A couple years ago, a team of researchers from the University of Virginia and Harvard University decided to study how well people are able to entertain themselves—sans distractions like phones, magazines, or music. They thought it'd be pretty easy, given our big, active brains full of interesting memories and bits of information we've picked up along the way.
But actually, the researchers discovered that people hate being left alone with their own thoughts. In one study they included in their analysis, about a third just couldn't do it and cheated by playing on their phones or listening to music during the study period. In another, a quarter of the female participants and two-thirds of the male participants chose to literally shock themselves with electricity in order to distract themselves from whatever was going on in their heads.
If that sounds crazy to you, picture this: You're about to go for a run. You pop in your ear buds and pull out your phone only to realize that—dear god, no—it's out of battery. Now ask yourself, if giving yourself an electric shock would somehow cause iTunes to fire back up, would you do it? Not so crazy now, right?
In my view, there seem to be two types of runners: The ones who happily hit the roads in silence, and the ones who would rather chew off their left arm than sacrifice their headphones. And honestly, I've always counted myself as a member of camp number two. In fact, I viewed the silent sort of runners as kind of weird. They always seemed so evangelical about it. "Just try it!" they'd urge. "It's so peaceful!" Yeah, well maybe I don't want peaceful on mile 11 of a long run. Maybe I want Eminem. (After all, studies show that music can help you run faster and feel stronger.)
But underlying my judgment was jealousy. Running in silence does seem peaceful, even meditative. I always felt like I was missing out, just grinding out the miles without tapping into the real zen that comes only when you turned off all distractions—pure running. So one fateful morning, when I'd somehow forgotten to charge my phone, I headed out without the dulcet tones of Marshall Mathers in my ears. And it was...okay.
It wasn't exactly the life-changing experience I'd been looking for, to be honest. I didn't love hearing my own breath while I ran. (Am I about to die?) But I did feel more connected to the world around me. I heard birds, the slapping of my sneakers against the pavement, the wind rushing by my ears, the voices of people as I passed by. (Some screaming the old "Run Forest, run!" or some other thing that's sure to piss a runner off, but what can you do?) The miles passed just as quickly as they did when I listened to music. I ran at about the same speed as usual.
But something weird happened. Even though I had a fairly positive experience, the next time I considered running sans music, all those old fears came roaring back. What will I think about? What if I get bored? What if my run feels harder? I can't do it. In went the headphones, up went the volume. What was going on?
Back to that University of Virginia study for a second. What is it about being alone with our thoughts that feels so repellent we'd rather shock ourselves than do it? The study authors had a theory. Humans are hard-wired to scan their environment, looking for threats. Without anything specific to focus on—a text from a friend, an Instagram feed—we feel uncomfortable and stressed.
Knowing there was a study-backed reason that I was instinctually against running in silence was comforting. And it gave me hope that I could learn to run bare-eared. I decided to start small. First, I exchanged the music for podcasts. Cheating, I know, but it felt like a step toward silence.
Next, I downloaded a meditation app called Headspace (free to sign up, then $13 per month; itunes.com and play.google.com), which has an on-the-go meditation series, including one specifically for running. The "teacher," Andy, actually talks you through a run, showing you how to meditate on the move. After listening to it a couple times, I started incorporating mini-meditations into most of my runs, turning down the volume on my podcasts for a few minutes and focusing on the sensation of my feet hitting the ground, one after another. (The combo of meditation and exercise is actually a powerful mood booster.)
Then, one morning, I was halfway through a morning run, and I just took out my headphones. I was already in my groove, so I knew the move probably wouldn't cause my legs to suddenly stop short. It was a beautiful day, sunny and warm enough for shorts but cool enough that I didn't feel overheated. I was running around my favorite spot in Central Park. It was early enough that only other runners were out. I just wanted to enjoy my run, and for once the noise coming from my ear buds felt like it was interrupting my flow instead of helping it. For the next two miles, I didn't need anything other than the even sound of my breathing, my shoes slapping the trail, the wind rushing by my ears. There it was—the zen I'd been looking for.
There are still days when all I want is to zone out while listening to a carefully curated running playlist. I like music, and it has some pretty powerful benefits, after all. But there is something special about silent runs. And if nothing else, it's freeing to not have to plan my runs around how charged my phone is anymore.