Why you shouldn't plug in and tune out

Last updated 11:41 08/04/2014

THE DOWNSIDES: Feeling in the zone while Rihanna's latest jam pulses through your headphones is all well and good... until you have a close shave with a car or miss vital fun run instructions.

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How often have you nearly - or actually - crashed into someone who's running haphazardly while plugged into a device, one that's pumping loud music into their ears?

Or perhaps you've been the crashee - out on a run, minding your own business with a great song for motivation when some grump pushes past you? You can't hear what they say as they go by (music's too loud), but by the look on their face it's not very kind. They really should take a chill pill, right?

I admit to have been in both groups; both times as the one without the music.

I've never run to music - or a Podcast or an audiobook, or anything else that requires my ears' attention. I couldn't think of anything more annoying. I actually enjoy the way running heightens my senses.

For me, running is about being in the moment, even if the moment is a steep hill and a subtle hangover. And on those occasions it's amazing how the moment can pass by being drawn into my environment; I've crested the hill, I'm recovering along a flat section of road and I hear the first bird calls of the day. My focus of attention has shifted from my discomfort and onto some random line of thinking about birds, or whatever.

I also need my ears because I get a little lazy when it comes to traffic. This is not necessarily  a good thing of course, but it's amazing how attuned you can get to what's happening before you can see it.

I know the sounds of cars or cyclists approaching from behind well before they are close (cyclists love to talk loudly to each other); I know the sound of a dog about to go nuts at me from behind a gate; and on these dark mornings I know I can rely on my ears to anticipate any sudden changes in my environment.

When I'm running through an unlit area, for example, my footfall becomes incredibly light just so I'm alert to any sounds that might require me to run really fast in the opposite direction. (Actually I wish my footfall could be like that all of the time.)

Anyway, clearly not everyone has my aversion to running with headphones.

In fact, during some races I wonder if I'm not in the minority. As running has taken off in popularity, so has doing it to music.

This is a headache for event organisers whose job it is to marshall into some sort of co-ordinated convoy thousands of runners who are a) not listening  and b) unaware they're even being marshalled.

Safety is the main concern here, not the runners' tastes in playlists.

With the fun run season upon us, I asked Rebecca Wilmer, the sport and race director of Fairfax Events in Australia, what policies are in place for an upcoming running event in Sydney.

"We recommend people refrain from using iPods and other music devices," she says.

"Runners can't hear directions given by event officials, course marshals or other runners around them. In rare cases we also have event or emergency vehicles on course and need to be able to speak to runners to warn them of safety hazards."

To reward people for adhering to the non-iPod policy (not that it's enforceable), this year's race is likely to have more live and recorded music playing enroute than previously.

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"We try to have music as frequently as we can around the course to keep people motivated and help them get around in their personal best. A half-marathon is a long way!" Wilmer says.

"However we also need to be mindful of the non-event community. All our runners love the music and this is an area we try to improve on each year. It gives them that little extra push."

Precisely. It's fantastic. Just ask anyone who's done the New York marathon, with 130 official live bands (and scores of others) lining the course route.

Music galvanises participants in mass events in a way nothing else does. External music, that is. Internal music isolates participants, makes them unaware of what's going on and inexplicably causes them to zigzag. Right in front of you.

Don't get me wrong. Anything that motivates someone to exercise regularly is a good thing in my book and if it's music - even via headphones - then go for it.

But it is far safer to run with music somewhere that you aren't jeopardising your safety or anyone else's. Like around an oval or along a beach. Or on the spot in your bedroom.

Do you run to the beat of your own drum? Or one imported from iTunes?

- Sydney Morning Herald


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