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I’ll just come right out and say it: I love my iPod, iPad, and iPhone. Among other things, I love them for listening to great music, podcasts, and even national and local news. And when I listen to those things, I sometimes do it via headphones.

But I hate headphones.

We seem to be so socially burrowed into our electronic devices with texting, emails and addictive word games, that even when we finally come up for a breath, we are literally still tethered to them by earbuds and the like. Lost then, is one more opportunity for personal interaction, whether it’s because we’re listening to Lady Gaga, or talking extra loudly to our fabulous friends about our fabulous lives while in line at Starbucks.

But I hate headphones most when it comes to workouts.

When you start your race, do you also start your favorite playlist?
When you start your race, do you also start your favorite playlist?

I’d like to think if there’s one sacred place left out there, it’s that time when we connect with our bodies and ourselves through movement – that precious 30 to 60 minutes we carve out of our busy day for a walk, run, or other activity. For some, it may be the only time they have to themselves during an otherwise overloaded day. And I’d hope that time would be well spent, being mindful, paying attention to physical and environmental cues, and this flesh and bone structure we all inhabit, but take for granted unless it’s injured, sick, bloodied, or broken.

And while I don’t regularly partake in yoga, pilates or tai chi, I totally get it – that sense of focus and presence – which is why you never see practitioners hauling iPods to class along with their organic bamboo mats. To do so would be blasphemous, and practically destroy that mind-body connection we strive so hard to find.

runner alone
A daily walk or jog may be a good time to reflect and meditate in lieu of music.

So, if we respect those disciplines so much, why is it that we go a little crazy in the gym, on foot or even on wheels if we don’t have our playlist cued up and ready to go? It’s not as if a magical playlist is going to make us perform any better, right?

Well yes, actually.

As highlighted by Ferris Jabr’s article in the Scientific American, research in the last several years has consistently shown that people who workout with music generally workout longer, and with less perceived exertion, among other benefits. You can read even more on the positive effects of music by viewing some of the abstracts sponsored by the American Council on Exercise.

This, it seems, is a very good thing. With one caveat.

In controlled studies, music can help performance. But when you're out on the open road, the risks may not be worth it.
In controlled studies, music can help performance. But when you’re out on the open road, the risks may not be worth it.

Most, if not all the studies, were conducted with subjects in controlled environments – pedaling on stationary bikes or on treadmills for runners and cyclists, or in group exercise rooms for other studies.

Transfer those same environmentally deaf subjects to live city streets with cars, uneven terrain, and a host of other ever-changing conditions and hazards, and you change the benefit/risk outcome. Run, walk, or bike on the blacktop with loud music (is there any other type?) and you essentially remove one of your primary senses while operating in hostile territory. And that can create issues.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on my bike and approached a runner or walker after signaling and calling out “on the left” multiple times, only to have them jump and flail as I pass – completely oblivious to my existence prior to that moment.

And that’s one of the problems. Get too caught up in that live version of “Don’t Stop Believing,” and you mentally check out and sometimes forget you’re on a shared public road or path – so you haphazardly veer from side to side, hold up quicker traffic, and unpredictably jump when others pass by.

Being headphone-free means you can tune in to all the things going on around you.
Being headphone-free means you can tune in to all the things going on around you.

And I’m a good guy on a bike! Put that same tuned-out runner on the road alone with someone with bad intentions or an impaired, inebriated, or distracted driver, and you really have trouble. Things get even worse if you’re out there training in the dark (which I see often). Now you have limited vision and virtually no peripheral sense of sound should anyone or anything come your way.


Safety concerns aside, there’s another part of the equation, and that’s the ability to focus on exactly what you’re doing, and using those cues to perfect your form, breathing, flow and intensity. It’s the reason I never allowed any headphones in my marathon and half-marathon training groups – I want my runners and walkers to be aware of everything around them all the time, and to be completely cued into their bodies. If they need something to keep them occupied, they can focus on cadence, breathing, heart rate, split times, gait, etc.

But perhaps I’m just a stodgy curmudgeon, someone who got caught up in running and cycling before the advent of the iPod. Seriously, how did anyone manage to do anything 10 years ago without those white pieces of plastic constantly stuck in their ears?

So I checked in with a few folks to find out if I’m the only one who hasn’t progressed with the times.

“I’ve never used headphones and can’t imagine I ever will,” says running coach Julio Reyes, who himself is an elite level masters runner. “Every time I run, I enjoy the experience. I run with a purpose and for a purpose, and there is no way I could concentrate on that if I were wearing headphones.”

Coach Reyes... is listening. But not to music.
Coach Reyes… is listening. But not to music.

He also discourages it among his clients and his cross country team since he wants them concentrate on their performance and speed, and he sees the safety issue as key for others to refrain as well.

“I’ve seen women of all ages running alone in the dark wearing them and even sometimes running on the road with traffic,” says Reyes. “In those situations, there is no way you can hear anything or anyone behind you, so for safety reasons, it’s a no-no.”

Dale Londos, an elite level triathlete currently training for a half-ironman has similar sentiments.

“I never use headphones while training outside, since I like to be aware of my surroundings,” he says. “And that includes listening for cars coming from behind or from an upcoming cross street. The better I can hear, the more likely I am to take a timely peek around or behind me to see if that auto is giving me a safe passing distance and is paying attention to me, or watch to make sure they will actually stop at a cross street when I have the right of way.

“I also like to pay attention to my body; including my breathing, and the rhythm on the pavement or the pedals when I’m on the bike.”

And if you happen to pass him by on a desolate country road, don’t be surprised if you hear something besides the hum of his wheels on the pavement. “If I’m out there alone, I don’t mind singing songs to myself either in my head or even out loud.”

So there you have it: you can be your own free, built in iPod.

Athletes aside, what about the people who actually put on the races? What’s their take when it comes to headphones?

Before you lace up for your next race, make sure you know what the rules are regarding personal music devices.
Before you lace up for your next race, make sure you know what the rules are regarding personal music devices.

“Personally, I like to wear headphones in training and in races, but especially appreciate them for long runs – having music makes those long hauls a bit magical and mystical and definitely helps me in the end,” says local race director Paul Baltutis. “And right now, there’s definitely an interesting dynamic happening between freedom of choice for the participants and personal and public safety.”

In fact, in 2007, USA Track and Field played the prohibitionist card with regard to personal music devices at its officially sanctioned events. But lots of folks complained, and soon thereafter, USATF rescinded and softened their stance.

As a coach and race director, Baltutis emphasizes that people be mindful and well aware of their surroundings, and that if they choose to listen to music, they need to be extra cautious.

“You’re always thinking about safety, and designing courses that are runner friendly and well marked,” says Baltutis, whose next race takes place almost exclusively on the south end of the Mission Reach.

In his experience, most of the people with headphones are recreational and middle of the pack runners who tend to make up the bulk of participants. “The people at the front racing for the win,” he says, “they have too much going on to listen to music, their focus is the race.”

Speaking of races, what about the big one, the San Antonio Rock N Roll Marathon slated for Sunday, November 17? According to a representative from the Competitor Group, the organization behind the Rock N Roll events, headphones are allowed at the San Antonio race, but other events and races may have different restrictions based on the city and the sanctioning body. With live music being a key component of the Rock N Roll Marathon, headphones or not, you should have plenty of music to listen to along the way.

Tom Trevino is a writer and wellness coach based out of San Antonio. His weekly column covers anything and everything related to health and wellness. He holds a B.A. from the University of Texas at San Antonio, with certification and training from the Cooper Institute. He has a fondness for dogs, NPR, the New York Times, and anything on two wheels. When he’s not writing, training, or cooking, you can find him wandering the aisles of Central Market.

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