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Should You Listen to Music or Audiobooks While Training?

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Nerd shit for the win

I haven’t listened to music while I workout in over a year.

Now, you know I love music. My one and only tattoo comes from the album cover of my favorite record of all time.

But, I’ve made the switch to listening to audiobooks and podcasts while training, especially since I started working out at home. Without a normal commute where I’d normally crush audiobooks, my podcast and Audible library piled up. So, I decided to shift from music to audiobooks and podcasts while I train.

I don’t think I’ll ever go back. Here’s why I think you should consider the switch too. 

Why (Most Of) You Should Listen to Podcasts and Audiobooks

There are myriad reasons why people who read more tend to be more successful, but one of them is perhaps most obvious: they know a lot of shit.

While I stand by the belief that people who exercise and train hard tend to also be more successful, combining those good workout habits by constantly learning via audio, is the double punch that can take you to the top faster than Daniel LaRusso.

Setting aside hours per day to read isn’t always practical. And even if you are setting aside plenty of time for regular reading, adding in audiobooks can set you up to read even more. And you can catch up on long-form podcasts.

The great Patrick Star proclaimed that the only thing worse than one giant paint bubble is two giant paint bubbles. Well, what could be better than reading every day? Getting to read twice as much every day. 

 

Consider How Much Time you Get Back

If you train four days a week for an hour, that’s an extra four hours per week, or over 200 for the year. The average audiobook is ten hours. So, that’s an extra 20 books per year, or 10 books if you split that time with podcasts. Just while you’re at the gym.

I even listen to all of my podcasts and audiobooks at 1.5x speed, so you can make that 15-30 books for me. I recommend you do the same. This can affect the timing on certain podcasts, but I’ve gotten so used to it that it’s the new normal, and I haven’t seen any compelling evidence that it harms comprehension at a faster rate than it speeds up the listening. 

But Music Pumps Me Up For My Workouts

Here’s where my idea goes astray: uplifting music has shown to enhance workout performance. I’m not here to make the argument that it doesn’t. The question for me is whether the benefit of reading more than a dozen extra books per year will outweigh missing out on the boost that a great workout song has.

The answer, unless you’re a professional athlete, will be that it’s worth the tradeoff. Because whether you’re shredded at 7% body fat or 8% body fat won’t make much of a difference in our lives, but those hours and hours and learning? Imagine the impact just one book has had on your life.

Our gym lives don’t exist in a vacuum. For nearly all of us, training is a means to enhance our life, not run it.

Note: While I’m conceding the point that music improves your workouts, that’s not always the case. Personally, music distracts me more than audiobooks. So what I lose in intensity, I gain back with focus. I also don’t get any more weird looks in the gym from lip singing, headbanging, and finger-pointing while training. 

When I Listen to Music During Training

Sometimes while working out, whether I’m having a sluggish day or am preparing for a big set, that’s when I’ll throw on a song like Downfall of Us All and get amped. I’ll use the rush of the thumping chorus to help me squeeze out an extra rep in my “all-out” set that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

What If I Really Like Exploring New Music While I Workout?

If music is a large part of your life, and a huge part of the joy of training for you, then you should stick with it. If it enhances your life in a way you can’t explain, and you love to train because you get that hour of music, then go for it. Of course, if you’re a songwriter or performer and music is part of your craft and learning process, and you use training to explore new music, then that’s great too.

There’s No Reason You Can’t Compromise

Of course, there’s no reason you have to pick a side. Even if you listen to books just 1 day a week that’s around five extra books for the year. The hardest part for me was the first week. Like adjusting to anything, at first it might just feel off until it eventually becomes part of your routine.

Or, you can throw on a podcast or audiobook while your warm-up and cool down, but listen to music during your most important lifts.

A Large Chunk of Training Time is Spent Resting

And, of course, a huge chunk of our gym time is spent resting in between sets. This time, depending on your program and goals, is necessary, and if you’re sitting there listening to music you’re not channeling it productively to improve your workout and you’re not getting any smarter.

Audiobooks vs Podcasts While Working Out

I’ve gone back and forth on this. Podcasts have a conversational flow that makes it easier to stay engaged with while in a semi-distracted state like training. 

Sometimes an audiobook (depending on the book) requires too much constant attention to really get anything out of it while training. Those types of books should be reserved for moments when your attention isn’t as divided. However, long books like biographies and narrative nonfiction books work great in audio format because you can afford to miss parts here and there and still stick with the narrative and lessons. 

Audiobook Recommendations While Training

 The books I choose to listen to vary from the books I choose to read. Fiction books, for example, I prefer to read so I can more closely study the language. Books on a specific topic like training where I’m going to have to highlight a ton also aren’t great for audio. 

Whether you take a similar approach or not, keep in mind that an audiobook brings a starkly different experience than reading a physical book. Here are further elements I think about when selecting audiobooks.

It’s All About The Narrator

You want a narrator who’s easy to get engage with.

I actually don’t own any of Ryan Holiday’s physical books. I listen to all of them. He narrates his own books and does a great job making them easy to follow along. I’ve listened to and re-listened to nearly all of his books while training. His books, in particular, I’ve found to be great for audio because they contain the type of lessons you can always use a refresher on. The Obstacle Is The Way helps me recenter my view towards current challenges in my life, while Ego Is The Enemy brings to the forefront of my mind how my ego is relating to the world. 

On Audible you can always “sample” the first chapter. I always do that before getting a book I’m not familiar with. Nothing can ruin an otherwise great book faster than a bad narrator. 

Listen to Your Favorite Books

I also love listening to books that I’ve already read physical copies of. Robert Greene’s books, for example, I have on audio and in physical copies. They’re always great to review and I always catch something new when digesting it in a different format. Especially since they’re long, dense reads. 

Any book you love but feel like you need a refresher on is great for while you’re working out. That way if you miss on parts while you’re focusing on your lifts you can pick it right back up.

Also, we have this misconception that the learning process can be something you’re “finished” with. In reality, hearing lessons you think you’ve already learned can help you reapply the lessons from the book by bringing them back to the top of your mind.

Listen to Books You’re Curious About But Otherwise Wouldn’t Read

I rarely physically read biographies. They’re usually gigantic books filled with lots of details that aren’t pertinent to absorbing their lessons. However, listening to them feels like getting to know somebody over the course of a few weeks. Maybe Alexander Hamilton will be my gym partner for the next two weeks, or John D. Rockafeller. With audio, you can invest the hours and get immersed in their life and it’s okay if you zone out for parts of it.

Some of my favorite biographies include Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Total Recall, and Endgame, the biography of the only American to become world chess champion, Bobby Fischer. If you watched The Queen’s Gambit, Beth Harmon has a lot of similarities with the real-life champion Fischer.

Also included in the category of “books I otherwise wouldn’t read” includes recommendations from others. Audio can be easier to get into than print books and because it’s semi-passive, it feels like less of a commitment. Often, after I read a book that got on a whim recommendation, I’ll then buy the physical copy so I can go deeper and take better notes. 

My Top Audiobooks To Start With

The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday

It’s short, actionable, and even motivating while you train. As I said, Ryan’s narration makes it easy to engage with while training.

The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin

This book is about the learning process told through Waitzkin’s experience in chess (he’s an international master) and Tai Chi (he’s a world champion). This book is great for working out because a lot of the lessons are immediately applicable to your training.

The Game by Neil Strauss

Like Ryan, Neil narrates his own books and does a great job. It’s the kind of book you won’t want to stop listening to. This is also somewhat of an autobiography so you get the best of a lot with this book.

The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene

All of Robert Greene’s books follow a similar format that’s great for audio. It’s a story, usually a historical example, and then after the story, he shares the actual lesson. Because the stories are long, they’re perfect for listening to while training, much like biographies. 

As far as where you should get your audiobooks from, I have been an Audible member since 2015, when I was 16. That’s where I get all of my audiobooks from, and their platform is only getting better. Audible is easily one of the best investments I’ve made for my growth.

Podcast Recommendations For Working Out

It’s not even fair to say I’m a podcast fan, because I mostly only listen to one podcast: The Tim Ferriss Show. In it, Tim interviews world-class performers in a long-form discussion to tease out their habits, lessons, and more. Tim, who’s been called The Oprah of Audio, said that his goal was to make his podcast the equivalent of a university education.

As someone who’s also currently getting a world-class university education, I can tell you that Tim’s podcast has been more valuable to me. And that’s not a knock on my school, it’s a testament to how amazing his interviews are. Over the course of long-form interviews, you’ll feel like you really get to know some of guests (because they often go deep) and like you’ve just had some intense, eye-opening conversations. For more on Tim, here about the time Tim and John went to India together.

Tim also frequently asks for book recommendations from his guests, which means I’m always getting ideas on what the next book I listen to should be. And, a lot of times guests go on the show to promote their new book. That’s how I’ve gotten a hold of Seth Godin‘s and Jim Collins‘s latest books. 

As for training podcasts, I also often tune it Mike Boyle’s Strength Coach Podcast. I listen to that to make sure I’m staying up to date with people in the strength and conditioning world. As Boyle’s ideas change, often the industry changes with him so even if I don’t always agree (I usually do), I like to hear his viewpoints and reasoning to follow the general narrative of the training world.

One idea, for example, I originally picked up on through Boyle’s podcast was the importance of single-leg training.

I’ll also shamelessly plug my podcast where I interview the top strength coaches in the hockey world. Cause, ya know, I can. That also helps me stay on top of what’s changing in the strength and conditioning world and in my particular hockey training niche.

How to Take Notes on Audio While Working Out

One of the huge downsides to listening to books while training is you can’t really take notes. Luckily, Audible has a “clip” feature so you can clip moments that stand out. So if I’m training and I hear something I want to save, I just clip it.

Easy peasy. I haven’t found a great way to do this for podcasts. Yes, I can screencast the whole phone but that’s kind of a pain. So for podcasts, I don’t take notes while training. If someone has a good solution for that, let me know.

After I’m done with an audiobook, I take all the “clips” and apply the same note-taking strategies for normal books, which starts with copying the clips verbatim into a notebook. Depending on the books, I can usually copy all the most important takeaways in a few minutes. Now, I have them stored forever. And it’s all because I listened to more books while training.

audiobook notes

A page of notes from Ego is the Enemy. All absorbed and “clipped” while training

Don’t Knock It Until You Try It

Oh, old clichés like this one. Sometimes they’re dumb. In this case, I feel it’s quite appropriate. If you put on a podcast and five minutes later you decide you’d rather listen to music, that’s not really giving this a shot. All things can feel weird when you first switch to something unfamiliar.

Personally, it felt weird to me at first, but after a few days, like any habit, I adjusted. My workout intensity even resumed back to normal once the habit was formed.

Listen, Learn, and Watch the Magic Happen

By switching from music to books while training, you have several hours every week sitting for you where you can turn your attention towards learning what you want to.

Think about what kind of education you could craft for yourself through this. Do you want to become an expert on a certain topic? You now have the time to listen to all of the popular books on stoicism, or psychology, or business and finance. Or, head any direction you want.

There are no excuses for not reading. Frankly, if at this point you haven’t found a way to consume books, I’m just not sure we can find a way to be friends.

About the Author

David is a writer and strength coach and co-owner of Roman Fitness Systems. In addition to helping run RFS, he's also the head editor for prohockeystrength.com., the official website of the Strength and Conditioning Association of Professional Hockey. You can also check out his Instagram, he's pretty easy on the eyes.

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