-1610.
- Lopes-Silva J, Lima-Silva A, Bertuzzi R, Silva-Cavalcante M. Influence of music on performance and psychophysiological responses during moderate-intensity exercise preceded by fatigue. 2015. Physiology & Behavior, Volume 139, Pages 274-280.
- On the role of lyrics in the music–exercise performance relationship. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, Volume 15, Issue 1, 2014, Pages 132-138.
- Singh NK, Sasidharan CS. Effect of personal music system use on sacculocollic reflex assessed by cervical vestibular-evoked myogenic potential: A preliminary investigation. Noise Health. 2016;18(81):104–112. doi:10.4103/1463-1741.178511
- Thakare AE, Mehrotra R, Singh A. Effect of music tempo on exercise performance and heart rate among young adults. Int J Physiol Pathophysiol Pharmacol. 2017;9(2):35–39. Published 2017 Apr 15.
- Van Dyck, E., Moens, B., Buhmann, J., Demey, M., Coorevits, E., Dalla Bella, S., et al. Spontaneous entrainment of running cadence to music tempo. (2015). Sports Med. Open1:15. doi: 10.1186/s40798-015-0025-9
- Van Dyck, E., Musical Intensity Applied in the Sports and Exercise Domain: An Effective Strategy to Boost Performance. Frontiers in Psychology. 2019 May 15;10:1145.