To Listen or Not to Listen to Music During the Marathon: That Is the Question

To Listen or Not to Listen to Music During the Marathon: That Is the Question
Running the marathon without music during a more active phase of my life.

This Sunday is Marathon Day in Chicago.  Yay- good for all those go-getters!  A coworker, who is a pretty strong runner, will be running on Sunday and has been discussing her music situation with me, everything from the optimal type of iPod to her song selections.  It got me thinking about the merits and drawbacks of running the marathon with headphones on.

I ran the marathon two years ago and promptly crossed that off my list of things to do before I die.  To my own surprise, I did not listen to my iPod during the marathon, although it certainly got me through all of my training.  Between some online research (and unexpected complaining on some of the chat boards about people who do wear headphones) and my own experience, I’ve compiled a few reasons why someone may or may not want to plug in on the big day.

I thought that you technically weren’t allowed to wear headphones during the marathon, but I looked it up on the website and:

USATF, the national governing body of the sport, recently amended its ban on headphones, iPods and similar devices.  However, athletes competing for prize money are not allowed to use electronic devices such as headphones and ear pieces.

Well, that last bit is disappointing if you were planning on wearing your Bluetooth to have someone coach you to a win.  Anyway, here’s what we’ve got:

Why to listen to music:

  • Motivation – 26.2 miles is a really, really long distance that can take many, many hours in some cases (mine).  Lots of people have songs that really get them pumped, and while it’s difficult to maintain a super high level of energy throughout, upbeat songs can definitely have an impact on your mental state.  Once all that training is over, your body is ready but the psychological challenge still threatens to derail all the prep.  I really wouldn’t have minded some good music during those last three miles when everything went to hell and I basically walked it in.
  • Comfort – The whole marathon experience is very surreal, and there’s something comforting about having music that you’ve listened to repeatedly and sounds like your training.  I had one mix CD in particular that I listened to a ton during my training, and hearing that might have had a favorable effect.
  • Pacing – If you can match your pace to the beat of certain songs, it can definitely have a good influence on your pace.  There are even websites that match songs to certain beats per minute (BPM) for just that reason.  In my case, songs that corresponded to my BPM sounded like soothing spa music- no thanks.

On the other hand, there are some reasons to leave the iPod behind:

  • The “experience” – There are purists who argue that if you’re just going to listen to music and run in your own world, you might as well stay home and run 26 miles on the Prairie Path.  That’s a little harsh, but the concept has merit, and it’s why I didn’t wear headphones during the race marathon (no part of what I was doing would be considered a race).  The crowd along the marathon route is amazing, literally cheering the entire way.  I was wearing a shirt for the charity I was running for, so other supporters of that charity would yell encouraging things to me (apologies if it seems like I wasn’t acknowledging those people).  There are also bands along the way and other bits of entertainment.  The whole thing is quite an “experience” that could potentially be diminished a little if you can’t hear it all.
  • Pacing – While music can help you maintain a steady pace, it can also disrupt your pace if the music you’ve selected is erratic.  If my pace had been that precise I might be able to evaluate this one better, but other people claim it’s true.
  • Your body – Along the same lines as pacing, some people claim if you have music in your ears, you’re not going to really be in tune with your breathing and footsteps.  This was also a nonissue for me since I saw no need to hear my own gasping and clomping.  Quite the opposite: the music might have drowned it out!
  • Safety – This was the original reason why headphones were not allowed during the marathon, but unless are were cars driving through the course (there weren’t), I can’t see how it would be a factor.  My strategy was to start at the back and run with all the other slow people.  Danger averted!

This all comes down to a personal choice.  Ideally, I would have grabbed my iPod from someone in my fan base toward the end, after mile 20 or so, to get me through the last bit when I didn’t care about the nice spectators anymore.  But then that creates different stress, like what if I missed them (as I did up in Lakeview)?  My coworker said that last year she ran with her music on a medium volume and could still hear what was going on around her, so maybe that’s a good compromise.  All I know is that I will never have to personally ponder this quandary again.

By the way, I made two hours of music for my coworker.  Here are my very favorites that I put on her CDs.  Good luck to anyone running!

  • "Energy" - Superheavy
  • "Heart of a Champion" - Nelly
  • "Homecoming" - Kanye West
  • "Jai Ho!" - A.R. Rahman and The Pussycat Dolls
  • "MoneyGrabber" - Fitz & The Tantrums
  • "Otis" - Kanye West and Jay-Z
  • "The Suburbs" - Arcade Fire
  • "Movin' Right Along" - Alcaline Trio
  • "Tightrope" - Janelle Monae
  • "Love on Top" - Beyonce

Enjoy and good luck to all the runners, music or no music!

Filed under: Playlists

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