The Art of Reading While Running
Exercising while multitasking usually doesn’t go well; just ask anyone who has ever tried to study while using the elliptical machine! But, just like with anything in life, there are certain “hacks” for improving your ability to do two things at once. Here, the art of reading while running will be discussed.
Should You Read and Run?
Depending on who you talk to, some people will say that reading and running should never take place, based on reading or running purism. After all, isn’t running a time to be unplugged and at one with nature (or, at the very least, your brain?). Alternatively, shouldn’t reading be a solitary activity?
On the other hand, we live in a fast-paced world where fitting in exercise often comes at the cost of another aspect of our lives. If we want to run, we usually must sacrifice time spent with friends, family, or time that could be spent studying or finishing the book we just started. If you go to the gym, you are likely to see a student studying notes or reading a textbook. You might also see an athlete reading as a way to pass time while dealing with the monotony of the treadmill.
However, there are many reasons that reading and running can be a bad idea:
Detracts from the Workout
Reading requires a fair amount of mental fortitude, especially when you are reading a textbook or a classic novel. Plenty of studies have shown that mental fatigue hinders performance1. When you are focusing on following a story line2 or memorizing the description of a mechanism in your organic chemistry textbook, you likely aren’t getting the most out of your workout.
Inhibits Mental Game
The mental side of running requires just as much practice as the physical side. You need to use your brain to work through periods of boredom, stress, and discomfort. When you are focusing your thoughts elsewhere, you are missing an opportunity to flex your mental muscle to improve mind game.
Keeps You Connected
Part of the joy of running is disconnecting from the world. We use our eyes for every aspect of our jobs by looking at a computer screen, a book, or another object of interest. When we run, we allow our eyes to become disjointed from the world and let our feet ground us.
However, when we read while running, we allow the opposite to happen: Our eyes keep us grounded while our feet feel disjointed from the earth (or treadmill). Using your sight to focus on an object while running has been proven beneficial for faster finishing times, but can confuse the body otherwise; especially when the treadmill is involved.
Bad for Proper Form
Proper running form involves good posture, a level head, and relaxed shoulders. However, when you are attempting to read while running you will instinctively lower your head, tense your shoulders, and bend at the waist (especially if you don’t have 20/20 vision!). Not only can this lead to injury while running, it may reinforce bad “muscle memory,” leading to poor running economy.
Detracts from Reading
Besides detracting from running, exercising while reading detracts from your ability to absorb the material as well. Multitasking is difficult, especially when combining physical and mental activities. You are less likely to remember the material that you read while you are exercising because you are simply using too many bodily processes as once.
Ruins your Reading Material
Finally, running while reading is hazardous to your reading material. If you are reading a book or magazine, sweat can ruin the thin pages. Reading on an eReader? Knocking the device off of the treadmill panel can crack the screen and send a pricey electronic flying across the gym.
Is there a Safe Way to Read and Run?
By now, you might be wondering: Is there a safe way to read while running? Fortunately, there is. By replacing the written word with the spoken one, you can safely enjoy your usual reading materials.
Benefits of Listening to Audio Books
• More Mentally Engaging
When you listen to a book, as opposed to reading one while contending with other sounds from your headphones or gym goers, you are going to be more mentally engaged in the material. This benefit will also reduce boredom when you run.
• Better for Long Runs
Do you normally listen to the same playlist when you go for your long run? If so, consider listening to an audio book. Combined with the fact that listening to words is a more mentally engaging activity, it is also easier to get lost in both your surroundings and the story when listening to a novel on the run.
• More Motivating
If you reserve your audiobooks only for running, you will find that listening to a novel is a highly motivating way to get yourself out the door or to keep running. If you listen to murder mystery novels or thrillers, you will always be tempted to keep running in order to find out what happens next!
• Reduced Boredom
How can you be bored with a run when you know a killer is right behind you? Listening to a book – as opposed to reading one – keeps the pace of the story moving at a faster speed. You are better able to absorb the novel and see a mental picture of the characters, instead of having to stop and mull over specific details or re-read a sentence or paragraph if your mind wanders. Listening to an audio book provides far fewer distractions for getting through a novel than most other reading activities.
• Stick to Your (reading) Goals
We live in a crazy world and finding time to read AND exercise can be difficult. Many people set goals for how much they would like to read throughout the year but struggle to reach these goals. Others join book clubs but then have difficulty finishing the novel each month. Listening to a book helps you be more productive in all aspects of your life.
What are the best apps for listening to audio books while you run? Favorites include:
Audible is perhaps the most prevalent audio book app, which runs on both Android and iOS. For $14.99 per month, users have access to up to 150,000 audio book titles. For Amazon users, this app is best as it integrates nicely with Kindle, Whispersync, Alexa, and Echo, Tap, or Echo Dot.
Downpour (Android and iOS) is an indie audio book store with a large library of Digital Restrictions Management (DRM)-free audiobooks for sale, as well as audio books that can be rented for 30 or 60 days. You can access the entire library for offline playback, which is perfect for trail runs or areas where Wi-Fi or cellular networks are not available. Better yet, it’s free.
Scribd (Android and iOS) is considered the Netflix of audio books, thanks to its on-demand format. For $8.99 per month, subscribers can access 30,000 audio books, as well as 500,000 eBooks for non-running reading.
Which books are best for runners to listen to? The following are just a few suggestions:
• Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand
Based on the true story of Louis Zamperini, this novel follows the life of the 1936 Olympian turned POW. Spectacular feats of mental fortitude and strength include surviving 47 days adrift in the ocean after a plane crash and being captured by the Japanese navy during World War II. This story will leave every runner inspired to go a little further, both in running and in life.
• Once a Runner, John L. Parker JR
This classic is a must read for every runner. This story follows Quentin Cassidy, a mentally tortured collegiate runner on a quest for a sub-4:00 mile.
• Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, Brigid Schulte
Overwhelmed examines why we, as humans, focus so much time and energy on work and business. Are you wasting the best years of your life working to the bone for an uncertain future? This book might make you angry to find out.
• The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins
When you are running, you want to hear a story that will not only have you hooked the start, but will keep you guessing as well. The Girl on the Train has both of these attributes
To be completely honest, I discovered audio books after running more than 3000 miles on motivational music. It was just my way of coping with stress and effort, nothing special. Since I became an avid reader, I tested one of Tony Robbins’ books (Unlimited Power) during a 20-mile run back in 2015 and I was hooked. I had listened to over 60% of the book in just three hours and I had completed my long run. WHOA!
Listening to audio books while running can save you A LOT of time and can kill two birds with one stone. If you want to go the extra mile, put the speed on 1.5x. You’ll need time to get used to it, but it’s one thing you should definitely try. All in all, do try an audiobook next time you go for a run; it can literally change your life.
What other great ideas do you have when it comes to running? Feel free to share with us in the comments below.
1. Marcora S. M., Staiano W., Manning V. (2009). Mental fatigue impairs physical performance in humans. J. Appl. Physiol. 106, 857–864. 10.1152/japplphysiol.91324.2008 Link
2. Brad J Schoenfeld, Bret Contreras. Attentional Focus for Maximizing Muscle Development. Strength and conditioning journal 38(1):1. DOI: 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000190 Link