A recent Audible ad depicts a young woman seated in a moving train. Her eyes are fixated on the scenery whizzing by outside while her ears are simply enamored with the narrator who’s describing a most riveting story through her headphones. The woman’s facial expressions are minimal, but the feeling is palpable. She’s lost in the narrative. Suddenly interrupted by the conductor for a boarding ticket, she’s startled at his presence but smiles as her attention quickly returns to the saga that has satiated her mind.
The power of sound during a run, be it through song or story, is a presence not to be minimized. Like the young lady on the train, sound transports the mind into new places. For me, music is the mechanism that swiftly moves my legs from home and back some time later. There’s clearly a lively debate on running with music too. Should the iPod be left at home or affixed to the body like any other piece of gear that’s worn regularly? An article of note on the subject is dated, but Runner’s World invited two doctors to discuss whether taking tunes on a run is wise in December of 2010.
First, Costas Karageorghis, a sports psychologist who favors music. “Studies find that music reduces your perception of how hard you are running by about 10 percent. Music also elevates positive aspects of mood such as excitement and happiness.” Jim Denison, a sports sociologist and coach, dissents. “Listening to music can remove you from the other sounds that running produces, such as breathing and foot strike, which are essential cues.” Denison also adds that music can distract you from hearing other people, automobiles, or, in the case of a race, officials on the course.
As powerful as music can be for motivation, distraction, or enhancing flow (“complete immersion in the task at hand,” according to Karageorghis), the sound of silence is equally significant. In a July 2016 article for Outside magazine, author Martin Fritz Huber leads off his diatribe against music with the first line of William Wordsworth’s acclaimed 1806 sonnet. “The world is too much with us.” The gist of Huber’s lament is that we need to “value the few remaining moments we actually have to ourselves.” In other words, run sans music.
Huber makes a compelling case for ditching the tunes based on two reasons: location and substitution. In his thoughtful article, he references “aspens in the wind and a Montana trout stream." Based on this description, I’m curious if Huber resides in Montana as there are undoubtedly some stunning views to behold along the trails. As a suburbanite who lives north of Atlanta, my views (and runs) are lined with miles and miles of black asphalt and grey concrete. Accordingly, I too would forget the iPod for every run in a locale like Yellowstone or Glacier National Park. Woods surpass the streets every time.
Substitution, according to Huber, amounts to replacing music with podcasts. He cites a Washington Post article in which Chris Friesen, a clinical psychologist, argues for podcasts over music. As Friesen puts it, “I feel like I’m killing two birds with one stone when I’m getting knowledge and motivation from informational podcasts or books while I’m exercising.” As podcasts have exponentially grown in recent years, there’s no shortage of content. A June 2016 Pew Research Center study shows that Libsyn, a podcast hosting company, hosted 28,000 shows in 2015, up 6,000 from 2014. And total download requests in 2015 for Libsyn? 3.3 billion.
Podcasts regularly rotate based on popularity at a given point in time, but a handful consistently stay in the top spots. This American Life. 30 for 30. The Daily. Stuff You Should Know. Radiolab. All five of these shows sound riveting, but I have never listened to a single episode. Perhaps this should change, so like Chris Friesen, I too can utilize more cognitive space to internalize fresh ideas and unique factoids. You know, stuff I should know.
Of course, there’s great worth in allowing nature to provide a soundtrack. As Huber puts it, “I’ll take the monotony of running without the distraction, thank you very much. I’d prefer to be a smug purist than another chump with an iPod.” I’d like to think of myself as a purist too, though there is an iPod Nano in my running bag that holds 16 gigabytes of songs. Perhaps I’m just a chump after all.