Can You Wear Headphones in Races?

Woman running with headphones and her phone strapped to her arm
People Images/Getty Images

While the use of headphones used to be officially banned in many races, 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 & field in the United States, amended their rule banning headphones and other music playing devices at all USATF-sanctioned running events, allowing the use of headphones by those not competing in championships for awards, metals, or prize money.

Despite the official change, some race directors still discourage use of headphones and personal music devices during races for safety reasons. When you register for a race, check their rules and instructions. If there is no rule preventing you from listening to music while running, you can weigh the benefits of running with headphones and running unplugged.

Why Are Headphones Sometimes Discouraged or Banned?

Many running competitions rely on audio cues for relaying important information. People with hearing impairments are often able to seek out special accommodations in advance. People who have not done this are expected to be able to listen and respond to these cues to know when to start the race and to know to move out of the way or stop when necessary. This is one of the rules of racing etiquette, that you can be aware of others and respond to them when needed. 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.

A good example of this is during a false start situation. Motion that is detected by a runner before the start of a race is monitored by a system that emits a sound letting 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, delaying the start of the race, and causing them to evaluate whether or not you contributed to the false start. If race officials decide you did, this could result in your disqualification.

In some cases, the consequences for 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 not be aware of oncoming traffic, which could result in injury for yourself or people around you. This is a major concern for organizers of large races or marathons, who already have a lot of logistics to keep in mind, and may underly their preference for an outright ban.

Benefits to Running With Music Versus Running Unplugged

Many people who run professionally or even just for exercise 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, namely whether or not the music was chosen by the participants themselves, or whether the music is synchronized with the athlete's movement. It follows that many runners may be used to receiving a boost at the start of the race from their music and using music to set their pace while running.

There are other ways to set your pace and receive a motivation boost while running that don't involve listening to music, however, 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 from training to fall back on.

There are also documented health benefits to mindfulness during exercise, such as a stronger connection to your body. 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. As more and more races are built around having on-course music, costumes, teams and fun, you may not be fully present for the experience if you are plugged into your own music.

A Word From Verywell

If in doubt, email the race director ahead of time and ask whether headphones are allowed. If you know that headphones and earbuds are not allowed, you will be able to do your training runs without music and become used to it by race day. If you absolutely need your music to stay motivated or beat boredom during a race, try listening on a low volume or with one earbud out, so you can still hear.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources