I've spent more time detangling headphone cords than shoestrings, more time charging batteries than charging the streets. Seven years after buying my first iPod, I don't run with one anymore. I'll tell you why.
I've had my fair share of running soundtracks. Listening to music was once the only way I could make it through a workout. More important, it was the only way I could justify some of the music on my computer. ("Uh, you listen to Vanilla Ice?") But I finally put down the iPod for good when I took up the marathon gauntlet. When I casually brought it up one day, my friends looked at me with a mix of mild horror and amusement, as if I had just told them I was switching to a wind-up laptop. "Yeah," they said, "but won't you hear yourself getting tired?"
I don't blame them for being surprised; these days, it seems an mp3 player in the armband holster is worth two in the home stereo. Companies have certainly taken their cue, introducing scores of mp3 workout accoutrements. Swimmers can now put their laps to music with underwater headphones. Nike introduced a running shoe with a sensor that gives feedback to your iPod, monitoring your pace and the distance you've run. While these products are particularly cutting edge, mp3 players are increasingly touted as part and parcel with physical activity.
This is hard for me to understand now that I've given up the habit. In those hours of the morning when I start out, the streets seem primed for runners. It's quiet enough to hear mockingbirds mock and fellow runners and cyclists course the streets. I can hear my heartbeat, listen for oncoming cars, and take stock of what's happening around me. I get the occasional whistle, and once I even caught the eye of a mulleted babe-slayer in a Bronco: "Hey. Nice shorts. Wanna hop in my lap?" I couldn't help but wonder what other beguiling invitations I had missed out on all those years of running with music. How many times had "Mr. Right" roared right past me with a dejected flip of his naked lady mud flaps?
One thing is certain: I tuned out a lot of my own thoughts while I was plugged in. Having given up the pod, I'm now left to fill the silence myself. When I'm not mulling over some nagging anxiety, I often find myself in an almost meditative state, listening to the rhythm of my breathing and the patter of my shoes.
I'm sure you're thinking, "Meditative state? Seriously?" Curb your gag reflex. This doesn't have to mean New Age mysticism or swimming in the ether. This can be as simple as staying engaged in the act of running, instead of struggling to stay distracted.
I understand the pleasure of running with music. But headphones pose a risk. Breathing, heart rate, and pacing are all pivotal parts of running; listening to music drowns out your body's signals and breaks down communication between your brain and your brawn. It may be easier to run with music, it may be more entertaining, but you can run without it. Besides, there's a certain pride in pulling yourself through a difficult run without the help of Fergie or Britney or Mr. Mister.
For years, mp3 players and headphones were banned in many road races across the country. Authorities cited the danger of missing route announcements and emergency information. Last winter, USA Track and Field relaxed its rules on headphones, leaving it up to race directors to decide whether or not to allow them. Now most marathons, including the New York, Boston, and St. Jude, allow headphones, but do not recommend them.
Nor do I. Kicking your mp3 habit is not as hard as you might think, and I, for one, plan to train without it. Now I just have to figure out how to explain Vanilla Ice to my friends.