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For many, music and triathlon training go hand in hand. They can’t imagine running without their favourite band spurring them on, and are aghast at the prospect of racing without their headphones.

To start with I’m going to look at why personal music is banned at races, then I’m going to look at the effect, and practicality training to music has on each of the three sports respectively.

Racing

The vast majority of events will ban the use of headphones. To many this will seem cruel beyond measure. They’ve done all their triathlon training with music, what will happen when it’s taken away?

The primary reason is for athlete safety. If someone is running along with music blaring in their ears, they cannot hear instructions from race officials or other athletes calling out to let them know they’re trying to pass.

Last month I ran the London Marathon, and coming into the last 3KM was in a very congested group. We were making our way through a tunnel when an ambulance appeared behind us. We all jumped onto the pavement or got out of the way somehow except for one guy who was holding up the ambulance listening to very loud music through headphones he had insisted on using, completely oblivious of the obstruction he was creating. It was not done out of any spite or malice, and I’m sure he felt dreadful when he finally realised what was happening, but it’s a textbook example of why we have the rule in races.

On race day, whether it’s your first 5K or an Ironman marathon, there will be more than enough distractions to keep your mind distracted. From cheering residents to music from boom boxes, or steel bands to chatting with other athletes, it is unlikely your brain will be starved for stimulation in the same way it might be when running laps around a local park.

The best way to prepare for the lack of music in races is to train without it, even if it’s only for short periods. The motivation and practicalities for listening to music in each sport is slightly different, so let’s break them down.

Running with music

Running and music go together incredibly well. There are very few athletes in the western world who haven’t headed out for a run while listening to music.

The primary reason for this is that, especially when you start, running is hard work. Most of us begin running under a form of duress. Everyone else at work is signing up for a charity 5K. You need to learn to run for a triathlon. Your partner is strong arming you into it. Very few of us as non-runners wake up one morning, look outside the window and say to themselves “You know what would make my day better? Pushing my body to its limit with a run”.

Now, I love running, but it can be a hard sell and it’s really tough to get started. When I started my triathlon training, music with my runs went hand in hand. I was in my early 20s and single, a time on your life where angst guitar riffs and lyrics based about frustration just hit differently.

It’s worth thinking however about the really fast runners you see when our training. You know the ones, build like a beanpole, calves like sculpted marble and what looks like an effortless stride. How many of them overtake you with Slayer blaring from their headphones at max volume? Not many.

The reason for this is that their running has evolved from being something they put themselves through, to something which brings joy and an almost mediative effect. Rather than use music to push them on, they instead soak up the sounds of the world around them, and enjoy the solace it brings.

I understand this can sound slightly flakey and woo woo, but there is more to it than that. Truly great runners are as good as they are because they listen to their body, especially their breathing pattern and footfall. If their breathing becomes more ragged, their foot strikes heavier, this is a sign they are fatiguing, and may want to back off, depending on where they are in the race/workout. Data is great, but you never know how your body will react on the day. Just because you had a target pace in mind six months ago, doesn’t mean you’ll be able to pull it off if you slept poorly the night before, had a rough bike, or simply aren’t feeling it for whatever reason. Listening for cues from your body are key here, and it’s hard to pick up on those cues while you’re listening to the Backstreet Boys.

I rarely listen to music on my runs these days, but I will do my long, easy runs listening to a podcast. I keep the volume low though, so I can hear bikes approaching me on the bridleway, or faster runners who are asking to pass me. If you run in urban environments, it’s important to be aware of traffic noise, and in some environments, to ensure there is nobody around you who could do you harm.

Cycling with music

Where running with music helps dull the pain, cycling is often more about curing boredom, or having something to focus on other than the sound of traffic. However, safety is a much bigger issue on the bike, where you need to be acutely aware of where cars are and what they’re doing. There is a lot of victim blaming in the press about cyclists being hit by drivers while wearing headphones and I don’t want to be seen to be facilitating this, but as so many motorists can be driving distracted, you need to have your wits around you to keep you as safe as possible. If you’re approaching a pinch point in the road and someone starts to accelerate aggressively behind you, this is important information you need to be aware of, so you can react accordingly.

In the past I have listened to music while road cycling, but made a rule early on of only having one earbud in to ensure I could still hear traffic. Now I can’t imagine cycling with music, because as much as anything I feel it would ruin the mood.

Indoor training is another matter however. If I’m going to be on the turbo, staring at a screen watching my avatar make his way through the same roads I’ve ridden dozens of times, you’d better believe I’m putting my tunes on. There’s no way I’m doing 45 minutes of intervals at V02 max in my garage without some help from The Chemical Brothers, and there is evidence to support an improvement in performance. You can listen to audiobooks or even watch TV, but I personally find that the general unpleasantness of turbo training means my attention has a habit of drifting.

On the run leg of a triathlon there are distractions wherever you look, but on the bike there are generally very few distractions other than the scenery, the variety of which varies drastically. You can be largely on your own for up to nine hours as you make your way round an Ironman bike course. If you require a pair of headphones to keep you occupied on a two hour ride, you’re going to have trouble maintaining focus over longer distances, which will affect your performance.

Swimming with music

Swimming is the sport where listening to music is the most difficult, and also the sport where music is the least appealing for me personally.

You can buy waterproof headphones to use in the pool, and I’ve played around with some in the past, but never got on with them. If you are using a separate device such as an MP3 player clipped to your goggles, there is very limited storage for music and operation can be fiddly. If they work wirelessly with your phone then not only will you need to take your phone onto the pool deck, which is a theft risk, but they are prone to dropouts and distortion at the other end of a 25M pool, let alone a longer pool. Some models will be better than others here, but how much money are you willing to invest?

In the 21st century we are almost permanently attached to our digital lives. Like many small business owners I like to be with my phone as much as possible to respond to enquiries from potential clients. For the rest of us we enjoy the endorphin hit of a social media comment, like, or funny video to pass the time. In the spa area at my gym I even see people scrolling Instagram or watching the match in the jacuzzi pool.

Swimming is one of the few chances we have to step away from the internet and simply exist as ourselves. Ploughing up and down a lane is one of my happy places, as I can get lost completely in my thoughts. I can take the time to think over my problems, what I want for dinner, business ideas, how I want to spend my weekend, process my emotions or anything else which has been bubbling under the surface. I essentially wrote this article in my head while swimming 2.5KM last night.

If I was swimming 4KM twice a day as part of a development squad I would probably feel slightly differently about this, but as most triathletes will swim 2-3 times a week, do we really need to go to great lengths and expense to listen to Fleetwood Mac during that time?

We’re all individuals, and there could well be a reason that you need to keep yourself as distracted as possible at all times, but most of us could probably do with unplugging for a couple of hours a week.

Strength and Conditioning

Just a footnote here really. If you include strength and conditioning in your training (which you do, don’t you?!), then there are no downsides to listening to music in the gym, the soundscape of men grunting and dropping weights is hardly atmospheric, and it’s not like your triathlon race involves any weightlifting.

Conclusion

There is nothing inherently wrong with listening to music while triathlon training, but it’s important not to become reliant on it to the point that the absence of it makes you feel anxious. As your relationship with training develops over time, you will likely become less reliant on music to keep you motivated, and I recommend you embrace this.

Bone conduction headphones are available to purchase which help improve your awareness while listening to music, but they are still banned at most races, so I recommend not becoming overly reliant on them.

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