In Defense of the Unplugged Run

I was on a gorgeous springtime evening run in my West Virginia hometown. I took my usual route on a back road by a creek. Horses grazed on distant hillsides near clusters of daffodils. The dogwoods flowered in a perfect pink bloom. As I jogged through the countryside, though I was familiar with the scenery, I noticed something new: the scents. I had never really registered the stink of the Bradford pear, the lingering odor of manure, or the tickle of fresh pollen.

For years and through each season, I ran this route — but my experience was different this time. It wasn't the landscape. It was me.

That morning, my headphones had broken. So to my disappointment, I began my run not listening to my usual running playlist, but to the noise of the natural world. I was surprised to learn that it was quite nice. There was more than enough stimulation without music.

Without the distractions of technology, my sensory experiences were heightened. My perception of nature was more acute. Though I wasn't totally surrounded by trees, my experience of moving in nature without technology reminded me of what I'd read about forest bathing, a wellness practice that involves intentionally and meditatively connecting with nature. It's been associated with many health benefits: lowered blood pressure, cortisol levels, and stress levels, and improved attention, mood, energy, sleep, and immunity. I'd gotten so accustomed to popping in my headphones and cuing up a motivating playlist during my runs that I'd failed to consider how music distracted me from my surroundings — and how that, in turn, meant I was missing out on the benefits that come from plugging into nature, instead of Spotify.

I spoke to my best friend from college — a fellow runner — about how much I enjoyed jogging headphone-free, and she shared that she'd given up running with music as well. This happened around the time that she took up birding as a hobby. She viewed her runs as an opportunity to hear the songs of yellow-rumped warblers.

And at night, when the birds were quiet? She loved the sound of silence. It gave her a chance to listen to herself after a day of listening to everyone else's noise.

Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised I enjoyed running without headphones. In my experience, music, podcasts, and audiobooks aren't the only types of technology that can divert us from some of the more beautiful aspects of running. Though I've always been an avid runner, I don't use a running watch, even during marathon training. This decision was not accidental or financial; it was strategic. As a teenager, I struggled with compulsive exercise. No matter the weather, in sickness and in health, I had to work out for a certain number of minutes a particular number of times each day. I found myself skipping activities that I wanted to do, like going out in the evening with friends, and needed to do, like going to class, in order to fit in more time for exercise. It was rigid and obsessive — and terrible for my mental health. Like any good thing, even something as positive as exercise can become toxic under certain conditions.

As I became aware of how limiting my compulsive behaviors were, I tried to impose boundaries upon my workouts. I wanted to make sure that working out was expanding, rather than contracting, my life. One of these boundaries: no fitness trackers. I basically knew what a two-, 10-, or 20-mile run felt like. I wasn't a professional athlete. There was no real need for me to quantify my workouts with precision.

And I noticed something: without tracking minutes or miles, my mind could disassociate and consider other, more interesting things. I could complete creative acts or solve personal problems. I could even, for instance, sketch out an essay like this one in my mind, so by the time I sat down in front of my keyboard, the words were already there, just waiting to be inscribed.

Fitness watches give so much quantifiable information about our activity levels and health, but more information does not necessarily lead to optimization. In medicine, there is an idea that over-testing and tracking does not always yield positive results — it can, in fact, lead to worse outcomes, as this American Journal of Medicine blog post notes. Healthcare providers can miss the forest for the trees by focusing on irrelevant or unnecessary data. And I think that this phenomenon can be applied to our individual use of fitness watches. If I'm fixating over arbitrary numbers rather than how I'm feeling, I'm missing the point of wellness altogether.

So now, instead of tracking data during my runs, I try to look to the world outside myself. I still sometimes find myself in the mood to listen to music when running, but sometimes I head out the door with no electronics at all, save for my phone tucked away in my running belt in case of emergencies. I look forward to using all of my senses to take in the physical space. I enjoy my workouts much more whenever I make a goal of running to a particular scenic mountain overlook or to my favorite street in a neighborhood, rather than, say, lasting for 10 exact miles or burning precisely a thousand calories. When I aim to see new places rather than obsessing over something with which I'm very familiar — myself — I'm happier, healthier, and, I would argue, more fit.

Anna Rollins's forthcoming memoir "Famished" discusses the importance of women listening to their own bodies. In addition to PS, her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, Salon, Electric Literature, and other outlets.