Sunday, March 13, 2011

Music is to Running as...: Joys and Pitfalls of Running with Tunes

This is my iPod, I call it the "Blueberry"
note the dent (from the road) and the Yurbuds
Yesterday while on my long run, I used the time to listen to my newest music purchase: the album "Build a Rocket Boys!" by the band Elbow. Not only is it a fantastic album from start to finish, but it's also a great album to run to. It got me to thinking: what makes good running music? The answer will be different depending on who you talk to. And you may think that a "good beat" is a necessity, but that's not the case for me. For me, great running music is like great driving music - it keeps you engaged and makes the miles fly by.

There was a time I didn't believe in running to music. It was a dark, unenlightened time. It was back in my hard-core running days when I judged people who ran with headphones - they weren't "serious runners." (How could they be?) How could they run and pay attention to the road at the same time? How could they focus on their workouts?

I will always be the first to stand up and admit I was wrong. But not without a struggle.

My road to being wrong began in 2004 in a hotel in Chicago. I was at a training class for work. It was January. The temperature outside was 1 degree F, and the hotel was in an industrial area. I had planned to run ten miles, and the treadmill in the hotel's fitness center appeared to be the safest option. At the time, I couldn't fathom running ten miles on a treadmill. There was absolutely NO WAY - I would surely go insane if I had to do that.

A (terrifying) thought occurred to me. What if... I... used............ MY iPOD!!! No one - especially not my hard-core running friends - would ever have to know. It would be my little secret. There was only one problem. I needed headphones I could run with (more on this later) because earbuds don't like my ears, even when I'm NOT running.

Luckily, my hotel was near a mall and I was able to get a relatively inexpensive pair of Sony "sports headphones" - the ones that stick sideways in your ear and are designed so your sweat drips off them and away from your ear. I rationalized that these were good ones because could hear what was going on around me while wearing them.

The next morning at 5:30, I snuck down to the hotel's fitness room, constantly checking over my shoulder to make sure no one was watching. Even though I didn't know anyone in that hotel in Chicago, I was paranoid of being a hypocrite - a "serious runner" running with headphones. THE HORROR!

If that weren't bad enough, there was something else to worry about. WHAT THE HECK AM I GOING TO LISTEN TO? I don't have any "running music." The music on my iPod was mostly acoustic-y mellow indie bands, and I didn't trust the shuffle mode of my iPod to make the right choices for a run.

In times of music confusion like this, there is one thing to do: choose Radiohead!

And there it was - my first favorite album to run to: Radiohead's "The Bends." It's no Chumbawamba, but it worked perfectly for me. It ebbed and flowed and kept me going to the bitter end (of my workout). I enjoyed it so much that the next morning, with considerably less fear of being caught, I was back on the treadmill for another run with "The Bends" in my ear. Call me a creature of habit or call me a die-hard Radiohead fan, but if it works, why mess with it?

And seriously, I thought those two days would be the beginning AND end of my foray into "running with headphones." Boy was I wrong! That winter was a real struggle and I started using music to get me out the door (yes, now I was running on the ROAD with headphones).

Nowadays, the only time I run without music is when I'm doing track workouts, non-treadmill intervals or racing. I used to think that running with music would make it harder to race without it, but that's not the case. I have many opportunities to practice being alone with my thoughts - like when I'm riding my bike for many hours or swimming (both of which are likely to be dangerous with music).

I've been through a few generations of iPods and more earbuds and headphones than I can shake a stick at. The iPod shuffle is, by far, the easiest and lightest gadget to run with. I've dropped mine, thrown it several feet and even had it detach and bounce across the road to be lost for several hours. It came back dinged up but still working.

Earbuds and headphones, on the other hand, have been nothing but trouble. After my Sony sports headphones died, I tried every brand of earbud under $30, but my ears have never played nice with them. Apple earbuds fall out if I take a deep breath, the Nike ones (specifically MADE to work for runners) fell off after three steps, and the JVC Marshmallow ones (which were a little better) were impossible on warm days or long runs because they fell out as soon as sweat dripped onto my ears.

I was about to give up when I found myself standing in front of the Yurbuds table at the Detroit Marathon expo last year. Yurbuds are little plastic sheaths that go over your (Apple) earbuds and hold them in place in your ear. They come in custom sizes and they allow ambient sound to get through. After a demo, I bought a pair instantly and haven't had a single problem since. (If you have problems with earbuds, you might want to try them -- and no, I am not being paid to tell you this, they just work for me.)

So, now fitted for sound, I will try to periodically write a blog about my favorite albums to run with. And unlike the rest of this A.D.D. world we live in, I still enjoy listening to albums from start to finish. At least the first few times. I like to respect the song sequence chosen by the musicians. Oh, sure, I often run in "shuffle" mode, but ANYONE can give you a list of great single songs to run to. Like my all-time favorite that I play when the going gets rough, the "treadmill song" by OK Go (also known as "Here it Goes Again").

But have you ever listened to that whole album while running? Now THAT'S what I'm talking about.

OK Go on Treadmills (from the album Oh No) - don't try this at home:


  1. The first year I trained for 1/2 marathons I didn't use music at all. Now I use it all the time. It gets me to run at a faster pace which is more my style. :)

  2. Before I got my iPod shuffle I had a horrible time running with music. The turntable was bulky, songs would skip and records scratch so easily PLUS it was a royal pain to flip the record over without stopping. What can I say, I love vinyl….

    I do agree with you about the Apple ear-buds. They suck and should be called ear-enemies.

    I’m hilarious.