Trail Running and Headphones 29

This subject continues to be an issue with the USATF and certain race directors. I had a guy e-mail us questions about headphones and why won’t the Napa Valley Marathon let him run with headphones? The Napa Valley Marathon is sanctioned by the USATF and they do not allow headphones. In fact my team mate and long time running partner Karl Meltzer was 2006 USATF trail runner of the year and they would not post his picture because he had headphones on. What is the awnser? Run the headphone cord under your shirt and use a single earbud and run like the wind! Do not worry about a cougar, they will get you with or with out the head phones!

Leave a comment with your thoughts on headphones and trail running, na-ya?


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29 thoughts on “Trail Running and Headphones

  • Wynn

    who gives a damn, it’s just running for peat’s sake! what does it matter what anyone has or wears. It’s like the housing developments that require perfect lawns, garage doors closed when not in use, etc…. blah blah blah. Maybe we should go 80’s beach style and run trail holding a boom box next to our ear.

  • Jasper Halekas

    Great example of a rule that makes some sense in road races, much less in trail races. In a road race, with big packs of people and traffic, prohibiting headphones makes some sense to me. I ran Napa last year, and it is small and rural enough that it would probably be fine if everyone wore headphones, but in general I think the ban makes sense on the roads.

    The USATF just doesn’t have trail running figured out, though. No to headphones, yes to pacers. Exactly backwards of how it should be. And the pacer thing is not even consistent with their road running rules, so they can’t stand on that argument.

    I will say that it can be super annoying to try to pass someone who has their music blaring and is running along obliviously, then startles and freaks out when you yell loud enough to alert them to your presence. People can be oblivious with or without headphones, though – that’s just a matter of being alert and courteous to other racers either way.


    P.S. I don’t think intentionally breaking the rules and wearing headphones on the sly is the answer. By that logic the Euros might as well cut our courses because they think our rules are stupid. Either boycott the USATF races, or work behind the scenes to get the rule changed. The USATF folks aren’t necessarily idiots, just misguided.

  • Mark T.

    The boom box idea sounds brutally challenging, even in a 50k. Crap, even for 10k.

    I agree with you and Jasper. Banning headphones offers only a dubious safety benefit including vs. hungry mountain lions. I personally don’t feel a need for phones in 50 or 62 mile races, but if others want them, that should be their choice. Nothing unfair. Conversely, since I don’t use pacers, it’s nice to have something to keep me awake and motivated in the dark for the longer runs, without diminishing the instrinsic nature of my effort.

    If something may confer an unfair advantage, it is probably getting paced (extra light you’re not carrying, navigation help not from your brain, possible muling, etc.), rather than listening to tunes (which you still have to carry, and which won’t provide any of the above benefits provided by pacers)….unless the earbuds are laced with transdermal testosterone or something.

  • Chuck Biscuits

    Interesting reading. Sometimes I have the urge to listen to a tune or two, sometimes I don’t. I am always conscious of runners coming from behind and I don’t have it loud. I showed up at Tahoe Rim Trail last year and found out at the START that headphones were a no-no. (usatf) I still ran with the cord in my shirt and took the buds out upon arriving at aid stations.
    I don’t like to break the rules, but a little advanced warning would have been nice. TRT is around the same time as the WSG 50k in 2008, and it is a shorter drive from Boulder! Hope to see you in July………
    Thanks for listening,

  • CharlieM

    I hate to sound like the Amish Puritan Martian trail runner, but I actually think the ban is a good thing for the sport. Calling yourself speedgoats implies that you both consider yourself part of the natural world, bounding up mountains with the greatest of ease, like primitive and pure mountain goats. Why sully it with thrashing tunes? The real goats don’t need artificial motivation. I think trail running should retain simplicity in every sense of the word – no money, no tunes, no pacers, no frills of any kind. That being said, where can I get a super-small earbud? 🙂

  • Josh

    I think it should be left up to the person to wear them or not. I am not going to wear them because I don’t have an ipod and I like to hear what I am running around and through. That is my choice and I respect the choice of those who want to have music while running. Its only is a problem if the person is not aware of me trying to pass because Ms. Spears is blasting through the earbuds. Rock and roll or no I want to leave it up to the runner, just don’t slow me down.

  • Bruce C

    Interesting discussion! I’ve never used music while running, but I think this is a stupid rule–on the road or the trail. If safety is such a problem, then it would be easier to simply DQ runners who fail to yield or fail to obey a race official. Those rules mostly already exist and they’re easier to enforce than the rule banning music. Music can’t realistically be considered an unfair advantage if everyone has the option to use it, and the advantage from music undoubtedly pales by comparison to the advantage from say caffeine or vitamin I.

    One of the biggest problems with dumb rules like this is that they encourage people to break the rules. Once someone breaks one rule, everyone seems to be more prone to break the rest of the rules. In fact, i’ve heard of several instances of marathon runners who are police officers disobeying this rule.

  • Cory Molloy

    Headphone Police! What’s Next?

    Some people appreciate listening to music when they train or race. I am one of those people. I have been using headphones to train with since the 80’s and even with my Shure E-3 in-ear headphones; I can hear and converse while riding my motorcycle with my dirt bike helmet on (until I approach freeway speeds). I hear every car coming behind me and I certainly can converse while running, cycling and motorcycling.

    What kind of safety concern can you possibly have? If I was deaf I would still want to run, cycle and ride my dirt bike. People wreck and die all the time in the sports I participate in with or without headphones. The right music helps me personally to concentrate and perform at my best.

    What is so hard about letting another person run a race the way they want to?

  • Mike Mason

    I think headphones are fine as long as the people wearing them are listening to live Dead. Ideally something c1977. Should we shift gears to optimal running music?

  • Bruce C

    In light of the death of Ryan Shay at the US Olympic Marathon Trials today, perhaps the USATF should spend a little more time on rules and guidelines for medical exams given to elite runners and a little less time on frivolous rules about headphones and tunes.

  • Karl

    OK, folks. The most classic line I just heard on the NBC Today show. The CEO of the USATF was just interviewed on live television saying he listens to music while running. I turned on the TV to see if the NYC Marathon was coming on and low and behold the “Karl Rule” was brought up. The race Director was more interested in people having fun running the “ultimate distance”, than policing people wearing headphones, we like the RD. The women interviewing the CEO of the USATF said, “lots of runners will be wearing hats so they can hide the earphones”. Perhaps she has encouraged people to just break the rules. We can go on and on about this. Classic how the USATF contradicts themselves, eh? Crank it up people!!!!!!!!! 10 scrapes for tunes!!!!!!!!

  • EnergeticRick!!!

    In regards to music and pacers…
    As far as music is concerned, I can see how they would be unsafe, because you tend to foccus on the music when you run, and not the pain, kind of helps the pain go away, allows your brain to produce endorphins causing you to sometimes loose focus and your perception of reality. The “getting lost in your souroundings” feeling you achieve while running is what most runners strive for, listening to music helps one achieve this desired state. Music only becomes an issue for me when I am moving fast and in a hurry. When people run Ultra’s they normally run slow and relaxed. Remember for 95% of us ultra runners, we run for the expirience, not to win the race. Maybe the rule should be…”If your going for the win, no headphones, otherwise headphones should be OK.
    As far as pacing is concerned, pacers are there to help you acieve your goal of running 100 miles, they help navigate, and they help moniter your calorie and drink intake, pacers are like people watching out and protecting you. Muling NEEDS to be ENDED, Muling is not fair to the other races, a pacers job should be to speed you up and keep you safe.
    I believe anyone who is competing for the win, should NOT be able to use a pacer. Anyone racing just to finish should be allowed a pacer. Maybe pacers should just be allowed through the night, when it is dark and dangerous. Either way…. running 100 miles is an amazing ordeal, even if you have a pacer, a muler, and headphones….doesn’t change the fact that you took 100 miles worth of steps, and did something very few people in this world even attempt. We should encourage growth in our sport by allowing headphones and pacers (with out muling) to runners NOT GOING FOR THE WIN OR A RECORD!!!
    Healthy Regards

  • olga

    I listen to i-pod for 2 years now and totally into using it. I don’t believe I impose any hazard as 1. I keep it low (and not only can hear passing runners, I talk while I have it on, and trust me, I talk a lot), 2. I don’t get submerged into tunes at all, it is simply a background to me. May be it helps that I don’t understand half the words:) Either case, imposing rules AFTER the fact of runners using music in races for years is kind of weird. Should have done it before it became popular?

  • Geoff Roes

    interesting idea of pacers being ok for those just striving to finish but not for those running to win. I suppose it would be very easy for there to be a rule in a given race that you can only officially win if you don’t use a pacer. it’s tough because if you are in the 5% that ARE competing to win and are opposed to the idea of pacers and decide to take a firm stance (i.e. not use pacers) you’re only hurting your own chances of winning. To me the most appealing races are those where it’s just not feasable to use pacers: point to point in remote areas with little to no aid stations… too bad there aren’t more races like this out there.

    btw scott, i’m with you on the ’77 live dead, although i might have to opt for ’70-’72 over ’77.

  • ScottE

    I almost missed the Dead reference…

    Dead ’77, sweet. Or ’74.
    North Mississippi Allstars

    I have had to work a bit to get around runners with headphones on single-track a couple times, but so what. Race bib #1 should be able to wear whatever they want so that takes care of Karl.

  • Markus

    First of all, I don’t like headphones. I used them only in the 10 day race in New York. Otherwise I like to listen to the nature.

    Second, this is one of the most stupid rules. We had the same discussion in Germany and the headphones are officially banned from all ultra street races, even in 24h races on a loop in a park.
    Luckly not every race director cares a lot about it.

    The rules are coming from the athletics sports on track. And the idea was that the athlete can not communicate with his coach.
    I never understood what that has to do with ultrarunning.

    I guess some officials just need something to do.

    Keep running, with or without headphones

    P.S: The good thing is that if big marathon race directors would have to inforce this rule, they would have to disqualify 30-50% of their runners.
    This will never happen.

  • Mtn Dawg

    I’m glad this has come up here. I was at Tahoe Rim this year and had two thoughts…1. I’m going to wear my headphones anyway, but boy they commented on it if the cord was sneaking out as I came into an AS. 2. The USATF should be more concerned about “TF”! This is a crazy rule. I have decided that I may try to avoid their events, however I will still do the Tahoe Rim in the future.

  • Karl

    Remember it is a silly rule from the USATF, not all race directors agree with it. Meaning they won’t enforce it. Refer to the comment I made on the NYC Marathon blurb on NBC today show, the RD did not care, only the USATF cared, so who are they to tell you to take the tunes out of you’re ear? When someone from the race tells you to get rid of it, ask them for they’re member ID number and make sure they paid their 20 bucks to be part of the USATF club. If they can’t produce their ID, then who are they……and who are they anyway? I would imagine if they want to enforce a rule, they must create their own race, then they can do it their way. And watch out all members, when they plan on creating their own race, they will have to hire all kinds of “officials” to govern the rule, creating a yearly member fee of $100 bucks. Let the masses pay for it! that wouldn’t be fair to anyone. Wahsatchspeedgoat

  • Joe

    Its quite annoying to me in an Ultra, coming up behind someone on a nice
    stretch of single track who is, more often than not these days, wearing headphones. They can’t hear you approach or politely ask them to let you pass. You have to yell… “Excuse me!” which very disconcerting and just doesn’t “feel right” in the ultra-polite world or ultra-running.

    I must be old fashioned but I’ve always felt running was entertaining enough and was a way to escape from all that mind-numbing input we are bombarded with everywhere we go. You can’t go anywhere these days without continually being assaulted by some inane pop song or some oldie but goodie Barry Manilow classic. It’s never QUIET! I suppose if it were quiet you would spend more time thinking about things… Frankly, I look forward to running as an escape from all that chaos.

    On Sunday out at Del Valle, I witnessed a bobcat run in front 20 feet ahead of me on the trail and take down a squirrel for its afternoon lunch. I saw hawks and vultures flying overhead. I heard the magpies squaking as they flew from tree to tree protecting their territory. A big beautiful Blue Heron took off from the lake next to me.

    Not for one minute have I ever wished I had music – even the kind I
    love – blaring in my ears while out on a run.

  • J-Denni

    Why do you run trails in the first place? For me, it’s to get away from civilization for a time, to enjoy nature, to be in-tune with my surroundings, even to meditate. I suppose it’s ultimately your own choice whether or not to wear headphones, but I personally think that wearing them causes a huge disconnect with your surroundings and rather defeats the purpose of being out in nature in the first place. Additionally, I believe that you should provide your own rhythm and motivation when you run. If you have to rely on external factors–such as music–to get out there or to push yourself, I don’t think you have the right attitude to be a runner at all. It should come from within and it should be fun to run; you shouldn’t have to bring something with you to make it more fun!