With the clash between headphone lovers and haters raging, we asked two experts to sound off on the issue’s pros and cons. On the pro side is Costas Karageorghis, Ph.D., a sports psychologist, who has studied music’s positive influence on athletes. His challenger is Jim Denison, Ph.D., a sports sociologist and coach, who thinks it is best to run to the sound of your footfalls. Here, the two have it out.
What’s the big deal about running with music?
PRO Music can sometimes make running feel easier. Studies find that music reduces your perception of how hard you are running by about 10 per cent. An external stimulus such as music can actually block some of the internal stimuli trying to reach the brain – such as fatigue-related messages from muscles and organs. When these messages are blocked, this reduces a runner’s perception of effort, so you feel like you can run further, faster. (The exception is at higher levels of effort – the brain involuntarily switches its attention from the external to the internal.) Music also elevates positive aspects of mood such as excitement and happiness, and reduces negative aspects such as tension, fatigue, and confusion, so it can be used pre-performance to get runners into an optimal mind-set.
CON One big problem is that listening to music can remove you from the other sounds that running produces, such as breathing and footstrike, which are essential cues. They give you feedback on your effort. Running while listening to music also removes you from the environment you’re in, which can be unsafe. You may not hear a car or person behind you. You may not hear thunder in the distance. And in races, it makes you oblivious of other runners and you can’t hear the directions being given by officials. Would you ever drive or ride a bicycle with headphones on? Not likely, because doing so reduces awareness and increases reaction time. I want those things working for me. Finally, I believe runners can become dependent on music. Eventually, you can lose a sense of what might be truly motivating to you, such as the energised feeling you get on the run.
Do some runners need music more than others?
PRO Yes, in fact, music is not effective for people who are “associators.” Serious athletes tend to be associators, which means they focus intently on internal cues such as breathing, heart rate, and muscular tension. This type of athlete tends to not derive as much benefit from external stimuli such as music. Then there are “dissociators.” Your average active person falls into this category. For these people, music can be a motivational force. Dissociators will seek it to distract them from the boredom often associated with exercise.
CON Elite runners may tend not to need external aid to overcome the so-called drudgery of running, but I don’t want to give up on Joe and Jane Recreational Runner. I don’t think everyone views running as a means to an end. We shouldn’t assume that people view running as boring and need music to get through it. Many people enjoy running and being present in the sensation of moving. You don’t have to be an elite athlete to be in tune with your body.
People say running clears their heads. How does music affect that?
CON The ability to be at peace and be calm is something we’ve lost in our culture; we’ve lost it in favour of multitasking. I would argue that listening to music – or podcasts or audio books – while running is a form of multitasking. It keeps us too plugged in and prevents us from enjoying the running experience.
PRO In the “flow state,” which is complete immersion in the task at hand, time almost seems to stand still. You’re enjoying what you are doing, you feel at one with yourself. But there’s good research showing that music can help enhance flow state during running. So it can actually be part of this holistic experience, not necessarily detached from it or a detriment to it.
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