This is your body on music / by Edmund Milly

Kit Fox of Runner’s World wrote a blog post yesterday detailing a common enough dilemma - he’s become dependent on listening to music while he runs, and he’s getting anxious about how he’ll run the Marine Corps Marathon (which doesn't permit earbuds) without it.  He asks:

For the music-less purists out there, how do you stay focused during a three hour run with only your pounding footsteps to keep you company?

This has always been a topic of great interest to me as both a musician and a runner, and I also used to depend on music to get me through certain types of runs (e.g. long runs, tempo runs, runs in demoralizing weather, interval training… I guess that about covers it!) But sometime in March, just weeks before the Long Island Marathon (for which I had already meticulously compiled a killer three-hour playlist) I completely stopped listening to music on runs, and my iPod has seen little use since then. What happened?

I have always had an on-and-off relationship with music while running. My intuitive belief has always been that music is, like caffeine, a legitimate performance enhancer which only enhances performance if you don’t build up a tolerance to it. Studies have shown that 3 to 6 milligrams of caffeine per kilogram of body weight, administered an hour before an endurance event, can improve performance by approximately 5%. But does a cup of coffee in the morning make you faster when you drink it every day before your run? My thinking is, of course not - it just ensures that you won’t be slower than usual. I think to reap the benefits of caffeine use, you have to employ it strategically, a choice not unlike the deliberations we make about whether or not it’s a good moment to cross one’s aerobic threshold. In my experience and my gut feeling, this is how music acts on the brain, too. In the spirit of living deliberately, of having true control over my body and mind, I have always disliked the idea of depending on music to run.

I first started to get really into listening to music while running back in 2009-2010, when I was gradually increasing the distance I ran, and eventually training for my first marathon (Hamburg 2010). My playlists from this time in my life would probably be hilarious to many runners, as they heavily prioritized hot baroque jams, fugues, stuff with good fortspinnung and relentless basso continuo. My favorite playlist for a hard 30-minute run was Handel’s Dixit Dominus with all the slow movements taken out, and my epic playlist for the Hamburg Marathon started with Zelenka’s whole Missa Votiva and moved on to some nice Vivaldi viola d'amore concertos...

This was the music I was most excited about at the time, but in retrospect, it was a gateway drug which led to stronger and louder things, all of which contributed to my building up a tolerance. When the music of the 1700s was no longer loud and fierce enough for running, I moved on to my favorite rap albums, and eventually to technical metal with lots of polyrhythmic guitar shredding and angry screams, another great genre to run to (think Dillinger Escape Plan, Meshuggah, TesseracT, Animals as Leaders…) I was upping the dosage, and I think I eventually maxed out on the intensity and how it could contribute to my run. When you run with music, are you borrowing someone else's intensity? Why not cultivate your own?

The playlist I made for the Long Island Marathon in May, and ultimately did not use after transitioning to runs sans musique.

The playlist I made for the Long Island Marathon in May, and ultimately did not use after transitioning to runs sans musique.

But ultimately, the ability to breathe calmly and rhythmically while running (without creating unmanageable polyrhythms)  might be the most important part of my move away from running with music. This past Winter, in hopes of becoming a better runner and finally breaking the 3-hour barrier, I turned to several books, among them Jack Daniels’ Daniels’ Running Formula. Daniels recommends running with a consistent breathing pattern, 3-3 on an easy day (3 footfalls to the inhalation and 3 to the exhalation) and 2-2 in a race, and he also says that 180 beats per minute has proven to be the optimal cadence for elite runners of all distances. Accordingly, on an easy day, both inhale and exhale should last exactly one second, and be coordinated with every three steps.

I am willing to consider the possibility that there exist certain demonstrably superior practices which can enhance performance, particularly if these practices are endorsed by as renowned an expert as Jack Daniels (no relation... man, and my voice teacher is already James Taylor). I've found that following these guidelines has changed for the better the way I run. Air thresh is about sustaining an even level of effort, with no spikes in heart rate. If you are performing an aerobic activity, surges ultimately detract from your performance, the same way you can run 5 miles faster at an even pace than if you run 5 miles of interval training. A consistent heart rate that walks the knife’s edge between working too hard and not working hard enough, a cadence of 180, and a consistent breathing pattern are all tools to help runners achieve optimal aerobic performance and prolong endurance. In the six months since I stopped listening to music on the run and started paying attention to my breath, I’ve PR’d several times: first in the Long Island Marathon (3:08), two weeks later in a 5K (18:15), and a few weeks after that in a 10K (37:59). I will set a half-marathon PR without music tomorrow morning, and in four weeks my marathon time will fall again in Baltimore. Not all of my improvement is attributable to running without music, but it has helped me adapt a regular cadence, smooth breathing, and a consistent heart rate.

Theoretically, I could create a playlist that was exactly 180 bpm from start to finish - either by exclusive selection of music that adheres to that tempo (I’m told that dubstep is always 60 bpm, for instance), or by doctoring up my favorite songs with an editing program - but I haven’t done this. Why? Because so much would be lost in such a playlist. Music has an ebb and flow, as most of it is not made by machines, and I would like to respect the original tempo choices of the artists. Something seems off to me about altering music I like and respect to suit a practical purpose, and, moreover, with a homogeneous tempo I feel like I’d lose some of the most inspiring changes of tempo in a good running playlist.  The ever-shifting mixed meters that a “math metal” band like Animals as Leaders use interfere with a regular breathing pattern, too, but they’re also invigorating and mentally stimulating. And finally, I’d need to formulate different playlists in duple, triple, and quadruple time (all at 180 bpm) in order to accommodate the rhythmic demands of my easy days (when I breathe 4-4), my air thresh runs (3-3), and my races (2-2). I could  even use software to compress the dynamic range of my favorite classical music, so as to avoid the lulls that happen when the volume is too low to fully appreciate through cheap earbuds while you’re running fast.

Perhaps someday I will do all these things, because in the end, I am the type of runner who has a nuanced relationship with the music they listen to, but is also trying to optimize performance. But in the meantime, it isn’t worth the trouble, as I generally try to run without music to keep my breathing in check, improve my focus, and simulate the conditions of race day. I love music too much to listen to it every time I run, and it is also too powerful a boost to use every day.

On a side note, when I ran across Canada, I left my iPod at home: listening to music while running on the Trans-Canada Highway just isn’t a safe idea. Maybe the 6-hour runs without music were good for my psyche. And maybe runners with earbuds in are always deprived of some very important environmental stimuli. I kind of didn’t want to dredge up the safety issue, since I believe it is possible to run safely with headphones if you are alert enough and well acquainted enough with your environment, but if you’re weighing the pros and cons, don’t forget it.

So there you have it, a whole manifesto for how and why I don’t run with music which never once included that annoying type of rhetoric which Mr. Fox justifiably mocked in his original post:

Purists always argue that headphones are a distraction; that you can’t be one with the run and reach a Zen-like state of euphoria unless you just free your ears and listen.


Happy running, whether you choose to boost your performance with your favorite tunes or choose to deprive yourself of them so that boost will be more fun and effective next time. But whatever you do, pay heed to your breath.