Marathon runners love their headphones, but is it the best choice?


Once you start training for marathons, the amount of equipment needed to safely and enjoyably get through a long run seems to multiply. But whereas energy gels and hydration fall into the requirement category, something such as headphones is more of a running luxury. Some runners would agree that leaving the headphones at home is the optimal choice. Many other runners couldn’t imagine running without them. I generally run with headphones, but have also had good experiences running without them. I wondered if running with or without headphones might be a better choice while training for a marathon.

So, should I train for a marathon with or without headphones? For the most part, using headphones during marathon training is personal preference. Many runners find that using headphones can make running a more enjoyable experience; others find the solitude of running without them to be ideal. There is some evidence suggesting that running without headphones can make you a better runner while also being safer.

Marathon Training with Headphones

According to a 2017 survey conducted by Running USA, 60% of runners said they run with music. It is very common to see runners with headphones/earphones in their ears both during training and during a race.

Marathon runners are in a bit of a different situation than runners completing shorter distances when it comes to a desire to use headphones. This is especially true on long runs. Completing a 5-mile run sans headphones is one thing, running longer distances sometimes creates more of a need to pass the time. For someone who is choosing to run alone, the minutes can seem to drag by when there isn’t something else to distract the mind. As a runner who often runs the same routes repeatedly, this is true for me. If I was getting a change of scenery more often, I would probably be less apt to use headphones.

Runners have their reasons for tuning into something other than nature.

Advantages of Running with Headphones

There can be a lot to love about running with headphones. Here are some of the top reasons runners opt for wearing them:

  • Improve Running Cadence – One recent phenomenon is playlists set to a specific rhythm in beats per minute. The helpful aspect of this is that you can find one to match a particular cadence that you are hoping to achieve for a particular run. For example, I’m looking at one on my phone right now from Spotify titled, “Fast Pop Run 180 BPM”. Since 180 steps per minute is an ideal cadence runners strive for, this could be an excellent playlist to try to make that happen.
  • Music Brings Joy – Even for those of us who love running, there are always going to be those particular runs that you just don’t really want to do. Since music can be an incredible mood lifter, sometimes jamming to your favorite songs during a run can ensure that it actually gets done. If listening to music means enjoying your run that much more, or simply allows you to get out the door, then utilizing your headphones to do so sounds like a great idea.
  • Multitask with a Book or Podcast – I can’t even tell you how many times I talk to friends who say they wish they had more time to read. In a long list of to-dos, this often falls to the bottom in terms of priorities. The value of reading and life-long learning are often overlooked because they might be considered “hobbies”, but the truth is that there is so much value in the written word and listening to what other people have to say. I have had such a difficult time getting my book club books read because I’m choosing to write at night instead, but I sorely miss that reading time. With marathon training, it’s only bound to decrease the time to fit it in, so I am loving being able to pop in my headphones and accomplish both!

Most people I know listen to music when they run. But they may have never tried running without them to find out what they might be missing out on.

Marathon Training without Headphones

Woman running without headphones

Advantages of Running WITHOUT Headphones

Leaving your ears wide open has its advantages, too.

  • Safety – Whether you are running out on trails or roads, it is pretty clear why having your hearing available is much safer than blocking out sounds by whatever is coming out of your headphones. Although I mostly stick to sidewalks and paved trails, I do have to cross a street from time to time. And when I’m on the trail, bikers pass by all the time alerting me with an, “on your left!” I think we often take for granted how much our hearing contributes to what is going on around us, and if you’re so zoned into what you’re listening to on your headphones, it’s very hard to be completely aware of potential dangers.
  • Body Awareness – It is argued that running without headphones allows a runner to be more in tune with their running form. Honing proper technique as a runner is not an easy thing, yet allows a runner to be stronger and faster while also avoiding injury. Since listening to something on headphones can often disassociate someone from their running, they may get lazy in their running form. Runners will often be much more aware of body positionings such as footstrike, cadence, and arm swing if they are running distraction-free.
  • Clear Your Head – I think it’s safe to say that most of us are constantly inundated with the sounds and interruptions of life. Rarely do we actually get a quiet moment to ourselves where we’re just doing absolutely and are alone with our thoughts. Even though running is far from nothing, it does give us an opportunity to free ourselves from all the distractions life throws at us. Running can be an excellent way to completely unplug.
  • Enjoy Nature – If you’ve never even tried to run without headphones in, you might not even realize what you’re missing out on. You may be too lost in your music or book to take in the beauty around you and you most certainly won’t be able to hear the sounds that nature has to offer.
  • Stay in the Proper Effort Zone – I have to admit that I’m guilty of this. I might be out on a long run that calls for a 9-minute/mile pace. But when my jam comes on, it lights a fire under me and it makes me want to run faster. I’m pretty aware of this, though, and can usually reel it in. The author of this article, however, claims that he always went out way too fast on his runs because of the quick beat of the particular songs he chose to run to. Since I talk about the importance of training slower to run a faster marathon here, this might be a great argument for running free of headphones.
  • Convenience – If you choose to run without headphones, it’s just one less piece of equipment to worry about. I have wireless headphones (Jaybird Tarah Pros which I do really like). But there is nothing more annoying than being ready to head out for a run to find that my headphones aren’t charged. Or when they run out of charge mid-run? That’s even worse. And if you don’t have wireless headphones, the wire can really get in the way.

I really don’t know that there is much wrong with running without headphones if that’s what you prefer. Up until the Walkman’s inception in 1979, this is how we always ran. But some runners feel bored when running without something to listen to. If that’s not you, I’d say carry on without headphones! There’s really no reason to change.

Looking for a Happy Medium? If you get completely wireless bluetooth earphones, you can run with only one earbud. This allows you to listen to your tunes, etc. while also being more aware of your surroundings. Bone-Conducting Headphones are another option that allows for this, too. Read my article, “Best Bluetooth Earphones for Running (That Won’t Fall Out)” for top recommendations.

Marathon Rules Regarding Headphone Use During Races

All marathon races have different requirements with regard to headphone use. Races where roads are not completely closed are much more likely to restrict the use of headphones. This is for the safety of its runners.

Here are the categories where your race might fall:

  • Headphones allowed: The marathon I ran last November, REVEL Mt. Lemmon, allowed headphones, but did offer this statement to runners, “for your safety we highly recommend that you keep the volume of your music low enough to still be aware of your surroundings.”
  • Strongly discouraged but not restricted: Many races realize the safety risks of headphones and prefer that you run without them. The New York City Marathon gives this warning on their website, “The use of headphones is strongly discouraged.” After looking at several popular marathon websites, most seem to fall into this category. They want you to understand the safety concern but ultimately leave it up to each runner’s judgment.
  • Use of headphones prohibited: Some races have an outright ban on headphone use. REVEL’s Mt. Hood Marathon is one example. They go as far as to say that if runners wear in-ear headphones during the race, they will be disqualified. Though they do allow bone-conducting headphones that allow for your ears to stay open.

It is very important that you check your race website’s FAQ section to determine their stance on headphone use so that you can be prepared. Reach out to race directors if you have any doubts so that you can prepare accordingly.

Even if your marathon does allow headphones, you’ll want to consider what the fan support is like. Some races have amazing spectators and you may decide that’s the best motivation you need for race day.

What to Listen to If Using Headphones

woman deciding what to listen to on headphones

Gone are the days of popping in one CD to your Walkman and having to listen to the same songs on repeat. Runners have access to an entire library of songs via music apps such as Spotify. There are also an increasing amount of podcasts to choose from as well as audiobooks to download.

This survey from runningawards.com found the following results. About 55% of runners are utilizing headphones to listen to one of the following:

Music

The majority of runners who use headphones stated they turn up the tunes. This is what I do the majority of the time. I prefer upbeat songs, with fun lyrics to sing to, as well as anything that motivates me to run strong. This lyric from Carrie Underwood’s “Champion”, for example, is always something that helps me to keep pushing toward my goals even when I feel like quitting, “I am invincible, unbreakable, unstoppable, unshakeable.” If you’re looking to run with a specific cadence, find a playlist with the beats per minute to match. I’ve tried this though, and if I don’t know the songs, then I don’t like it. But, you might be different and ready to try something new!

Podcasts

A much smaller group of headphone users are turning to podcasts to pass the time while they train for their marathons. Last year, as I felt like I had a lot to learn to shave precious minutes off my time to qualify for Boston, I spent a lot of time listening to podcasts specifically pertaining to running. I’ve tried others, but I’ve found that listening to people talking about running helps me keep my eye on the prize. My favorites include The Rambling Runner (stories from inspiring runners) and Running Rogue (gives in-depth advice about strategies to become a better runner).

Audiobooks

The percent of runners listening to audiobooks appears to be the lowest. In fact, it’s not specifically listed as a category in this survey. Though I don’t prefer running while listening to audiobooks, and actually just don’t love reading this way in general, I did really want to read a particular book recently. Since marathon training has begun again I figured I’d try to kill two birds with one stone. I’m currently listening to Bad Blood. Though a great book, I’ve often found myself zoning out and thinking about other things. But if you’re in a book club or have reading you need to complete for school or work, this is a great way to fit it all in.

Take-Aways for Running With or Without Headphones

Ultimately, the choice is up to you if you want to train for your marathon with headphones or not. If you love using your headphones and believe less joy would come from your runs without them, then you should continue doing that. Just keep the volume to a lower level so that you still have awareness of your surroundings. Using only one earbud is an option, as well. However, I would highly recommend at least getting out for 1 or 2 shorter runs per week without headphones just to see how it goes. You might find that it makes your marathon training an even better and more enjoyable experience.

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Jane

Hi, I'm Jane! I'm an avid runner who races 5ks to marathons. After a 4:59 first marathon, I came back to the distance years later running a BQ time of 3:36. I did a lot wrong for a long time and finally started doing a lot right. Now I'm an RRCA certified running coach and love sharing what I've learned to help others run their best.

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