Music can distract you from the monotony of running and even improve your performance, but it’s far from the only tool out there — and maybe not even the best.
There’s evidence that people become more open to new information and more creative while running, according to Chris Friesen, an author and clinical psychologist who specializes in sport and performance psychology. When you run, you create space in your brain for processing ideas, he said, either your own ideas or the ideas of others.
You can listen to music for motivation or to change your mood, Friesen said, but even without music, running can put you in a state of mind to solve problems and think creatively. So it makes sense to capitalize on that potential with a podcast or an audiobook.
When you’re running, there’s enough activity in your brain to keep it semi-activated, said Friesen, director of Friesen Sport & Performance Psychology in Ontario. “Your brain is going to have lots of cognitive space available,” he said. “You can use the cognitive space to learn something new or to plan out your days or just wait for that great idea or solution to a problem to pop into your head.”
One reason for this is, in general, we’re naturally built to run, Friesen said, so when we run we’re engaging the automatic, or nonconscious, aspects of our brain, freeing up and activating the conscious part.
When you’re learning to swim or skate, for example, you’re activating the conscious part of your brain to take in and process new information. Once swimming and skating become routine, like running, the more nonconscious, or automatic, aspects of the brain take over.
Add in the dopamine and serotonin flooding into your bloodstream, and you’re primed for creative thinking. What you do with that potential is up to you, but according to Friesen, author of “Achieve,” more and more runners are turning to informational or self-help podcasts in addition to music for at least some of their runs, especially long ones.
Listening to such podcasts or audiobooks is a great way to be doubly productive, Friesen said, recognizing that many people have a hard time making room for work, exercise, family and reading.
“I feel like I’m killing two birds with one stone when I’m getting knowledge and motivation from informational podcasts or books while I’m exercising,” said Friesen, who listens to podcasts at a higher speed using the Overcast app.
In addition to taking three hours to finish a six-hour audiobook and zipping through the inevitable filler in an otherwise engaging podcast interview, the faster speed also motivates him to pick up his running pace, said Friesen, who notes that it takes practice to learn how to listen to audiobooks or podcasts at higher speeds.
Certain repetitive movements such as running and swimming can also put your mind into a meditative state, Friesen said, so instead of listening to music, podcasts or audiobooks, you can use running as a chance to practice mindfulness.
“When your negative thoughts or worries inevitably come up when running, you can practice acknowledging them for what they are — just thoughts and feelings that our brains are programmed to generate — and train your brain to not get hooked by or fused to them and to stay longer in the present moment.”
By practicing mindfulness meditation while running, Friesen said, you’re getting two of the most powerful natural anti-anxiety and antidepressant practices at once.
But it’s not always practical or even safe to allow yourself to become distracted when you run, whether you’re on a treadmill or running outside.
“After a couple of stumbles, I have stopped listening to books when I run early mornings, but I still do it when I run 15 to 20 miles on my own after the sun is up,” said Erik Storsve, a member of the Montgomery Country Road Runners Club. “A couple of close encounters with bikes and cars have definitely also reduced the time I run ‘plugged in.’ ” Some runners use only one earbud so they can still hear ambient noise on the trail. And some headphones are designed so that you can still hear what’s going on around you.
According to USA Track & Field, the use of headphones during races is up to the discretion of race directors. But many events, including the Marine Corps Marathon, discourage headphones even if they’re not specifically prohibited, according to MCM spokeswoman Tami Faram. When registering for the MCM, each of the 30,000 runners signs a waiver that says, “The use of headphones is not advised.”
So, if you get used to listening to audiobooks or music on training runs, be aware that race day may be a different story.
MCM provides entertainment along the race route for runners who want a distraction, Faram noted. “But we want runners to be able to hear and see things they need to be aware of on the course,” she said. “Safety is paramount.”
In addition to “Serial” and “This American Life,” the two most frequently recommended podcasts, here are other choices from runners, podcast creators and exercise pros.
●“Ben Greenfield Fitness: Diet, Fat Loss and Performance”
Ben Greenfield offers ideas and advice about nutrition and hydration. He usually narrates episodes from his own knowledge and experience, and he does weekly Q&As. Sometimes he’ll interview an expert, but the key is to look at the episodes and find the one that calls out to you, because the information can get very detailed and specific. You will definitely learn something every time you tune in.
●“The Conscious Runner”
Hosted by Lisah Hamilton, this podcast is full of specific running tips for everyday runners. Hamilton speaks quickly and loudly, so her interviews are enjoyable even if you’re running outside and there’s a lot of ambient noise.
●“Finding Mastery: Conversations With Michael Gervais”
Michael Gervais is a clinical psychologist, and his episodes, which tend to run over an hour, are polished and over-the-top interesting. The topics tend to be more cerebral than other more advice-based podcasts, so you might want to save this for when you’re walking and can concentrate fully.
●“Fresh Air With Terry Gross”
Terry Gross sets the gold standard for interviews with all kinds of people. Her interviews with authors often manage to bring out a subject or topic that the author has left out of the book or that provides critical context. Gross’s interview style is quick and engaging, which makes these podcasts perfect during a long or hard run.
●“The Greater Good”
Michael Bergeisen of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, interviews experts in the field of happiness. The episodes are typically under 30 minutes, and every single one is fascinating. One to look for: an interview with Jane Brody on “What Makes a Good Death.” Kind of an odd topic for a run, but so interesting. This podcast will be replaced with a new podcast from the center called “The Science of Happiness” later this year.
●“Happier With Gretchen Rubin”
Even if you haven’t read Gretchen Rubin’s first book, “The Happiness Project,” you’ll enjoy the bright outlook she and her sister and co-host have on everyday life. Rubin’s latest addition to the podcast, “A Little Happier,” is a two- to three-minute segment that works well for a warmup.
●“The Hidden Brain”
In this NPR podcast, host Shankar Vedantam interviews mostly psychologists who explore what makes us tick on a wide variety of topics.
●“Legendary Life With Ted Ryce”
Lifestyle coach Ted Ryce has a positive outlook on fitness, and his talks with experts are fascinating. The episodes tend to run about an hour, which is long for a podcast, so if you’re not using an app to speed it up, this is a good one for a long run or walk.
The show is a collaboration between the New York Times and WBUR in Boston. Celebrities read Modern Love essays that have appeared in the Times, and then the host, Meghna Chakrabarti, facilitates a discussion with the original essayists. The episodes are under 30 minutes, making them perfect for an easy three- to five-mile run.
This podcast re-airs episodes of “The Moth Radio Hour,” plus additional stories by prominent literary and culture figures from its archive of stories over the past 20 years. It’s just an epic collection of stories and storytellers.
●“Octane Athletic Performance With Jason Benavides”
Jason Benavides is a rock star. It may take some time to get used to his Texas drawl, but once you do, you’ll find he has an organic way of bringing out the best in his top-notch guests. He’s got authors, physicians, sports psychologists, yogis, weightlifters, coaches, kettle bell enthusiasts and sleep specialists.
●“Optimize With Brian Johnson: More Wisdom in Less Time”
These episodes — including two- to three-minute “Micro Classes” — are definitely in the category of self-help. Scroll through the selections and find a topic that interests you, and you’ll get in-depth discussions with professionals that include strategies you can use. His guests include authors, New York Times columnists, psychologists, scientists and other great thinkers. The longer episodes can be broken up into chunks and saved for long runs or even car rides to races to get you in a creative mind-set.
Connect Run to the Top”
Here you’ll find inspirational interviews with athletes, but also informational talks with coaches, physicians, nutritionists, trainers and other prominent experts. The podcast is hosted by Saucony elite runner Tina Muir, who often personalizes the interviews with her own experiences.
●“The Runner’s World Show”
Hosted by Runner’s World editor in chief David Willey and featuring interviews, reported stories and news and expert advice, this podcast debuted in April. It’s polished and well researched (plus Willey has a great radio voice).