Clear and Present Danger: Running Outdoors with Headphones

(Not the movie starring Harrison Ford as CIA agent Jack Ryan)


Headphones 2 Running with headphones reduces awareness of your physical surroundings. If you’re running on a tape, click on the playlist. When you are outdoors, being less than fully aware of your physical surroundings compromises your personal safety. Like it or not, all runners (especially women) must run defensively at times. Headphone users range from being inattentive to totally oblivious to other people, cars, and dogs, all of which are potential attackers posing a real threat to a runner’s physical safety.

Last month, Runners World posted a story online about a teenager wearing hearing aids who was hit by a car and seriously injured. He was running a night 10K and took a wrong turn, veering off course and onto an open road. He didn’t hear the runner behind him yell a warning.

A little closer to home: Last year my teenage daughter and I discussed wearing headphones while running. He insisted that he could hear what was going on around him, with or without headphones. I waited until he ran out of the house. I put on my running shoes and went after her. I ran after her. She was absorbed in her music, unaware of my sudden presence. I tapped her on the shoulder, startling her. She’s lucky; Dad is a safe boy.

What is my body telling me?

When you are in tune with the melodies, you are not in tune with your body. When we run, our bodies provide us with valuable feedback. We learn what a certain rhythm feels like, how our breathing, heart rate, and muscles respond, especially when accelerated. We continually integrate this data, making appropriate physical and mental adjustments in response as we run. When we run and receive the same signals that we experience during training, we can remain calm and in control because we know that we have previously experienced the discomfort caused by running faster and have managed it. Headphone wearers can easily miss the subtle cues from their body and the race day lessons that stem from them. It is difficult to listen to music and your body at the same time.

Am I missing a beautiful experience?

Last May, my wife and I volunteered as quarterbacks in the Toronto Women’s Half Marathon. The off-road circuit traversed a section of Toronto’s scenic park system. An old woman passed me. He stopped and slyly observed: “Those women (referring to some of the race participants who wear headphones) run through the beautiful nature but do not enjoy the song of the birds or the smell of the flowers.” Yes, he was right on his first point … and probably also on his second point.

“I run for the feel of the textures of the earth under my feet. I know of no time when I am more fully alive or intimately at one with the physical world.” Roger Robinson, columnist and author.

The sounds and scents of running outdoors in a natural environment, one of the great joys of running, do not compete with iPods.

Hopefully some readers will think twice about reaching for their headphones when they head out for their next run.

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