Updated: Apr 8, 2020
The Obvious Differences
I have always been drawn to both music and running for many unique reasons which include a few overlapping attributes.
Performing from the piano has provided an unfailing outlet for my creativity, my analytical mind, and my need to bring into the world the musical ideas which are constantly floating around in my head. It has been a way of grounding and connecting me to the real world while sharing the beauty, excitement, and power of the musical experience with anyone who will listen. Other outlets such as composing and chamber music lean more heavily on various challenges/rewards, but the general energy and creative outlets are similar.
Running, however, has been my primary active outlet throughout my life. Even in other sports such as soccer or baseball, my roles were based on running fast and running for a long time. It is an activity which boosts cardiovascular fitness, strengthens the body, produces an endorphin rush, and moves a whole lot of air through the lungs.
The physical aspect was the angle which initially attracted me to running, but it's the mental component which has kept me running for so long. It takes a large amount of mental power to train and run long distances and is subsequently a huge mental (and physical) reward. The inner mental dialogue is something I will explore a little later, but first, let's hit upon a main fundamental difference between music and running.
Definition vs. Ambiguity
Using a race as an example, when you start, there is a defined moment that a gun goes off, or a horn blares, and the clock starts ticking. As your feet cross the start line you then make your way over a period of time to the finish line. When you cross that finish line, your personal time-clock stops and you have done it - you have run X number of miles in X number of hours, minutes, and seconds. It's a wonderful feeling! Sure, there are countless other factors at play such as time, technique, fitness level, placing, rankings, points, injuries, body reaction, etc., but at the bare-bones level, you start, then you run a distance, then you finish. Cut and dry.
Those who are musicians know that this is not at all the experience of performing music. Playing every note in a piece is by no means a measure of success and, in fact, could be disastrous if performed exceptionally poorly by many measures. The musical and creative experience is at its core so different from that of running that to compare the two in those ways would be a flawed process. There are other comparisons to be made which are more useful.
The life-long pursuit of excellence in music can be a heavy and exhausting responsibility at times. Self-doubt, insecurity, and relentlessly high expectations can wear a person down and most professional performers deal with these things daily. I find the definitive and measured aspects of running - distance, time, physical movement - to be immensely satisfying. Perhaps it's my brainy personality and analytical mind, but I love keeping track of my times, distances, and routes, and I can recite most of the race times I have ever recorded. This is not because any of these times are particularly fast, but because it fills a need for definitive measures in my mind.
It took me years to realize that this need was especially important for me because of the ambiguous nature of my musical life. The subjective nature of music can be hard to pin down and although there are certain technical and interpretive standards which are more defined than others, many musicians deal with the "can-always-be-better" mentality for their whole lives. It's what makes great artists great. It's an admirable trait, but it is frustrating and draining at times.
Even with regards to a comparison between practicing an instrument vs. training as a runner, running retains its definitive aspects of time and distance while practicing music is perhaps a more ambiguous and foggy process than ever. Sure, there are ways to notice musical improvements, but it's just not as set in stone. It is possible that I find this relationship between these two activities to be more pronounced than others would because of my balance of professional pianist and amateur running, but it is surely present to some degree with anyone who partakes in the two activities.
Running as Release
I used this quote in my previous post, but I think it also fits very well here:
“I just love the sense of freedom I feel when I run...If I have a lot on my mind, I find that running helps me to release any negative emotions I’m internalizing. Even if it is just for 30 minutes, I can forget about the things that are causing me stress, and I can just focus on running.”
Most professional musicians I know have an obsessive streak in them. This makes it possible for them to learn absurd amounts of music throughout their careers at the very highest level for which they can strive. This obsessive behavior can be considered a necessity in sustaining the focus and self-drive required as a professional musician. As necessary as it may be, it can become damaging if left unchecked. Burn-out is all too present in the musical world and keeping some sort of balance is crucial.
Running has served that purpose for me and I increasingly rely on it as I become more and more aware of its value. Unless we're talking about operatic singers or active pop musicians moving around the stage, in the classical world, much of a performer's activity is stationary. This performance activity still utilizes cardio, but strength, fine-motor skills, and mental stamina are at the fore.
Running has a way of shattering any tension that arises through all of this repetitive, fine activity that happens in one spot. Even performing at the piano, which is quite active, is much more about well-used strength, dexterity, mental toughness, and synchronizing the mind with fine motor skills. By simply going for a run I have been able to re-set my musical approach and eliminate tension which has been building up over time. It can also be a mental release and is beneficial for organizing thoughts.
The Mental Game
Mental toughness is a major necessity for distance runners and professional musicians alike. There is a remarkable strength which the mind holds when, in those moments of doubt or fatigue, it can will the body to move beyond a natural point of stopping. Nick Butter is an ultra-marathoner who recently in 2019 set the world record for running a marathon in every country in the world over a two-year span. In this mind-blowing interview, he talks about his training regimen and his approach to running.
"...the feeling of running, it goes after two or three hours. And before long, five or six hours later, if it's a long run...then I'll snap back to reality for a little bit."
His is an extreme example, but it reveals the levels of thinking which most runners shift between during longer runs. The hyper-aware, active state which assesses, feels, and reacts to all of the body's movements and its needs balances the more passive, disconnected thinking which many people describe as their "mind wandering". Each has its advantages in balancing out the musical side of things. As a life-long musician, I have a difficult time forcing my brain to be quiet. Depending on what I am practicing, performing, or composing on any given day, there are always musical fragments playing in my mind plus ideas on technique, style, physicality, tone, tempos, etc. That innate musical energy plus my detail-attentive personality combine to produce a continuous striving for betterment which can become mentally and physically exhausting.
The active and aware mind-set is equally as valuable in running and I am able to sink into it during a run at any point in a musical day. The advantage with running though is that the details about which I want to think are, for my running purposes, limited and eventually my mind is lead to a more relaxed and long-reaching mindset as the body releases and relaxes into the physical activity. The body's constant motion allows the mind to relax in a way that is not forceful, but passive. In this interview, the principal keyboardist of the Utah Symphony, Jason Hardink, discusses the connections between his musical preparation and his ultra-marathon training:
"Do you think any of your experience, either racing or training, translates into lessons that might be applied to your life as a musician?"
"Definitely, particularly regarding things like preparation, attitude, mental poise, musical pacing."
It is true that musical and athletic training require many of the same mental attributes. Hardink expresses that running has helped him become a better and more disciplined musician, but I would also flip that to say that being a disciplined musician can help you become a better runner. The self-drive, dedication, and long-term daily practice are all aspects which lend themselves well to long-distance running training. The two disciplines can spur each other on and the improvements you make in one may very well help the other in unseen ways.
A Musical Break
Every runner has their own philosophy on running, why they do it, and the purpose it serves in their lives. Every runner also has their own ideas on running with music. Some people won't run without it and have playlists for various lengths of runs and for a range of tempos. When I was training for my first marathon, I realized that a 3-hour long run can feel a whole lot longer when measured by 3-minute songs. It was for this logical reason that I stopped listening to music while running - and I have not run with it in the 10 years since.
Beyond the initial reasoning, I began to realize that I appreciate the sounds of the world when I'm running and I savor the relative silence which sharply contrasts the sound-filled practicing, performing, teaching, and general listening which fills up a majority of my time. My ears and mind, and in turn body, were getting a break and a period of aural recharging.
"...as a musician I find that the time away with some silence is a good thing. And I don’t know that a musician can really escape it anyway- the music is always playing."
With the more relaxed mind-set which running inspires, musical ideas are also allowed to run their course, so to speak. On many occasions I have been stuck or blocked in the midst of a composition and with a running break I return with the block removed and the musical idea naturally progressing forward. Like our minds organize information as we sleep, running seems to shake things up so that they settle in an easy and logical fashion. I'm not saying that it's right or wrong to run with or without music (to each their own), but it's worth reflecting on the benefits of each, and the possibilities for balancing out the other aspects of your life.
How They Can Work Together
Throughout my life, my confidence in either running or music has immediately translated to the other. This means that if I'm having a confused and difficult musical experience, a solid run can build the confidence which will make those problems seem far more manageable. This also works vice-versa. The balancing of these two activities can also lead to more complete fitness (minimizing injuries), and can serve as a mentally recharging force in whichever way is needed on a particular day.
“When I started realizing what I was already doing, it made me realize how much more I really could do...”
The similarities between running and musical training allow the two activities to push each other and for improvements in one to be improvements in the other. Their differences are complementary forces which help to balance the physical, mental, and emotional demands of being a professional musician, athletic training, and simply being a living human. Each person will have a unique relationship with this balance, which is ultimately the most important thing. The goals are self-discovery, self-realization, and self-empowerment. If, for whatever reason, these particular activities aren't as successful a balance for you as they are for me, trust that there is a similar balance for you with different activities. Just keep exploring and keep being curious and aware of you and your needs.
If you have any comments or ideas for future topics, please write below - I'm always up for suggestions! You can also subscribe to The Running Pianist Newsletter with your email here, and check me out on Instagram here.
Coming Up Next: 04. "Special Edition: Music & Running in a Time of Crisis"