I used to love field day back in grade school, especially the running events. Whether it was the 100 yard dash or the long distance run (usually one lap around the field) I loved running, and I often found myself throwing my head back and straining towards the finish line. Now if you have ever seen Chariots of Fire, then you know what I am talking about. Not only is that head motion forever inextricably linked with running, but so is the famed song “Chariots of Fire” recorded by Vangelis. It is hard to not think of that song when running and vice-versa. Music has a powerful grasp on our psyches when it comes to athletic events, especially running where carrying music with you on a run is part of the trappings that comes with this very popular hobby and sport.

Music Through the Years
Everyone has a favorite song or album that helps make running a powerful experience. I went through my Final Countdown and Cult of Personality phases in grade school. My Mama Said Knock You Out in high school. And more recently I have been in a huge Explosions in the Sky phase while running. And who of us hasn’t been into Eye of the Tiger.

Music and running just seem to go hand in hand.

I have never really even pictured myself running without some type of musical device plugged into my years. The equipment and music has changed over the years, but the one thing that has been constant is my love of music while running. Nothing seemed to take my mind off the grueling run faster than music. And nothing seemed to help transport me to another time and place on my run than the music.

But in the summer of 2006 I began training for my first marathon race, the Chicago Marathon, which did not allow participants to run with any type of headphone device for safety reasons. Though this decision has been recently amended, that was not the case three years ago. I trained for those four months while listening to music and found it not as bad as I thought it would be when I showed up to run on race day with no music pumping into my ears. And then in the winter of 2006 I started training again for another marathon in Los Angeles (a race which allows headphones), and I was so excited when I ran that entire race listening to the techno grooves designed for runners known as Podrunner.

A Season Without Music
Even though I had always run with music, there was always this nagging idea bouncing around in my head that I was missing out on a lot of the purity of running. That somehow the music interfered with my ability to reach the much wanted “zone” in running. Or that I was missing out on opportunities for prayer and thinking on those long runs, something that some pastor friends of mind did on their runs. But it was just a nagging idea, and I mostly ignored it.

I wish I could say that I started this experiment with determination and a plan, but I more or less found myself stumbling into it. Earlier this year I would often go grab my i-Pod for a run and find that I had neglected to charge it. sometimes that posed a dilemma for me. Should I skip my run, wait and charge it, or just go. More often than not I just left it at home and went out for a run. And you know what, I really started to enjoy it. I eventually found myself running without music on about two of my three runs each week, and eventually I came across in article that changed my approach completely.

In the April issue of Runner’s World, Olympian runner Kara Goucher made this comment when talking about her music playlist for running:

I listen to music on my easy runs. I’d love to on my long runs, but I think it’s better for me to be self-aware.

Though Kara was not against music, she helped me realize that running with music made me less of a self-aware runner than I wanted to be. The bigger epiphany for me that moment as well was that we often use outside stimuli to block out certain feelings, emotions, thoughts, pain, etc. in our life, and in the process it makes us less self-aware as a human being as well.

That’s the day I began my experiment. No music on any runs. I have now been running for four months with no music. It doesn’t matter if a run has been 3 miles or 12 miles, I have run without it.

Other things started to go as well such as my watch, GPS unit and other things that I felt interfered with just the pleasure of running.

What I Have Learned
One: Running without music has definitely made me much more of a self-aware runner. I can hear my breathing (something I tried to block out before because it was painful to hear me struggling), I can hear my stride, I can hear the environment around me. Without music taking my mind off of what I’m experiencing, I’m now more in tune with my body, knowing what muscles are working harder than others, which ones are hurting, and if I need to adjust my posture or stride to become more efficient. These are just some of the things that are much harder to do, if not impossible with music playing.

Two: My prayer and spiritual life have improved drastically. I do believe that running is one of those sports that gives us the ability to really transcend the moment and get in touch with the spiritual reality of our lives. That being the case, I have better been able to use my running time as a time to connect with God in prayer and thought. It’s almost a very meditative state where I feel more in tune spiritually than other parts of my life.

Three: I have been able to focus more clearly on tasks, and more clarity is available to me as well. Running really clears the mind, and since there is not music to fill it up, my mind begins to process other aspects of my life and focus on them. It’s not unusual for me to on a run and have completely new ideas that I have not had before, especially on the longer runs. I also write most of my blogs and articles in my head while running and then come home and put them on paper.

Four: I have found this time of running to be a refuge, almost a quiet time. I spend most of my day surrounded by noise. Twitter, Facebook, conversations, problems, meetings, etc. So why do I want to add more noise to my run. I now see running as a retreat from the noise of the day, and an opportunity to find solace, rather than bring more noise to it.

My Future and Your Challenge
I love music, and I love running. And I’m pretty sure that I will listen to music again when I run. There isn’t a right or wrong answer when it comes to this topic. Rather, this is just an opportunity for you to experiment and see what running may bring you when you aren’t filling it up with the sound of music.

I plan to continue to run with no music through my marathon on December 12, which would take me to a little over eight months with no music while running. And I encourage you to give it a shot for at least three weeks. Why three weeks? Because I have found that it takes about that many weeks (at least 2-3 runs a week) to get used to it. Most people go out and miss the music or hate the sound of their breathing and stride. But I encourage you to push through it, go at least three weeks and see what you think? If you do this, I think you will find that you begin to enjoy running even more, and you won’t use music as a means to make it more bearable.