Can You Wear Headphones in Races?

Woman running with headphones and her phone strapped to her arm

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Do you prefer to run with headphones? If you train with headphones, you may prefer to race with them, as well. But many marathons and races of other distances don't allow headphones. There are also other factors to consider if you choose to listen to music while running.

Race Rules on Headphones

The use of headphones and earbuds used to be officially banned in many races. But over the years, the rules have been relaxed.

In 2008, U.S.A. Track & Field (USATF), the governing body for long-distance running and track and field in the United States, amended its rule banning headphones and other music playing devices at all USATF-sanctioned running events. The amendment allowed for the use of headphones by those not competing in championships for awards, medals, or prize money.

Despite the official change, some race directors still advise against and even prohibit the use of headphones and personal music devices during marathons and other races. This is to make the event safer for everyone.

When you register for a race, check the rules on headphones and earbuds. If there is no rule preventing you from listening to music while running, weigh the benefits of running with headphones against running unplugged.

Why Headphones Are Discouraged or Banned

Many running competitions rely on audio cues for relaying important information. (People with hearing impairments can receive special accommodations so that they don't miss important information.)

All runners are expected to listen and respond to audio cues so that they know when to start the race and when to move out of the way or stop. This is one of the rules of racing etiquette. If you're listening to music during a race, you may not be able to hear these important cues from race officials and other runners on the course.

For example, there may be a false start. When motion is detected by a runner before the start of a race, a sound lets everyone know the race needs to be restarted. If you don't hear the cue, you may be tempted to follow the runner who has initiated a false start, further delaying the start of the race. This may also cause race officials to evaluate whether or not you contributed to the false start, which could result in disqualification.

In some cases, the consequences of not being able to hear may be more severe. If the roads during the race are open to cars and other traffic, listening to headphones in both ears while running may cause you to miss signals from oncoming traffic. This may result in injury for yourself or the people around you.

Being able to hear race instructions, traffic noise, and other environmental sounds is crucial for a safe running event. Wearing headphones may compromise your ability to hear these cues.

These issues are major concerns for organizers of large races or marathons, who already have a lot of logistics to keep in mind. They may underlie their preference for an outright ban on headphones.

Pros and Cons of Music

Many runners listen to music because they believe it leads to psychological benefits and an increase in performance. This belief is validated by research but qualified by a few factors.

Motivation

For example, one study examined the differences in performance when music was self-selected or chosen by someone else and synchronized with the athlete's movement. Study authors determined that self-selected music provided greater exercise benefits.

Many runners may be used to feeling a boost at the start of the race from their music and using music to set their pace while running. But there are other ways to set your pace and get a motivation boost that don't involve listening to music. And there are some risks involved with relying on music, even when you have the option.

The device you use to listen to music could stop working during your race or require a lot of your attention to maintain. These are distractions that can cause you to lose focus and throw you off your game if you don't have other strategies to fall back on.

Mindfulness

There are documented health benefits to mindfulness during exercise, such as a stronger connection to your body. You are also more likely to be aware of body cues and signals (such as thirst) when you run without music.

Ask yourself whether you are more likely to mindfully attend to your body and your environment if you are listening to music or not. It's not all about winning. More and more marathons and other races are built around having on-course music, costumes, and other fun elements. You may not be fully present for the experience if you are plugged into your own music.

Best Music for Running

If you do want to listen to music (perhaps for just some of your training runs), what music should you choose? Everyone has different musical tastes, but there has been some research into the type of music that works best for running.

One study examined the effects of different music tempos on exercise performance. Researchers found that the tempo and musical style had minimal effect. However, if the exerciser liked the music, it was more likely to provide a benefit.

Some experts recommend listening to music that matches your run pace. The most efficient runners have a high stride turnover of about 180 steps per minute, according to a 2020 study of experienced recreational runners. To help achieve that pace, you can listen to music that is 180 beats per minute (BPM) and aim to sync your stride with the music.

If you don't enjoy making your own music playlists, listen to a music streaming service while running. Or try these suggestions:

A Word From Verywell

If race rules on headphones and earbuds aren't clear, email the race director (contact information should be on the event website) and ask. If you know that headphones and earbuds are not allowed, do your training runs without music so you will become used to it by race day. If you absolutely need your music to stay motivated or beat boredom during training, try listening on a low volume or with one earbud out so you can still hear.

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