Associative Thinking and the Benefits of Running Without Music

The Benefits of Running Without Music | This Runner's Recipes

Just over two months ago, just before we moved from Valparaiso to Seattle, I made a change to my running that in this short amount of time improved my training and enjoyment of the sport. I honestly anticipated that this change would prove a struggle for me, but the experience has been quite the opposite.

What did I change? I quit running with music.

I should qualify this statement by acknowledging that, when I run on the treadmill, I do still listen to music, but that is because the radio blaring over the speakers at my gym plays the type of music that makes me want to rip my ears out, so I use my own music to block that out.

I used to listen to music on every single run, including outdoor runs. Since I could go for miles in Valparaiso without seeing another runner or pedestrian on my path, I would play my music quietly on my phone without earbuds. I avoided wearing earbuds because I wanted to be aware of my surroundings just enough to be safe, yet I still wanted music to entertain me and sometimes distract me while I run. Music served as almost a crutch for me during my runs, something I felt I needed to have with me in order to run.

In late April, however, I decided to quit listening to music while running outside. Two factors influenced this decision. First, I felt out of touch with my effort at the Go! St. Louis Half Marathon. I went out too fast, burnt myself out, and ran a positive split. While I still ran a PR, I missed the goal for which I had trained.  Second, I was nervous about running in Bothell. Most of the trails are bike paths and the last thing I wanted to do was get hit by a bicycle. Valparaiso is also almost idyllically safe, and so I could not help but worry about how safe the King County trails would be. So, in order to become more in tune to my effort and to increase my awareness of my surroundings, I ditched music all together.

The Benefits of Running Without Music

Within a couple weeks of running without music, I was hooked to my silent miles. I soaked in the sounds of nature, paid careful attention to my breathing and effort, and felt more connected to my running. When it came time to run my goal pace tempo workouts and long runs for marathon training, I was nervous: would I struggle to push the pace or run long without the auditory motivation of a rapid rhythm? Quite the opposite: my goal pace runs and long runs felt easier.

While every runner benefits from different training methods, running without music can enhance your enjoyment, keep you safe, and tune you in closely to your effort. Here are some of the benefits of running without music:

  • You stay more in touch with your effort. Without music, you have to listen to your breathing. This lets you truthfully monitor your effort and helps you keep each run in the appropriate training zone.
  • You don’t push too hard. It can be too easy to get caught up in the rhythm of your music and run faster than your training prescribes on an easy or long run.
  • You are more aware of your surroundings, which keeps you safer on your run. You also focus more on how beautiful your running route is and how nice the fresh air feels than you do when music is distracting you.
  • The silence relaxes you and makes running an even more de-stressing experience. 
  • Whether you are running on a trail or in a race, it is more courteous to those around you. No one else wants to hear your music.
  • Without the distraction of music, you can devote more of your concentration to your running form.
  • Without distraction, you can build your mental toughness and fatigue resistance. 
  • Running without better music will make you more likely to achieve your race goals.
The Benefits of Running Without Music | This Runner's Recipes
No music means more focus on my form. Bye-bye T-rex arms.

Not to mention you don’t have to worry about getting wrapped up in earbud (like I manage to do every race). 

What about that last one? Don’t studies show that running with music helps you run faster?

You may run faster without music, but as I have stressed throughout this post, music disconnects you from your run and therefore from your effort. During a race, the adrenaline and excitement can already throw you off from your race strategy, and music can only add to that.

Instead, running without music will improve your associative thinking. Associative thinking is the complete absorption of your thoughts into the current task at hand, such as running. When you use music to distract you from your run, you are engaging in dissociative thinking, which is the opposite of associative thinking.

Dr. Tim Noakes noted in his tome Lore of Running that almost all elite runners practice associative thinking. “[T]heir thoughts were totally absorbed in the race itself. They concentrated on strategy, on staying loose, and on running as efficiently as possible by closely monitoring subtle physiological cues from their feet, calves, thighs, and respiration. Their marathon pace was governed not by the clock but by their bodies.” Meanwhile, “dissociative thinking patterns, particularly during races, probably indicate that [the runners] are not running optimally” because they are distracted from the physiological cues from their bodies.

Noakes proceeds to argue that, because these runners were so in tune to their effort and their bodies, they were able to override the sensations of fatigue and discomfort later in the marathon and keep on race pace during the miles in which many runners hit the wall.

Of course, the primary rule of racing commands nothing new on race day. Your marathon is not the ideal scenario to ditch your music for the first time. Instead, you should slowly work yourself up to running longer and longer distances without music during your training so that you are mentally prepared to run without music and practice associative thinking on race day.

To cultivate the power of associative thinking during your running, follow these tips:

  • Turn off the music, podcasts, or audiobook.
  • Choose a few physiological cues to focus on for the duration of your run, such as your breathing, cadence, arm swing, stride length, and the sensations of your muscles.
  • Pick a mantra related to the goal of your run, such as “run strong,” “run fast,” or “run relaxed.”
  • Alternate between assessing and (as necessary) adjusting your breathing and form based on your selected cues and using your mantra to enforce a habit of positive self-talk.
  • After your run, record your time, pace, effort, and how you felt in your training log. More likely than not, you will notice that you become more attuned to your running than before!

Running without music is not a guarantee that you will run your best marathon or love every single moment of running, but if you feel like you have plateaued, still feel stressed at the end of a run, or struggle to control your pace, consider running without music and learning how to practice associative thinking. 

[Tweet “Learn about the benefits of running without music, including how it helps you run better races! via @thisrunrecipes #runchat #fitfluential “]

Questions of the Day:
Do you run or race with music? 
Do you practice associative thinking on your runs? How?


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28 Responses

  1. I stopped running with music about a year ago, and it was an easier transition than expected for me as well! I am much more in touch with how I am feeling as I run, and I honestly now think that I would just find music to be annoying! However, I also use it for treadmill runs but those are only a a handful of times year:)

  2. I’ve gone both ways with running–my default is to run with music, but I’ve also gone through periods of running without! I always start my races without music, and try to hold out for as long as I can. I think the longest I’ve gone sans music was 19 miles (MCM marathon).

  3. I stopped running with music when I trained for my marathon and it was a huge game changer! I was much more in-tune with my breathing and my surroundings, and I loved listening to the birds and the water. I rarely run with music now because it feels strange.

  4. Very interesting stuff! I think its great you took the leap and tried running without music only to find you like it even better. I have recently started to turn off my music for portions of my runs as a way to be more connected with not only my breathing and effort but also my thoughts and nature. There is something meditative about running without music that I have been really enjoying. Thanks for sharing your experiences with this and it definitely makes a lot of sense!

  5. Thank you for this post! When I began running in 2009/2010, I did not run with music. I added music just because (in 2012ish)…and I am honestly not sure how much it may have affected my runs (positively or negatively). Lately, I have been thinking about going without the music so I can disconnect a little bit more when I run. I (finally) bought a Garmin…and it arrived yesterday. I cannot wait to go out and run with it today, but part of why I wanted this was so I did not HAVE to use my phone app to track my runs (I will still carry my run for safety purposes).

    Your post today will give me the push I need to continue working on disconnecting from the music….

    Happy running to you and enjoy your Wednesday!!

    ~ Aimee

    1. Yay on getting a Garmin! I hope you enjoy using it! I still carry my phone also for safety, but I like not worrying about if it has enough charge to play music hte whole way. I hope you enjoy your Wednesday and happy running! 🙂

  6. Yes to all of the above! I have never used headphones on a run unless it was one of those rare times I was forced onto a treadmill and had to get through it somehow. I LOVE having all of my senses free to take in everything the run has to offer, not to mention, getting in touch with my thoughts. Great post.

  7. I am writing about this in my recap of my half from Sunday. My music wasn’t working. And while I do all of my training runs with music, I usually start every race without (to see how I’m feeling), then turn it on when I hit the wall or am mentally struggling. This was the first race I had to run totally without my safety blanket of music. I totally agree with you – I think my form was much better this race. Even looking at race photos (although definitely not perfect) I can see big improvements. Kudos to you to making the switch. I don’t think I can go totally music-less, but would like to incorporate running naked into my training runs more.

    1. Racing without music makes me a bit nervous still, so I’m glad to hear that you had such a good experience doing so! Off to read your race recap now 🙂

  8. I can only ditch my music if I’m running with a group. Otherwise, I have to have it. However, I have NEVER raced with music, which is kind of weird. I just feel like during races I have to totally focus without any distractions

  9. I quit running with music about a year and a half ago and I’m SO much happier without it on my runs. I love just going out and soaking up my surroundings–especially on the trails! I typically listen to podcasts on runs longer than 11 miles (like during marathon training), but this time around, I was even annoyed with that, so I think I’ve ditched the headphones for good!

    1. Soaking up the surroundings is one of the best parts of running, especially on a beautiful trail! I am always surprised when I see people plugged in on hiking trails – there’s so much else to see and hear.

  10. I hardly ever run with music. I find it good on the treadmill. But way more peaceful on the run outside. Plus I find I am way more in tune with my body of I am music free. Then I can tune into the natural rhythm of my breathing and foot strikes etc. Great post!

  11. Really good post, and very apt for where I am with music at the minute. I stopped listening to music during races as I felt disconnected from the race. It was like I was in my own little world, and sometimes I’d start to daydream, meaning I wasn’t paying attention to my running. I like training with music sometimes, but I’ve found that running without helps me focus more on my form, speed and lets me take in my surroundings. I had also read that music can help increase speed, but I’ve found my best races have been without music.

  12. I just wrote a very similar post on my blog! Love how you offered mantras and focus points to replace music on your runs…Although I swear by the no-music thing, sometimes it’s just as hard if your mind is wandering aimlessly! Having a mental goal is smart. 🙂 Thanks for posting!

  13. I do like to run with music unless I’m running with someone else. Running with my friend is a fun way to keep a run entertaining

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