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Is it safe to wear earphones while cycling?

Solo rides can be improved by music or podcasts, but are the risks worth it?

As the pandemic continues to affect our daily lives, riding solo has become the norm for many cyclists. Riding independently can be a peaceful, meditative experience—listen to the sound of your tires on the road as the air whooshes by, thinking about whatever has been on your mind the past few days, or clearing your brain of anything other than yourself and the bike.

Other times it’s boring as hell. You see a street name and think of a great pun, but there’s no one to share it with. The headwind is unbearable and all you can think of is the next turn, 10 km away. There are no distractions, no one to take turns drafting with and nothing to think about other than “why am I doing this”.

Many cyclists find a good podcast or playlist is the perfect way to push through solo workouts, but some say riding with headphones is unsafe. Let’s unpack the pros and con of this hotly debated topic.

Music as a motivator

Listening to music (particularly faster music that you enjoy), has been proven to improve performance in some cases.

Even if you’re not seeing a performance benefit, if you get the playlist right it can marginally reduce your perceived exertion and limb discomfort. For many, listening to music makes the workout feel easier, go by faster and leaves them feeling less mentally drained by the end of it.

Spacial awareness

Although music may help in some ways, it could have a detrimental effect on safety. A 2011 study on the effects of listening to music while cycling found that listening to music worsens auditory perception, in particular if in-earbuds are used. Although high tempo music is good for improving performance, it actually increases likelihood of missing auditory queues (in this study a loud “stop” signal).

Technology is evolving, but not always in ways that are safer for cyclists. Noise cancelling headphones continue to grow in popularity, but they aren’t the best choice for those looking to be aware of their surroundings. Electric cars, which generate hardly any sound compared to standard vehicles, are becoming more common. Riders listening to loud music are also at a higher risk of not hearing electric cars, particularly when the cars are moving at lower speeds.

How to listen to music safely

If you still plan on listening to music while you ride, there are strategies to do so in a safer manner. Although researchers found that riders listening to music with in-earbuds missed a loud auditory stop signal 68 per cent of the time, the same study also concluded that there are actually no negative effects when riders listen to music using only one earbud. Risk of not hearing auditory signals can also be reduced by lowering the volume of music.

photo: Aftershockz

Some headphones are safer for cycling than others. Noise cancelling is never a good option when you’re looking to be aware of your surroundings. On the other hand, brands such as Aftershockz use a relatively new technology to make bone conducting headphones. The headphones sit just in front of the ear and send mini vibrations through the cheek bone, delivering sound directly to the inner ear and bypassing the eardrum. These headphones aren’t perfect, but they do allow more spacial awareness than in-ear earbuds.

Finally, plan a playlist in advance so you don’t have to use your phone while biking. Think about where you’ll be riding. Are you riding on a barely used gravel road or are you navigating the streets of a major city? If you’re in the latter situation, consider taking off the headphones. Your perfectly curated ride playlist will probably be better enjoyed without the interruptions of the city soundscape anyways.