The (non)Importance of Music to the Runner (or, the 4 stages of running with music)

So maybe you’re thinking of taking up running. Or maybe you’ve been running for a while and you’re thinking of changing up your routine. Or maybe you’re just browsing the net for articles and blog posts about the myriad topics related to running (not that I’ve ever done that). And eventually, the question occurs to you: what should I do while I run? And unless you’re running on a treadmill in front of a TV (protip: this is not the way to run), the obvious answer is to crank some tunes.

Music, I think, has a complicated relationship with running. Some runners swear by their music, others abhor it, still others could take it or leave it. I think that it’s more complicated than simple taste, though, and in classic fashion, I’m going to tell you about my experience with running under the assumption that it may also hold true for you. That’s a healthy way to live your life, right? By making wild assumptions? No? Okay, let’s just move on.

To my mind, the runner goes through a series of stages with music in his or her running career. Those stages are, briefly, Utter Dependence, Evolution, Waffling, and Indifference. Those are chronological, but not fixed, meaning: you will likely pass through those stages or others similar to them, but while I may take five years to move past Utter Dependence, you may clear it in five weeks. Or five days. Or five minutes. I don’t know. There’s no actual science going on at this blog, if you haven’t noticed.

But first, an abstract: Why is music important to the runner? And there’s no one answer: it can motivate, it can distract, it can inspire. I think that running, as an exercise, tends toward one key component that most other sports tend away from: monotony. Say what you will about paces and routes and training plans and running partners, but at the end of the day it’s just about putting one foot in front of the other, again and again and again and again. The monotony of it can be daunting, soul-crushing, and will-breaking. Music is just one way to help deal with that tireless repetition, and it’s pretty good for that purpose…

But yeah, I mentioned stages, right? So:

  1. Utter Dependence. When you start running, it sucks. You get exhausted so fast it’s depressing. Your whole body hurts. Your lungs feel like shriveled apricots. Your heart hammers away on the inside of your ribcage as if it’s trying to escape. You get dizzy and sweat-blind. In short, running is abject misery, and its detrimental effect on the body must be mitigated in any way possible. Music is a perfect distractor. Don’t focus on the burning in your legs, focus on the sweet sweet vocals of … who, Taylor Swift? Kenny Loggins? Flava Flav? (Is that even how you spell Flava Flav?) Don’t dwell on the sucking sound of wind heaving in and out of your pitiful lungs, dwell on a sweet beat and a catchy melody. At this stage in the game, the only thing worse than the monotony of the running is the pain it’s causing in your body, and you need the music to hide from it. So you hide from it in the sweetest escapes you can find, and these are your favorite tunes from your favorite artists. And this makes running bearable, for a while. But eventually those favorite songs get overplayed, or they cease to motivate you and transport you and distract you, and you stumble into stage 2. If you forget your music or can’t use it for whatever reason during this stage, don’t kid yourself; you’re not running that day.
  2. Evolution. You’ve made it past those first runs and you no longer want to die immediately when you head out. Your muscles no longer feel as if they may spontaneously combust after a few minutes of running. You may even be starting to enjoy your runs, though enjoyment is not a prerequisite for this step. No, at this stage, you realize that there’s more to running than merely getting out there and pounding the pavement, and you’ve also realized that the music piping into your headphones can actually have an impact on how you run. In a simplified universe, fast songs make you go fast while slow ones make you go slower. You start to experiment with playlists to plot out your runs in advance: “I want it nice and easy to start out, so give me some Dave Matthews Band, but then there’s that wicked hill that I need some motivation to get over, so I need ‘Call Me Maybe‘ to push through, and then I’m going to mellow it out with some Hey Jude…” yeah, all those things were on my running playlist at one point, by the way. You no longer need an escape from the pain, but you want to be better, so you seek out new music by new artists, music that motivates you and pushes you. But you will still have that day when you forget your phone, or the batteries are dead, or you can’t find your headphones, and on that day, you stay the fargo at home. Until one day, you don’t, and you flop like a fish into stage 3.
  3. Waffling. You’ve come a long way, baby. Your musical tastes have refined, you know exactly the kind of music you need to get the most out of your runs, and you have a playlist or two dedicated to ONLY that music that motivates you. You may even have entire folders of music that you wouldn’t use for anything OUTSIDE of running (I’m looking at you, Glitch Mob). But then the day comes. Your phone is dead, or your ipod can’t be found, or your headphones are on the blink, and on every day like this day, that’s reason enough not to run. But not this day. You decide that you can muscle through without music for one run, so you set out in an eerie silence. Except it’s not silent. Maybe you run in the wee hours, and you’re suddenly surrounded by a calmness broken only by the sounds of crickets and tree frogs and scuttling nocturnal forest critters. Maybe you run in the city, and it’s all sounds of traffic and bustle and car horns. Maybe you’re way out in the suburbs or parks and it’s just occasional sounds of cars and dogs barking and kids playing. You tune in to every sound outside, but more than that, you tune in to the sound of your own body: the regular thump of your feet on the ground, the soft whoosh of the wind past your ears, the pumping bellows of your now industrial-strength lungs. There’s music in that, you realize, a music that’s in its own way more compelling than anything orchestrated and recorded. A music that simultaneously makes you acutely aware of your motion through the world and divorces you from all concerns of the world. It’s during this stage that you begin to grasp that the monotony of the run is not necessarily a thing to be feared and fought against, although you’re still for damn sure reaching for those headphones by default. But you might take a short run without them on purpose once a month or so. You may take the earbuds out for a mile here or there. And this leads you finally, blissfully, into stage 4.
  4. Indifference. It sinks in, finally, that the monotony of the run is a thing to be sought on some days, that the zenlike focus (or, if you will, complete lack of focus) you achieve is preferable to the absent-minded distraction of the music you love. Maybe not every day. Maybe not even once a week. But you know that you can have just as good a run, if not a better run, without music as you can with it. More and more you find reasons to leave the headphones at home, and more and more you find that the not-really-silence of the run is a far better companion than any music you could hope to plan for yourself. In short, there comes a time when you can either take or leave the music and have a good ol’ time either way.

Will every runner go through all of these stages? Fargo if I know, but I sure as hell have. It varies depending on my mood and what’s going on in my world, but I try to go tuneless at least a couple of times a month. The quiet helps me focus, helps me think through issues with my writing, helps me see my way through problems in my classroom. Then again, there are times when I don’t want to think about any of that stuff at all, and for those times, there’s no other way but music.

The monotony of the run is inescapable. But eventually you realize that you don’t have to escape it; you can embrace it and be a better runner, and maybe a better person, for it.

5 thoughts on “The (non)Importance of Music to the Runner (or, the 4 stages of running with music)

  1. I am presently at Stage 3. And I completely understand the emotions you just described :p my playlist is so bad that I probably deserve to be thrown off the edge of the earth for the selection. But meh!!
    Happy running and a happy 2015 !!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think any runner’s Playlist is going to be a spaghetti tangle of guilty pleasures and horrible tunes the world should have forgotten. But who cares? It’s only in your earphones, so if it gets you moving, who’s to judge?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think I reached waffling, but one thing is sure; this year I realized there were times when my music drove me nuts and I was longing for peace but I was still too afraid to try it without the tunes. Your post gives me hope! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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