There have been a few times when I've voluntarily run without earbuds and lived to tell the tale. There was one half marathon and a 15K (that I've done a few times) where headphones were banned and I obeyed the prohibition. When I did the McKenzie River 50K I ran the first 26 miles without music. I felt like I needed to concentrate on the tricky footing of the trails without distraction. The rushing of the McKenzie River was the soundtrack of my run. I did turn on the music for a boost in the last five miles, though.
Occasionally when I have done speed work I have turned off the sound for the last lap (e.g. 400 meters) to see if I would run faster without music. Sometimes I did, but it may just have been because it was the last lap! Talk about noisy breathing and pounding heart, though. And sometimes I will mute the earbuds for a few minutes during a run because I feel like shutting off the noise, or I'll pause at a light and then leave it off for a few minutes. Just a variation on ways to pass the time.
For many, many years I ran with music, and only music, during every run. Then a few years ago, as I began training for marathons, I began to get tired of hours of music during long runs. Yet I needed to be entertained, more than ever, when I was running for two to four hours at a time. That is when I joined Audible (first book is free!) and started downloading books to listen to during long runs. I'll list some of the books I've enjoyed in a bit. I like memoirs--running, triathlon, other sports, and non-athletic memoirs. I've also listened to a few books for my book club (mostly books I've read years ago and don't want to necessarily sit down and read again, but want to refresh in my memory).
I will say one cautionary thing about Audible. You pay for a book credit every month, and I have actually accumulated more books than I can get through (I've also paid for books when their cost is less than the value of the credit). Occasionally I feel like I should cancel my subscription until I get through my library.
In the couple years or so I have also started listening to talk audio rather than music during shorter easy runs. I generally listen to podcasts (more below) or sometimes radio shows with an app on my phone. I keep this mostly to easy runs because I do naturally run a little slower listening to books or chat than listening to music.
I save music for specific purposes where I really take advantage of its energy. I like it during speed work, tempo runs, and of course, races. I also like to switch to music in the last one to three miles of a run (depending on the length of run). That helps give me a finishing kick!
I will admit that I listened to talk instead of music in a couple marathons where distracting my mind felt more necessary than speed (of which I had little anyway). During the Kauai Marathon my head started out in a bad space (for various reasons), and my music was annoying me. Thanks to the time difference in Hawaii, I was able to turn on KIRO radio and listen to two hours of Seattle Kitchen, plus at least an hour of another talk show. I did go to music to finish up, and after that mental break I enjoyed the music's boost. During the Mount Desert Island I listened to an hour podcast for miles 18-23, and then I was ready to kick to the finish.
If you would like to explore some audio ideas, here are books and podcasts I've enjoyed. Sorry I can't do a link to everything (that would take all night), but you can look up the books (you might just want to read them, which is actually faster than listening, but hard to do while running), and you can find the podcasts on iTunes.
I have listened to these books while running, cycling on a bike trail, walking, and long car drives. Many of them I have read as well as listened to (which is good because sometimes my mind wanders while listening). A few I have read, then purchased the audiobook, but haven't yet listened to the audio (but know the book was good). There are a lot more in my library that I'm not listing because I haven't read or listened to them yet. (Also, there are a lot of other running books and memoirs I've enjoyed that aren't available on audio, or at least I haven't found them.) The books here are not listened in any order of preference.
Run! Dean Karnazes
50/50 Dean Karnazes
Ultramarathon Man Dean Karnazes
The Extra Mile Pam Reed
14 Minutes Alberto Salazar
My Life on the Run Bart Yasso
The Longest Race Ed Ayres
Running Ransom Road Caleb Daniloff
The Long Run Matt Long
Eat and Run Scott Jurek
A Race Like No Other Liz Robbins (this is about the NYC Marathon)
Running With the Kenyans Adharanand Finn
Born to Run Christopher McDougall
I don't do triathlons, but I've found these books fascinating and fun!
A Life Without Limits Chrissie Wellington
Can't Swim, Can't Ride, Can't Run Andy Holgate
Triathlon for Everywoman Meredith Atwood
Iron War Matt Fitzgerald
You Are An Ironman Jacques Steinberg
Finding Ultra Rich Roll
Wild Cheryl Strayed
Orange Is the New Black Piper Kerman
I Feel Bad About My Neck Nora Ephron
I Remember Nothing Nora Ephron
Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake Anna Quindlen
Seriously, I'm Kidding Ellen Degeneris
Bossy Pants Tina Fey
A Walk in the Woods Bill Bryson
Catch Me if You Can Frank Abagnale
Diet Cults Matt Fitzgerald
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe Fanny Flagg (This was a book club book; I first read it about 20 years ago, and thought the audio version was lovely!)
Podcasts are great for running, as they tend to be about 30-60 minutes long, good for three to six mile runs or so. Even better if they're a little longer, in case your six mile run takes longer than an hour! I listen to podcasts for entertainment, and if they are preaching certain theories or philosophies, I take all that with a grain of salt. Depending on the podcast, you might get new episodes weekly, occasionally, or even more than once a week in some cases. But luckily any podcast that is new to you will have a backlog of episodes.
Another Mother Runner
Diz Runs With (somewhat new to me, but I've listened to a few)
The Marathon Show (no longer producing new episodes, but there should be tons of old ones to access)
Marathon Training Academy
NPR-Wait Wait Don't Tell Me (when I don't catch it on the radio). (I don't always want to listen to this running, sometimes I feel it makes me slower than other podcasts. Especially that time I listened to an interview with Al Gore near the end of an 18-miler. I literally had to turn it off so I didn't stop entirely.)
Ultra Runner Podcast
The Running Lifestyle
Finding Ultra with Rich Roll
SERIAL from This American Life
Tomorrow morning I'll be listening to 57 minutes of Another Mother Runner!
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Location:What I Listen to While I'm Running