I have a long history of using music as an exercise distraction. When I first started running back in high school, on the treadmill in the basement room where my mom built dollhouses, I blasted music through the giant stereo surrounded by tiny dining sets and miniature sheets of Victorian wallpaper.
Soon I'd gained enough fitness and confidence to run outdoors. Of course I wanted portable music. We had a Walkman, but it was a cassette player (so old-fashioned!). I worked at a pharmacy in the same
shopping center as Kmart, so I cashed my paycheck and bought myself a sparkling new Walkman CD player.
In retrospect, it’s crazy to think I used to run around while holding an actual CD player in my hand. The thing skipped like crazy, but I didn’t care. I still got to listen to my tunes while I ran, which I considered essential. I could not imagine continuously propelling my body forward without the distraction of music, and I thought people who could were crazy.
Skip ahead 10 years. By then I’d gone through all manner of portable music players. I owned several increasingly sophisticated CD players, and then I had one of the very first iPod minis. It was Granny Smith green and very Playskool compared to the sleek touchscreen iPods of today. I loved that iPod more than I loved some of my family members. It outlasted several arm straps and many sets of earbuds. It stuck with me through sleet, rain, suffocating heat, and 99% humidity, distracting me from the task at hand—running.
If it helped me exercise, was listening to music really so bad?
I loved the feeling of having gone for a run, but the actual running? Not so much. If I paid attention to my arms and legs churning and my heart and lungs pulsating, wouldn’t I keel over from sheer exhaustion? My running philosophy was: Don’t Think About It and It Won’t Hurt So Much.
After many years, when the green iPod quit working, I delayed my run while I pried it open with a tiny screwdriver. It turned out that the wires had disconnected from the on-off switch, so I rigged them back together and it lasted another year. I just had to toggle the on-off switch if I wanted it to work.
When that iPod eventually died for good, I got an iPod Touch. The day my puppy ate the iPod Touch (don’t ask), I immediately went out and bought a new one. After all, I loved running (sort of) but I would never never, never be able to run without music. Music was as essential as running shoes.
You know I love my music, but here’s something else you should know: I’m borderline obsessed with learning and I have always been. I read everything I can get my hands on, and I’m talking cereal boxes and shampoo ingredient labels. So when I discovered podcasts, I was in heaven. I filled my iTunes library and listened every chance I got. I imagined packing my brain full of amazing knowledge I’d never have time to glean from books. There’s only so much time for reading, after all. But if I listened to podcasts while running, I could multitask! Fantastic!
I was happy with my iPod habit, yet I was feeing more and more fatigued and generally not OK. My doctor ran a few tests and told me I was suffering from a hormone imbalance most likely caused by chronic stress. Chronic stress? But I didn’t feel chronically stressed! How on earth was I living with chronic stress without realizing it? Isn’t chronic stress what happens when you hate your job and resent your family and work 80 hours a week and smoke a pack a day and feel like you’re constantly struggling? That doesn’t describe my life at all, and yet there I was with chronic stress.
After quite a lot of introspection and exploration, I realized that I was living with chronic stress, but it wasn’t the kind of stress I thought about when I heard the word “stress.” It turns out that I had an incomplete understanding of what stress is.
In his book, The Organized Mind, Daniel Levitin explains that Americans are basically drowning in information. "During leisure time, not counting work, each of us processes 34 gigabytes or 100,000 words every day..." A typical iPhone has more processing power than the Apollo mission control had. People used to go out of their way to locate a newspaper to find out what's going on in the world, but now we have millions of newspapers' worth of information available to us 24/7 on a gadget we can slide into our pocket.
The result of this information overload is that brains go into hyperdrive, and this is quite stressful even if we don't recognize it as such. Levitin explains that human brains evolved to focus on one thing at a time, but our modern lives almost require us to do many things at one time, all day long. Since "attention is a limited-capacity resource," we often end up feeling exhausted and unable to make decisions. We literally run out of attention and decision making power.
In a nutshell, more information is not always better, and there’s no such thing as multitasking. There is only doing two (or more) things at the same time with much lower overall efficiency. I thought I was doing a great thing by using my running time to learn, but I was actually failing to hear what my body was telling me about running (mainly that I was running too hard too often) and failing to retain a lot of what I heard in those podcasts.
One of my big sources of stress was constant input and very little quiet time.
I recognized my habit of switching between podcasts and music while running was sort of a nervous tic. "Ugh. This is boring. I need to find something else to keep me entertained. Ugh, this is boring, too." While I used to find music and podcasts were an awesome distraction from the physicality of what I was doing, suddenly felt I more aware that the constant input had become irritating, and yet I chose to keep trying a different kind of electronic input instead of just turning off the iPod.
When I got certified as an RRCA running coach, I learned how dangerous earbuds are to runners. You can’t hear danger approaching when you have earbuds in your ears, and you’re also more likely to run straight into danger because you’re distracted.
I know this danger is real because several times I’ve run into a traffic intersection when it was not my turn to cross and even stepped out in front of a car once because I didn’t think to look. I was engrossed in my music, not thinking.
All the signs pointed to ditching the music and podcasts while running, and yet it was so hard to actually do it. Getting my iPod ready is part of my running prep routine. Ponytail, socks, shoes, iPod. (Yes, I still ran with an iPod and not an iPhone. Go ahead, call me antiquated.)
One day I was in a big hurry to get out the door and I forgot the iPod. Normally I would have gone home to get it, but this time I made myself keep going. I wasn’t even half a mile from home before I felt a sense of calm and ease. I know that sounds like a cliché, but it's true. The sun was a gentle glow in the eastern corner of the sky. The crickets and frogs were still chirping in the darkness of the trees. The grass was wet with morning dew. I could smell coffee as I ran past a neighbor stepping into his car with a steaming travel mug in his hand.
This is what music and podcasts took away from my runs. The life around me, the world waking up. The beautiful tangle of early morning thoughts gently unfurling with each step.
Earbuds deafen me to the incredible calmness of running.
Now running is my meditation. It is a time to let my mind play freely and even tune out sometimes, when its only conscious focus is the 1-2-3, 1-2-3 cadence of my steps. This is one of the only truly quiet times I get in the day, and it is sacred. I have no doubt that ditching my iPod has lowered my stress load dramatically.
I still listen to my podcasts, but I do so selectively and not during times when I feel overwhelmed. Feeling overwhelmed is a call for silence and space, not more input. Of course I still love music. I simply choose not to listen while running because of the distraction potential.
I can imagine some readers saying, “But my music/podcasts/audio input of choice isn’t a distraction for me.” And I know that is true for many people. Yet we all need more silence and space in our lives from time to time. Right now I need a lot, but maybe you need less. Maybe you will need more someday and you'll remember reading this post. Or maybe you are unsure and you'll experiment on yourself to see what works best. Find what's good for you. I'd love to hear your experiences about what works and what doesn't.