I’m going to lay out exactly why it is stupid and wrong to ban headphones in a race. But first, let me issue a disclaimer. I don’t actually wear them myself. There’s no special reason, I just prefer to be able to take in my surroundings, and I guess I find them a little physically irritating.
That being said, I’ll vigorously defend the right of other runners to wear them, with this caveat. The primary reason that they are banned under the IAAF under rule 144 is to do with providing the competitor with an advantage (in this case, psychological), and that I agree with.
The problem comes in when we look at the vast majority of casual or non-professional runners. There simply isn’t enough of a compelling reason to ban something that positively and effectively enhances the experience of running for a large percentage of runners.
Here follows my rationale for not banning headphones :
We are not children
Adults can and should be expected to exercise care with their use of music players. If they feel that they impede their ability to hear instructions (a dubious scenario that I will address later) or to be aware of approaching or passing runners, they are free to, and most likely will, lower the volume or use a single earphone.
With children, one can be free to issue a blanket ban, but as adults, we can expect to receive censure only in an actual case of misuse or abuse. You don’t punish the many for the sins of the few.
There is no ‘safety’ issue
Really, the argument that there is a safety issue with headphones is a theoretical, not an actual argument. We are supposed to believe there is an issue with hearing instructions given by race officials. How often do you think this problem has actually arisen?
In my experience, most instructions given are of the nature of stay to this or that side of the road, something which is quite adequately communicated by observation of gestures, and watching what everyone else is doing. Add to that, the fact that most people will simply pop out an earphone when it looks as if someone is trying to address them.
The second instance is supposed to be when another runner is coming up from behind and cannot be heard. I’ll concede there might be some merit here, but only, I think in the case of a single-track trail race. In most other instances there’s usually more than enough space for passing.
Lastly, very few headphones actually completely cancel out all sound, and a fairly loud communication would usually be heard.
Once again. We are (for the most part) adults. If we think there is a chance we may be receiving a verbal communication we’ll adjust volume or take other steps to facilitate that.
It allows yet another reason for race officials to be petty.
We’ve all seen race officials drunk with their new headphone-warning power. Its a waste of time and energy, and its an ugly sight. Certainly, there are plenty of them who seem quite delighted to have the opportunity to disqualify a competitor.
There are real benefits to running with music
For some runners its the familiarity of the motivational sources they’ve used in training, for others the raw energy provided, for still more it allows them to distance themselves from the pain they are experiencing. In many cases, it can genuinely enhance the entire experience.
Why regulate against this simply because of the theoretical possibility of abuse?
I propose simply that, at the very least, at the bare minimum, lower-seeded and back-of-pack runners should have the rule waived in their favour.
Sadly, this won’t happen for two reasons. One is that there is nobody to advocate on an official level for the casual runner, and secondly for the simple reason that regulations, once added to are very rarely reduced.
So, I’m afraid that the harmless and enjoyable practice of running with music is unlikely to be allowed in races, and running is, in my opinion, worse off for it.