Headphones vs the sounds of nature: what's the best soundtrack for runs?

headphones vs sounds of nature: runner with headphones
Are you missing out on getting closer to nature when you drown it all out with Rage Against the Machine? (Image credit: Getty Images)

It can be a tough choice when it boils down to headphones vs the sounds of nature. We runners typically love the outdoors and if you're a trail runner, it's highly likely you'll have an appreciation for the backcountry, nature and the sounds that come with it.

However, running to a beat also gets a lot of us going. There's something undeniably uplifting about those moments where your soundtrack and the trail conspire to almost push you forward. Or, it might be that you like to use the time you spend running to listen to an audiobook or a podcast.

There are so many running headphones available now, with options ranging from old school to wireless ear buds that wedge into your lugholes. Some promise to block out the surrounding sounds, while others assure you you’ll still be able to hear a certain amount of the surrounding noise, such as the rhythmic pound of your trail running shoes on the ground. But, should you even wear them for running in the first place? What do you stand to gain and lose?

Meet the expert

best running jackets: Claire Maxted
Claire Maxted

Former editor of Trail Running Magazine, Claire is passionate about covering the backcountry at speed. She's an avid trail racer and frequently speaks at races, industry events and festivals.

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The argument for the sounds of nature

  • Sensory immersion in nature is a postive, giving you time and space to think
  • Headphones block out the sound of traffic, which is a safety concern
  • Some races ban the use of headphones


Is it time to take of your headphones? (Image credit: Getty)

The purists will argue that, when you are exploring off-road in wild surroundings, it’s madness to block out the chirrups of birdsong, the whistle of the wind through the trees and the splash of fast flowing streams. Sensory immersion in nature is precisely why we run in such places, isn’t it? 

Even if you’re not fortunate enough to regularly run on remote singletrack, there’s a strong argument against blocking out the sounds of traffic and other people in cities and towns, due to safety concerns. You can’t hear a friend or foe approaching from behind if you’re ensconced fully in your own pool of sound.

For some people, running is a way of exorcising all the hectic and stressful elements of the day and clearing their heads. Many runners claim to regularly solve work and life problems while on the trails, and some creatives say they have their best ideas while out running without any artificial distractions.

Headphones are even banned in many races, so competitors can focus on the race, hear important safety instructions from marshals and warnings from fellow runners, and enjoy the cheering from the spectators.

The argument for headphones

  • Many runners find strength and motivation listening to music or a podcast
  • Uplifting, energizing music has been proven to even improve pace when running


Music and podcasts can give you much-needed motivation (Image credit: Getty)

However, so many runners also find strength and motivation in listening to music or podcasts while they run. There are plenty of running-orientated podcasts out there, like Go Mountain Goats, Wild Ginger Running and Trail and Error, or you might want to catch up on the news, a comedy show or the latest interesting scientific discovery. Listening to podcasts is a fantastic way to multi-task if you’re the type of person who likes to ingest a constant flow of information – even while training.

As well as chat, uplifting, energizing music is a fantastic and scientifically proven way to stay motivated and even up your pace while running. Listening to music with a quick beat and a positive, upbeat mood in your headphones can perk up a dull run that you’ve done many times before, speed up a commute home in the rain and block out the incessant city noise that’s been driving you to distraction.

For some long-distance and ultrarunners, music can make all the difference to whether they feel like they can continue, when fatigue and tiredness are pushing them to the point of capitulation.

The verdict

  • Bone-conducting headphones allow you to listen to music without blocking external sound
  • Whether or not you wear headphones on a run is entirely up to you

Headphone use remains a subjective issue – if it works for you, go for it (unless you’re running in a race where they’re banned) – but it’s no longer a completely binary debate. Bone-conducting headphones that sit just outside the ear hole allow you to hear music and podcasts without blocking any outside sound.

The sound quality (especially music-wise) is not quite as good as the in-ear headphones, but this style really do give you option of exploring the best of both worlds - your own choice of music/podcast, and surround sounds. Find out more in our headphones test.

Claire Maxted

The co-founder and former editor of Trail Running magazine, Claire now runs the YouTube channel Wild Ginger Running, creating films about trail- and ultra-running advice, inspiration, races and gear reviews. An award-winning journalist, writing for outdoor and adventure sports magazines and websites, Claire's first book, The Ultimate Trail Running Handbook (5k to 50k), is out now. Her second, The Ultimate Ultra Running Handbook (50k to 100 miles), is out Autumn 2024. Claire also speaks and presents at events and races.