Running with nature

A few years ago, I shared my thoughts on (and reasons for) running with music. Despite previously being a “no music” runner, widowhood meant that I needed distractions from my thoughts. And that meant that I became a pro-music runner. However, as often happens, my behaviours and practices have evolved and changed over the years and am now a staunch “no music” runner once again. So, I feel it’s time for another musing on music.

My music-and-running days lasted about 6 years, beginning when I was widowed at 35. And whilst I went from no-music to music quite quickly (music was a widowhood crutch) the shift back to nature was a slower process. In fact, I didn’t fully realise that it was happening. I just slowly began processing thoughts on my runs to the point where I could finish a run and not recall a single song that had played.

And then, in September 2015, I decided to run the Braemar half marathon without my iPod. I was worried and quite nervous about setting out without my anxiety aid, but I rationalised it by convincing myself that it was an exceedingly small race (fewer than 100 runners) through a scenic, rural course so I felt confident that I would be OK. And I was.

So, to put it simply, I no longer run with music. In fact, I don’t run with headphones at all. No podcasts, no audiobooks, no motivational speakers, and no Zombies, Run! (Although that last one does sound like fun.)

Instead, I run with nature (and my thoughts) as my soundtrack – just like I did when I started running at 13 years old.

Much like when I listen to music, nature’s soundtrack always surprises me when I focus on a different part of the music. After all, it is a complex soundtrack with many layers.

In the winters I enjoy “sunrise runs” that begin in darkness and near silence. But as the first hints of twilight appear, the birds begin to sing to me. I can hear the birdsong grow louder and louder as I go, and with very little traffic to drown out the sounds of nature, I almost feel graced with a private concert.

When springtime rolls around, my morning runs are filled with the sounds of lambs bleating in the fields. As the weather improves and the ground dries, my runs begin to take me along farm tracks where the mooing and baaing combine with the sounds of gravel under my feet.

Later, my summer runs begin to take me further into the Pentland Hills where I can enjoy the sounds of running water mixed in with the bleating of sheep in upland fields and birdsong, along with the sounds of sandstone and shale crunching underfoot.

In the autumn, I am more aware of the winds rustling in the trees. This is especially true when the leaves have begun to die off and become dry and brittle – a sound that is further improved when I am running over the fallen leaves, listening to them crunch under my feet.

Then there’s the sound of the frost or the snow under my feet as autumn turns to winter and the seasonal concerts begin to cycle once again.

And depending on which route I’m running, there will be varying levels of sounds from traffic or other humans and even church bells and farm equipment. The volume and combinations of these sounds mix with nature at different levels depending on the season and even the time of day.

There are also the sounds of self that I listen to on my runs. I am often aware of the sound of my feet connecting with the road, water slushing around in my small water bottle, and even my running gear rustling as I move my arms. I can hear my breathing (and panting) and sometimes I can hear my heart beating. And I can hear my own voice as I speak out loud to myself*: “Come on, Frances. You’re nearly there. Keep going, Frances… just two more miles and you’ll be home. You can do it. Keep going… keep going… you’re almost done…”

Of course, this isn’t to say that I focus on the sounds of nature and self all the time – or even most of the time. Now that I am back to running with nature as my soundtrack, I am also running with my thoughts as company. And I cycle between different levels of awareness or focus between these external sounds and my internal thoughts. And those cycles can last moments, minutes, or more, depending on the internal thoughts I am processing and how intentional those thoughts are.

Much like when I was younger, running has become an opportunity to think through issues or ideas and to process feelings and emotions. Running has become a release for stress and frustration and a tool for inspiration and contemplation once again. And it’s wonderful!

Indeed, it is a sign of just how far forward I’ve come in my grief when I think about it. Running with music began as a way to distract me from my thoughts, for fear of hyperventilating or sobbing uncontrollably the moment my thoughts reminded me of my grief. And now, I run just so that I can process thoughts – the good, the bad, or the ugly.

Yes, there are times when my thoughts take me to a sad/frustrating/upsetting place, and I end up crying or struggling to breathe. But I can generally shake those thoughts, dry my tears, catch my breath, and carry on. Of course, I also allow myself to think about upsetting things now, in part because running is my way of processing thoughts and experiences or feelings. That means that I must allow myself to think about things that might make me cry so that I can try to understand them better – and, hopefully, in a way that takes the raw emotion out of the situation for the next time.

(As I said, I cycle between inner thoughts and nature’s soundtrack as I go, so I never quite know what to expect on a run!)

Of course, this isn’t the end of my running soundtrack story as I have now been thinking about bringing music back to my running routine. But rather than using it as a crutch for my thoughts and emotions, I am looking at how I might be able to use it as a tool for improving the physical practice of running. I have been wondering if I might use my iPod to help with interval training (I do love a good Fartlek) or tempo runs. Or maybe some speed runs with the Zombie, Run! app? I don’t know. It’s something to think about…

As always, I welcome your thoughts on the topic! Do you use (or avoid) music when you’re participating in sports or activities? Do you have suggestions for how I might incorporate a bit of music back into my routine? Feel free to share your opinions below.

* That’s completely true. I do quite a bit of self-talk as I run. I am sure people think I’m a madwoman the way I speak to myself between panting breaths. And I am OK with that.

Join the conversation!