I gave up running with headphones when we were in Sweden maybe 4 years ago and I was running on scary small roads and trails where it really was important that I be able to hear what was going on around me. After three weeks of that, I kind of got used to things and I haven't really missed it all that much.
Science tells us that there are some good reasons to run with headphones (and Runner's World writes about it frequently). It can make the miles pass faster, which is especially important on long tedious runs. It can keep your tempo up as you keep beat with the music, and some studies have shown that people who exercise with music have a higher rate of exertion over time than those who don't (plus, the exertion feels less, so that's a plus, too). However, the safety concerns are huge, and losing the control of really being able to think about your breath and cadence can be significant, it depends on the kind of runner you are. Since I went through my Pilates certification a couple of years ago, I've become pretty darn geeky about running and form, so I was glad that I'd already learned to live without the headphones. When I was transitioning my stride from a heavy heel strike to a midfoot strike, paying attention to what I was doing was hugely important and I think it went as well as it did because I didn't have music to distract me.
So what goes on in my head, then, since I don't have music when I run outside? I do miss having NPR in my ear during early morning runs - I can vividly remember hearing about the first reports of the Arab Spring when I was running cold and seemingly endless laps around the Highland Park Reservoir - but overall, I like the freedom of not having anything in my pockets, or headphones constantly slipping out of my ears. I've found that now that I have to create my own music, I spend a lot of time going through my loop of songs in my head. Some days I'm stuck on Lady Gaga or Madonna, some days it's some horrendous song the kids are singing all the time. Yesterday it was "December, 1963" by Frankie Vallie, which was featured on Sunday's episode of Sherlock. When I run hills, it's frequently the theme from Game of Thrones, though lately it's been the "How He Did It" theme from Sherlock (yes, I'm pretty obsessed, I'm not ashamed). I've taken the time to plot out conversations I need to have, or to think of ideas for books I want to write, or things I want to talk to The Husband about. It's nice to have the time to just think if I want to, or turn on my mental jukebox and spin to whatever comes up, like a musical free association.
On the treadmill, all bets are off. Plug me in, I have no shame. If I have the option to watch a movie or TV, I'm there. Otherwise, I'll set my phone to random, use the running mix I've made, or use that Audible membership I should make more use of. I have a very nice pair of Yur Buds that work great for not falling out of my ears, but one of my cats is quite fond of them so I don't use them all that much because I tend to forget about them, leave them out, and then the cat eats them. It's a bad cycle.
Are you headphone-free or do you love your iPod like no other? What plays either in your head or on your player when you're running?