I am a pretty big believer that one should not wear headphones while running outside. If you are indoors on a treadmill or riding an exercise bike, then go ahead and listen away. But when you are exercising outside I believe there are a variety of reasons why headphones should not be worn.
There is a safety issue. Headphones prevent you from hearing an approaching runner, cyclist, or motor vehicle that may pose a danger to you. It can also keep you from hearing a warning cry from someone. One of the more high profile accidents occurred in 2006 in San Francisco’s Presidio. Ashlyn Dyer was believed to be running and listening to her iPod when she was the victim of a hit and run accident. For safety reasons alone, I think it is best to ditch the headphones.
Another reason to run without headphones is that a big part of running is engaging with those around you in conversation. Nothing says “leave me alone, don’t talk to me” more than headphones in your ears. If you are running alone, I think the solitude of being at one with the road and scenery around you is quite peaceful and best enjoyed when undisturbed by music or a podcast.
I know that some runners use headphones to disengage from the activity they are doing – running. As an experienced runner, I think it’s important to be engaged in the activity of running. Monitoring your breathing, checking your form, and thinking about your pace are all things that a runner would benefit from doing, rather than “zoning out” and hoping the run will be over before you know it.
The two major governing bodies of the sport in the Unites States, the Road Runners Club of America (RRCA) and Unites States of America Track & Field (USATF) both advise against the use of headphones.
The RRCA decided in January 2009 to instruct race directors that to be covered by the RRCA insurance policy, races must not actively promote the use of headphones. In fact they suggest either stating: 1) The use of personal music devices is strongly discouraged or 2) The use of personal music devices is strictly prohibited.
USATF’s latest stance on headphones was released in a statement in December 2008. This statement specifically said that events, “may allow the use of portable listening devices not capable of receiving communication; however, those competing in Championships for awards, medals, or prize money may not use such devices.” The rule had previously banned the use of headphones by all runners. This amendment maintained that headphones be ban for athletes competing in a USA Championship, but left the use of headphones under other circumstances up to the race directors’ discretion.
One race that is following the RRCA guidelines is the Oakland Marathon. On their race website, they specifically state that the use of personal music devises is strongly discouraged. They go on to say that, “those competing in the Oakland Running Festival Marathon will not be eligible for prize money, prizes, etc. if they wear a musical device while competing…IF YOU ARE CAUGHT WEARING A MUSICAL DEVICE, YOU WILL FORFEIT ALL PRIZE MONEY, PRIZES, ETC. You will retain your overall position in the race, however.”
At the 2012 Oakland Marathon the first woman across the finish line was later disqualified from the first place prize for wearing headphones. That meant that the second woman across the finish line, Pamakid runner Monica Zhuang, received the first place award, which was a trip to Hawaii. The first place woman is still listed as the winner of the race, but she had to forfeit her prize per the rules that were publicized on the race website. This woman was written up on SF Gate as an impressive race winner, winning for the second year in a row, this time just six weeks after giving birth to a baby girl. In the pictures of her crossing the finish line she is not wearing headphones, but in a pre-race photo on SF Gate she has headphones on and in some of the mid-race photos on MarathonFoto she is wearing headphones. The speculation is that she started the race with headphones and took them off at some point mid-race. Someone either saw her during the race wearing the headphones and reported her or after the race someone spotted the photos and reported her. Either way, she is not getting the first place prize.
I congratulate the Oakland Marathon race director for sticking to their policy and enforcing the rules. I have been told that in 2010, the race winner also had to forfeit their first place prize because of a headphones violation.
You can say that I am “old school” but for safety reasons, for the benefits of engaging in running, and simply because it’s the rules, I think leaving your headphones at home when you are outside running or racing, is the way to go.