Ditching Distractions (Even Music) During My Runs Cleared My Mind and Made Me a Better Runner

Photo: Getty Images/ Willie B. Thomas
I ran for over an hour yesterday on the treadmill—in silence. Just me and my thoughts. No music. Not a podcast or episode on the iPad. Zero distractions. Here’s what I did have—a killer brainstorming session, soulful prayer time, and keyed-in attention to my breathing. And this is how all of my runs—indoor and outdoor—have gone since embracing mindful running.

Before you go thinking I’m some running prodigy who breezes through every mile, pause.

I am a seasonal runner and I start from square one every year. Mile one is almost always hard. So why would I choose to do it without motivating music or something else to captivate my attention?

Experts In This Article
  • Joel Frank, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist, neuropsychologist, and founder of Duality Psych Services

It started with my outdoor runs. Safety is the primary reason I removed distractions. I want to be able to hear and be fully aware of my surroundings. That’s when I discovered the power of mindful running. Instead of diverting my attention to my playlist, I was focused on my body and nature’s beauty. Turns out this practice of undistracted running has psychological benefits worth seeking, even indoors.

Let’s talk about why we want distractions in the first place

It's normal to want to tune out during hard tasks, according to licensed clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist Joel Frank, PsyD, founder of Duality Psych Services. He says, “Human beings are innately drawn towards comfort. When confronted with a challenging situation, our brains naturally try to divert our attention away from the discomfort and toward something more pleasing."

During these discomforting times, distractions become helpful, says Dr. Frank. "They act as a mental escape route, allowing people to defer the immediate strain and exertion momentarily,” he explains.

I’ve spent some miles straining and exerting alright. Running can be hard. Rather than leaning into the challenge, we seek amusement. Cue in the TV, podcast, or music. “These activities captivate the senses away from the stressor and create a more enjoyable ambiance,” Dr. Frank says.

Benefits of mindful running

Besides the obvious safety benefit of being aware of your environment, there are other convincing reasons to give undistracted running a try:

  • Meditation: “Running without distractions can be like a moving meditation," Dr. Frank says. "It's a dedicated space where people can engage with their thoughts and emotions without external influences. The rhythmic pattern of the feet hitting the ground and the steady cadence of the breath all anchor people in the present moment.”
  • Stress relief: We all have some degree of stress in our lives and we need to handle it somehow. Dr. Frank suggests mindful running may be a healthy way to go about this. “Solitary exercise is a potent stress reliever," he says. "While running, people not only work their muscles but also aid their minds in releasing tension.”
  • Mood boost: Whether you’re dealing with seasonal mood changes or just need a pick-me-up, distraction-free running may help. Dr. Franks says, “Physical exertion could trigger the release of endorphins that can help people feel more emotionally stable and clear-headed. For most people, running results in a calmer, more positive mental state, often called ‘runner's high’.”
  • Better running performance: Watching a show or paying attention to music essentially has us multitasking during our run. We aren’t fully attuned to our breathing, our cadence or turnover, and the way our feet are striking. It makes sense that mindfulness improves running performance1.
  • Process difficult emotions: Many of us are in the pursuit of happiness. When you have heavy emotions standing in the way, removing distractions may help you handle them better. “Practicing mindfulness can cultivate emotional resilience2, prevent stress accumulation, and enhance overall well-being. It allows people to process their thoughts and feelings effectively, fostering more wholesome relationships with themselves and others,” shares Frank.
  • Innovation and creativity: In front of my blank computer screen, I have a mental block. Conversely, on the treadmill, I have to keep my phone handy to voice-record all of my ideas. Dr. Franks explains that this mindful immersion can lead to a surge in creativity. "Ideas that seem elusive may suddenly align, solutions to problems may appear, and new perspectives may unfold,” he says.
  • Respite from busyness: Running may be one thing among dozens of to-do’s on your list. “In an increasingly fast-paced world, seeking opportunities to be mindful can serve as a crucial anchor. Being present in the moment can enrich daily experiences, allowing people to engage more deeply with themselves and the world around them,” Dr. Frank suggests.

How to get started

Try it out on your shortest run. Be mindful of your breathing patterns. How does your foot meet the treadmill or ground? Does your cadence feel good?

Beyond the physical, let your mind wander. Spend time unwinding and processing the day’s events. For what are you grateful? What’s something you’d like to change?

If you don’t like it, maybe wait until your running capacity improves a bit and try it again.

Don’t get me wrong—I love to test out a new playlist. The right songs can motivate you to go the distance. But distraction-free running has earned a solid place in my weekly fitness regimen. It’s the mind-clearing power for me. As a homeschooling, freelancing mom of three, I need space to relieve stress and let my mind wander.

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Lochbaum, Marc et al. “Sport psychology and performance meta-analyses: A systematic review of the literature.” PloS one vol. 17,2 e0263408. 16 Feb. 2022, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0263408
  2. Bajaj, Badri et al. “Resilience and Stress as Mediators in the Relationship of Mindfulness and Happiness.” Frontiers in psychology vol. 13 771263. 3 Feb. 2022, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2022.771263

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