Rare is the moment I laud the use of headphones while running. They might be great for staving off boredom during treadmill workouts at the gym, but I do not like them - not one bit - on the ears of the athletes I train. Call me a kill-joy. Call me old-school. But I'm the coach; it's my prerogative to say what I do and do not like.
I don't like my athletes wearing headphones on the track because they cannot hear what I need to tell them about the specifics of their workout, their form or their effort. The last time I recall that particular form of feedback was called "coaching." I don't like my athletes wearing headphones during races because they cannot react to anything around them. Headphone-wearing runners turn into to the pace blaring into their ears rather than to the pace of the pack of runners beside (or in front of them). The last time I recall that was called "racing."
Working with the Road Runners Club of America for a little over five years, I learned the litany of safety reasons which clubs were told about the potential dangers of headphone use. Add to the "tune in, turn on, and lock in the pace" mentality of most headphone wearers at races the sometimes benign, sometimes life-threating approach of racing wheelchairs and strollers, faster runners, and intruding bicycles or other motor vehicles. You can end up with something as inconvenient as a trip-and-fall or as permanent as death.
And really, it's not the headphones which are evil. It's the way we tend to use them.
Several years ago I was at a small neighborhood 5K race; while standing on the corner cheering for my wife and several of my friends I saw a runner turn the corner and approach the third mile. She was running on the right-hand side of the road (not following the tangent, but that's another story altogether); I was standing on the sidewalk on the left. I could clearly hear the blaring from her MP3 player earbuds, at a distance of approximately 10 meters away. That meant she had to have the volume up at eardrum-bleeding, "Spinal Tap"-like volume.
Last year, I saw a product at the Rock n' Roll/Mardi Gras Marathon expo which drew my attention, especially in light of the RRCA work. At the time I was trying to write a white paper on headphone use, so the idea of a company like Competitor Group putting on an event with bands at every mile, yet selling headphones at the expo, seemed a little incongruous. I told the expo booth rep for Yurbuds who I represented and expressed my gentle skepticism about the product. He kindly provided me some print information and the website address so I could draw my own conclusions. However, I didn't want to try the product.
When I planned my visit this year I told my wife I would look closer at the Yurbuds product, especially after they developed an Ironman-branded version of the headphone adapter. If you have a product which gets to be Ironman-branded, you've pretty much made the big time...well, the chance of your product getting more exposure is very good.
The rep fitted me for a pair of the Ironman-branded Yurbuds, which are designed both to funnel the output of your music player, or computer, or whatever device has a 1/4-inch headphone jack into your ears...and allow ambient noise from your immediate surroundings to be heard. He then told me to let him know when I could hear the music and the ambient room noise. He showed me where the volume was set on his iPod; I could hear AC/DC's "Highway to Hell" comfortably at a volume level somewhere around the mid-point. I could also have a normal-volumed conversation with the rep. While sold on the Yurbuds, I did worry if I had a placebo effect; what would happen back home in my neighborhood?
I put the Yurbuds to the test last Saturday while my wife and I were at the gym. Rather than watch Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations" I decided to talk to her in the middle of my 60-minute elliptical trainer workout. I asked, 'is there something which sounds different about this conversation to you?' She then realized she was not shouting, nor was I. Even this morning, during the walk from the gym back home, I could hear the singing of the neighborhood's mockingbirds, as well as John Mayer. You might not particularly care for my taste in music, but I think you get the picture.
It doesn't mean everyone should pay 20-to-50 dollars for a set of headphone adapters - they're comfortable, they keep the phones stable in the ear during strenuous activity - but if it helps folks turn their volume down on their MP3 player at races, without killing the user's listening experience, then I'm all for it...as long as they're not dawdling in front of my training group, in lane one on the track, or directly in front of me on race day.