Banning headphones in races: music to your ears?

AfterShokz2For many people music and running are a winning combination: they go together like rhubarb and custard or tea and biscuits or running and pretty much any food that is in the fridge… so what do you think about races that ban personal music players?

This post was inspired by something I saw as I was checking the results from the Abingdon Marathon which took place last weekend. Right at the bottom of the list of 700-odd finishers was this:

Screen Shot 2013-10-21 at 10.26.59

Wow! My first thought was that seems harsh. Obviously I have no idea how this unfolded – whether Mr. Ashton was asked repeatedly to remove his headphones and refused to. Or whether he was spotted and reported by a marshall and finished the 26.2 miles only to be told at the end that his result would be scratched from the records as he had been disqualified for the use of headphones. I guess the back-story would either elicit sympathy for the unfortunate runner or mark him out as a devious, ignorant person, willfully ignoring the rules.

I had a look at the Abingdon Marathon to find the information about headphones. It is in a section called Info > On The Day, about half way down a fairly extensive page of information about Start Time, Parking , Baggage, etc in a paragraph under the heading ‘Course’ which briefly describes the course and then says:

In the interests of your own safety and that of your fellow runners you will not be allowed to run if wearing an MP3 player or portable audio device (iPod or similar). The roads will not be closed and you will not be fully aware of traffic around you. Neither will you hear instructions from marshals or the police.

So there is a clear warning there (although to be correct it says “you will not be allowed to run if…” not “you will be disqualified if…” which are in my mind clearly different. If Mr. Ashton was pulled off the course for wearing headphones, that is very different to letting him finish and then scrubbing his result) and I have no doubt that there were more warnings about headphones in the race packs and at the race briefing (although as I wasn’t at the race I can’t verify that – can someone let me know if my assumption is right?)

The power of music

The thing is there are an increasing number of runners for whom music is becoming pretty essential. In a recent Runners World survey of over 3,500 runners, 75% of them were in favour of running with music. And it is not just about personal taste: the science is pretty compelling.

Professor Andy Lane, a sports psychologist from the University of Wolverhampton (who also happens to be a three-hour marathon runner as well) looked into the effectiveness of music when it comes to regulating positive and negative emotions in runners. The findings showed motivating music helped improve performance.

Another research project on people using static bikes showed that the riders’ heart rate and mileage decreased when the tempo for the music they were listening to was slowed, while they rode a greater distance, increased their heart rate and enjoyed the music more at the faster tempo. Though the participants thought their workout was harder at the more upbeat tempo, the researchers found that when they exercised to faster-paced music: “the participants chose to accept, and even prefer, a greater degree of effort”.

And Professor Costas Karageorghis from Brunel University, says:

in some instances we have seen performance benefits of up to 15%. As well as enhancing performance, music lowers the perception of effort. It dulls or masks some of the pain associated with training. We know from scanning the brain that when athletes are played loud upbeat music there is an increase in activity in the ascending reticular activating system.

Basically it seems that music works. So if you have people trying to do everything they can to run the fastest race they can, is it desirable to ban the use of personal music players?

The dilemma for race directors

I do understand the issue that race organisers have. Can you imagine hundreds or even thousands of runners, racing down the road, completely oblivious to traffic, instructions from marshals and other runners? I have had a few occasions – though admittedly too few to really worry about – where I have tried to warn another runner that I am ‘coming through’ only to find that it is futile because they can’t hear a thing over Justin Beeber yelling in their ears. That is a minor irritation, however, in comparison to the issue that races have where the course uses sections of open road, maybe even crossing open roads? In those cases, marshalls really do need to know that they can issue clear instructions and ensure runners’ safety. But could that not simply involve signs telling runners to take their headphones off/out as they approach a marshall who need to give them instructions. Those who don’t comply are then stopped (or DQ’ed depending on the organiser’s attitude).

Is it really a safety issue?

It seems to me, though I might of course be wrong, that the safety argument is a bit thin. At the sharp end of a race like Abingdon, the runners are moving at under 6 min/mile. That is 10mph. And they are probably in a whole world of pain and concentration. Are they able to hear, comprehend and respond to marshalls instructions? I know that when I am racing like that, my brain is dealing with running and I’m more than a bit distracted. And what about foreign runners? If you are a race that attracts east African or Japanese runners, are you sure that they understand the marshalls instructions?

I am afraid that I think this is a situation where either the people insuring the race have imposed a rule to reduce their risks and the race organiser has just gone along with it. Or the race organisers have just made a decision that they don’t like personal music players and they are imposing that on the runners.

I do think, however, that the race organisers should be careful about blanket bans. What would the situation be if the runner had music but wasn’t wearing headphone – would that be OK? Or if they were wearing AfterShokz, which transmit the music through your cheek bones and mean therefore that you can hear everything? I have tried these on once and it is spooky how well you can hear any outside noise as well as the music. Or what happens if the runner only has one ear-plug in?

Obviously, if you don’t like Abingdon’s rules (or any race’s rules for that matter), you can choose to not run their race. For me it make no difference whatsoever, because whilst I might go for solo easy runs and take my iPod along for company, I do not race with music. But for many people, they need music for performance in the same way that others need sunglasses or compression gear or a particular type of energy gel. I do think that it is a controversial subject however and perhaps a concensus should be reached so that people are in no doubt about what they are or are not allowed to do, not least so that runners don’t risk running a marathon only to find out at the end that they were disqualified!



About simon

I run marathons. Everything else is a result of that.

8 Responses to “Banning headphones in races: music to your ears?”

  1. Richard Lyle October 25, 2013 at 6:04 pm #

    I don’t run with music. I find it distracting. I prefer to concentrate on what is happening to my body. I race at the best pace I can and not to some pace forced on me by whatever soundtrack is there. I find that runners with headphones have them set so loud that I can hear their music too. It drives me up the wall. If the race rules say that you can’t have headphones or music then a competitor should comply with the rules if they want a result and don’t want to be threatened with a sound beating by grumpy runners around them.

  2. Ed October 25, 2013 at 6:19 pm #

    Ultimately it’s dangerous and careless – especially in mass road races. Too often have i encountered runners sweeping across the road unaware of what’s around them and nearly tripping themselves up as a result of nearly running into someone else. And if it’s against the race rules, and i believe it is against UKA race rules, then the runner breaking the rules should be disqualified. Which is what you’d expect if other rules are broken by competitors.

    Also, i believe a number of runners use music as a form of ‘distraction’ to stave off boredom. If you find running boring then perhaps you’d be better off finding a sport you enjoy.

  3. Tom P October 25, 2013 at 10:03 pm #

    Hi, I ran at Abingdon last Sunday (without headphones!). There were warnings before the race over the tannoy as well as in the race pack and on the website. What is unusual about this race which might explain a seemingly harsh response is that most of the race was on footpaths along roads that weren’t closed, with a few places where you had to look before you crossed the road and listen to the marshalls, who had to be much more active than in other races I’ve been to.

  4. Brooksy October 29, 2013 at 7:52 pm #

    Im a huge fan of running with music in my ears for training! It motivates me and i love listening to my latest playlist enjoying the “Me” time as i run.

    For races itself mind you ….. I never worn headphones once! There is a safety issue listening for guidance and instructions from the marshals. Entering any race we all obey the race rules and lastly…. Apps etc are pretty cool at pacing people to run preset times, telling us to speed up or slow down (Adidas MiCoach) this i feel shouldnt be allowed so fully agree in races… No headphones.

    I can wear headphones as much as i want training but for a race? Not wearing them for one road trip, is that really going to kill me?

  5. Adam October 31, 2013 at 4:07 pm #

    And what about audio books? They are hardly deafening. I can still hear everything around me.

  6. Jamie March 17, 2015 at 10:49 am #

    Several issues here. Firstly, if (and in this case they do), the race rules state no headphones, that applies to everybody, and the disqualification is fair. Secondly, using the argument that when you run at 10mph you aren’t able to concentrate on what a marshal says is missing the point that by wearing headphones, you’re making this even more difficult. I’ve raced in events where headphones are allowed and been blocked by runners moving in front of me because they’ve not heard me due to headphones. As far as I’m concerned, an outright ban would make sense, as we’re there to run, not to listen to music, and the safety of runners, spectators and (on non-closed routes) traffic and pedestrians has to take precedence over the ‘right’ of a runner to wear headphones.

  7. Rob October 5, 2015 at 8:36 pm #

    IMO running with music is 100% safe if the runner does so with consideration and I am worried there’ll be no races left for us “headphone runners”. It’s not even in doubt for me that it’s safe – I’ve ran with headphones during night training runs across the entire width of central London, probably over 100 events including the London Marathon and never encountered any problems.

    I simply adjust the volume level – or pause the music – depending on the level of concentration needed. Also, I look over my shoulder and use my eyes.

    I completely agree that runner sweeping across the road is dangerous – this is not acceptable – however this isn’t because of the headphones, it’s because they are simply an inconsiderate runner (I often laugh to myself when runners *without* headphones cut me up without even looking over their shoulders).

    I am an advocate that the rule should be “runners wearing headphones and runners in an inconsiderate manner” along with educating *all* runners that they should, you know, run in straight line.


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