[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
When I first started running, there was no such thing as a Bluetooth headphone. iPods and MP3 players had only recently hit the market, and I had a small black MP3 from Walmart, the size of a pink Paper Mate eraser. I added a couple hundred songs to it, a weird variety of late 2000's top hits, country classics, and old school rock (I really loved Paint it Black, Hotel California, and California Dreamin'). Some days, I would listen to nothing. Other days, I'd listen to one of the three radio stations that came through clearly, mostly Bob & Tom or NPR. And some days, I would hit the shuffle button and listen to whatever came my way.
Some people say that listening to things when you run is a distraction, an easy way to escape mental discomfort, and an easy to way outsource your brains ability to be alone and manage pain. I say maybe, but who cares? We're all distracted all day, every day anyway. Listening to something while you run seems the least alarming distraction, and it's been shown that listening to upbeat music makes you run faster without feeling like you're running faster.
That being said, there are times when it might not be appropriate or safe to drown out the sounds around you. When I'm running in the mountains, I never use two headphones and rarely use one. Not only is it safer, but I also enjoy hearing birds, chatting with other hikers/runners, and generally present. Many races also prohibit the use of headphones, and I can understand why. You need to be able to hear the runners around you and communicate with folks at aid stations. Not to mention that the overall race experience is probably more fun if you aren't tuning everything out.
Benefits of listening to stuff: I'm a big lover of audiobooks and podcasts. This year alone, I've listened to nine audiobooks, mostly while I run. My favorites were the Beartown trilogy by Frederick Backman, The Secret History by Donna Tart, The Longest Race by Kara Goucher, and The Candy House by Jennifer Egan. Podcasts are another great way to learn something while you're in motion, and research shows that learning is enhanced when coupled with exercise. In a world where everyone is always short on time, audio is a great resource to learn while on the move. I spend 10-14 hours a week working out, which is a lot of time to learn new things.
Benefits of being in your own brain: Sometimes I start a run with headphones in and pull them out midway through. Our brains problem solve best when we're in motion and listening to anything can be a distraction from that. When training for a race or competition that doesn't allow headphones, it also makes sense to train without them so you're better prepared for race day. If you're running on a busy street or in a crowded area, it can be dangerous to block out all the noise around you. And finally, it might be good to be a bit bored. Some studies have shown that giving in to boredom more frequently can boost your creativity, productivity, and capacity for managing stress.
Some good headphone options:
SHOKZ OpenRun Pro: These headphones regularly top the "best headphones to run with" lists. They have a 10-hour battery life and they're "bone conducting," meaning that they send sound waves through your skull instead of your ear drum. This lets you hear what you're listening to without the need to put tiny speakers in or on your ear, allegedly saving your eardrums.
Samsung Galaxy Buds Live: These are the Samsung version of air pods, because I do not have nor will ever have an Apple device. They stay snug in my ears and last for about 6.5 hours on a full charge. The case is also chargeable, and can charge the headphones fully three times.
Sony Noise Cancelling Wireless Headphones: These aren't great for running, but they're great for literally anything else: taking calls, traveling, listening to music, dulling background noise. The battery lasts for up to 30 hours and they charge fast; a quick 10 minute charge gets you 4.5 hours of battery life. They're my go-to headphones for planes and if you're wearing them, no one will try to talk to you.
Regular old chorded headphones: My Bluetooth earbuds only last ~6.5 hours, so if I want headphones for longer efforts, or to bring along in my pack, I grab my cheap, chorded headphones. They will never die, I won't mind if I lose them or if they break, and the sound quality literally cannot be interrupted.