Running is the perfect time for podcasts
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.
“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 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 also can 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.
Some runners use only one earbud so they can still hear ambient noise on the trail. And some headphones are designed so 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, 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.”
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.”
Carolee Belkin Walker is a Washington Post contributing writer.