First-Time Finisher: The Great iPod Debate

Annie can't run without music—but maybe she should try? She needs your input.

This past weekend, I went running on the Maine coast while on a family vacation. It was blissful. Instead of goose poop on Kelly Drive, I smelled sand and salty sea air; instead of Penn rowboats, I watched lobstermen chug past the shoreline. It was about as picturesque as running gets, save for one distraction: I had Pitbull thumping through my headphones.

I know runners who compare running with music to painting by numbers: amateur stuff. A crutch for those who can’t hold up to the real task, they say. Unpure! You should be one with your pain! One with your surroundings!

I’m sure their highfalutin-ness continues from there, but that’s generally when I put in my headphones. Volume up.

Still, they tap into an insecurity of mine. Many runners can peaceably listen to This American Life, John Coltrane, or Jonathan Franzen audio books on runs. It’s a brilliant two-bird shot, mixing culture with cardio.

Since I listen to Pitbull, I’m pretty sure my IQ actually gets lower while I’m working out. My muscles may be getting stronger, but my brain is atrophying toward marathon day. My problem lies in song-bingeing. Once, in late 2009, I spent a ten-mile run listening to only “Poker Face” on repeat. I did the same thing a few weeks ago with “Super Bass.” Getting through a workout without a top 40 fix is near impossible.

Does it say something about me that I can’t transcend my addiction to auto-tuned pop songs while running? Are “real runners” better at withstanding—and even enjoying—a silent, solo 16-miler?

Evidence suggests otherwise.

There’s plenty of mainstream examples to support my side of the music v. silence running debate: Mr. All-American Ryan Hall reportedly jams to Kanye while running. Deena Kastor’s professed her love for working out to trance music. (If that doesn’t make Pitbull look like Dvorak, I don’t know what will.)

Plus, it seems pretty self-evident that music doesn’t affect the quality of your training. If it motivates you to do a few intervals once a week, great. Turn it up.

Of course, there are times when running unwired is best. If you’re going out for a run with a group, for Pete’s sake, don’t be that asshole who stares at the sidewalk and clutches his iPod the whole time. If you’re running on Kelly Drive between 5 and 7 p.m., when bikes are moving like stampeding wildebeests, blocking out all sound will leave you pancaked on the concrete.

Also, if you happen to be on the Maine coast, and it’s a lovely day outside, it probably won’t kill you to unplug for a few miles.

Where do you fall on the music vs. silence debate? If you listen to music, what keeps you going? Tell us in the comments—Annie could really use a new playlist.