Running: possibly the simplest and cheapest form of exercise known to man. All you need is a half-decent pair of running shoes and a route, and off you go.
But if you want to add music and excellent audio to your runs (or any exercise, really) for distraction or motivation, you need a good pair of sport headphones. There are plenty of pairs on the market, so knowing where to start can be a bit daunting.
Don't worry, though, as we're here to help. We'll run you (pardon the pun) through what you need to consider, from style and fit to waterproofness, so you can be sure they'll suit you and your sporting needs before you hand over any money.
Then you can then head over to our buying guide dedicated to the best sport headphones for running and seal a deal.
So lace up and let's get going...
- Beats vs JBL vs Bose running headphones: which should you choose?
What sport headphones style do you prefer?
First things first: what style of headphones do you want? Sport headphones come in all shapes and sizes. You could go the wired route and pick an in-ear, on-ear or over-ear model. Or for the ultimate convenience, you could go with a wireless pair.
Wired headphones are as the name suggests: they have a cable connecting the headphones to the device playing the music (i.e. your phone or music player). These have become less popular in recent years as wireless headphones offer convenience and great sound quality at affordable prices. After all, who wants to run or lift weights with dangling cables in the way?
There are two types of wireless in-ear headphones. The traditional kind has a cable running along the back of your neck that connects the two earbuds. This style can divide opinion somewhat: some people don't like the feeling of a cable bouncing up and down on their neck as they run. But a decent pair should be so comfy you barely notice it. Examples include the Bose SoundSport Wireless.
True wireless is the headphone style du jour, though. These in-ear headphones remove the cables completely, leaving just two earbuds to pop in your ears. Even if you're not up on current models, you will have invariably seen the Apple AirPods while you've been out and about. But they're not specifically built for exercise! We would recommend the JBL Reflect Flow Pro, Sony WF-C500 or Jaybird Vista 2 instead as they have active-conscious fits, waterproof ratings and more besides.
As for on/over-ear headphones, they're naturally good at physically blocking sound out but are bulkier than earbuds, looser and less secure to wear and therefore aren't ideal for rigorous exercise that involves a lot of movement. We'd stick to using ons/overs for weight lifting in the gym.
Buy water resistant sports headphones
Exercising makes you sweaty. Fact. While you can toss your gym clothes in the wash, you can't do the same with your headphones. But some are more resistant to sweat and water than others.
For most, simple sweat resistance will do. But if you want to workout in the rain without worrying about your headphones packing up, you should look for splash resistance. And if you want to rinse yours under the tap afterwards, you'll want full waterproofing.
The amount of waterproofing is indicated by something called an IP rating, which many sport headphones list in their specification. You'll see something like 'IP67'. The first digit (in this case the 6) indicates protection from solid particles such as sand and dust. The second digit (here the 7) indicates protection from liquid (water) ingress. A rating of 3 is spray-proof, 4 is splash-proof, 5 and 6 cover water jets, while 7 gives you full immersion in water up to 1m deep for up to 30 minutes – handy if you're thinking of swimming with them on too. You can use this guide (opens in new tab) by Rainford Solutions for a full lowdown on IP ratings.
It's not only sport models that benefit from water resistance, either. The very affordable Earfun Air are rated IPX7 yet make no mention of running in their marketing materials. So it pays to do your homework.
Consider battery life
Long battery life is handy on a pair of running headphones. When fully juiced, they will all last you a decent session on the track (unless you're doing an Ironman, that is), but some go longer between charges than others.
Whether you're opting for wireless earbuds (with a cable between the earpieces) or true wireless earbuds (entirely wire-free), battery life from the earbuds themselves is usually between six to eight hours on a single charge. Just remember that the latter type always comes with a charging case that may be more convenient than wiring in a charger for the former style if you'd prefer to keep your headphones in a gym bag all week.
How to wear sport headphones
With sport headphones, a secure fit is obviously essential. After all, they need to stay put while you're notching up the miles, and the last thing you want to do is stop and scrabble around in the mud for a fallen earbud.
Most running earbuds come with different sizes of ear tips. You can mix and match these (wearing a different size in each ear) depending on your ear size. Most standard earbuds come with three sizes (small, medium and large), but sporty pairs, such as the Bose SoundSport Free and JBL Reflect Flow Pro, often also come with wing tips designed to nestle into your ear cartilage to better hold them in place. These usually just need a little wiggle to get them fitting snugly. This added support can come in handy if you're doing particularly intense sprints.
Touch or physical controls?
Touch controls are in vogue at the moment, but these can be a bit of a mixed blessing. While undoubtedly cool, they differ quite largely in terms of responsiveness and sensitivity. They can also be customised so different combinations of tapping can operate different features, from noise-cancelling to volume levels. Some designs use physical buttons, so again, try them if you can before you buy.
Some running headphones support the voice assistants that live on your voice (Siri, Google Assistant, Alexa, Bixby) so you can control them just by speaking. This will save you fiddling about with controls when working up a sweat. Just don't be so out of breath that you can't speak.
So there you have it. Don't forget, it can also pay to track down user feedback to see how certain models fare while running, and you can obviously take advantage of our extensive catalogue of headphone reviews for extra guidance. Happy running!
Do you want noise-cancelling and 'ambient aware'?
Noise-cancelling headphones are great for focus, letting you hear your music in more detail without having to crank up the volume to potentially eardrum-shattering levels to block out outside noise.
But recently we've seen ANC headphones also support an opposite feature, to make you more aware of your surroundings. This can come in the form of an 'ambient aware' or 'transparency mode', which when activated works to let in outside sound for a temporary period. (Or in the case of the Sony LinkBuds, this 'open' element can be baked into the physical design of the headphones themselves.) This is handy if you're cycling on roads or exercising out and about when it might be useful (and safer) to be able to hear traffic and some surrounding noise.
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