Wearing headphones during a raceCan elite marathon runners listen to music when their running in marathons?

The quick and easy answer to this is no they can’t. Some elite marathoners will train with their iPods, and some of them won’t.

However, you’ll never see them actually racing with an iPod during a marathon, at least not here in the United States.

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The main reason that you’ll never see elite runners wearing headphones is because the USATF bans any sort of electronic device that an athlete can use to communicate with somebody not on the course, such as their coach. There’s no real way for them to know whether a device is capable of receiving, or is just some thing that can be used for playback.

The rule was changed slightly at the end of 2008 during the USATF Annual Meeting. Previously, no electronic devices (other than a predefined list of approved items such as wrist chronometers) were allowed, and in 2006 there was a big push to make sure iPods and other music players were banned at all USATF certified races.

Now, rule 144.3(b) specifically addresses the issue of iPods and other mp3 devices as it relates to all runners:

The visible possession or use by athletes of video, audio, or communications devices in the competition area. The Games Committee for an LDR event may allow the use of portable listening devices not capable of receiving communication; however, those competing in championships for awards, medals, or prize money may not use such devices.

Internationally, rule 144.2(b) of the IAAF is very similar in wording but does not provide any provisions for the use of headphones by casual runners.
No Headphones
So basically that just means that if you want to win any sort of money at a USATF sanctioned event, you can’t wear headphones. The RRCA has a similar stance in that headphones aren’t explicitly banned, but race directors are encouraged to ban them altogether and can’t promote their event as being headphone friendly if they want to use RRCA insurance.

There haven’t been many cases where this was really an issue, because when you’re racing you really need to be in tuned with your competitors so most elite athletes weren’t effected by the rule one way or another.

There was one marathon last year, the Lakefront Marathon in Milwaukee, where the first person to finish the race was Cassie Peller who was disqualified for taking a water bottle outside of an official aid station. So Jennifer Goebel, the second woman to cross the line, moved up to being the winner.

However, Jennifer had her 3:02:50 marathon taken off of the books, because there were pictures of her wearing an iPod from miles 19 through 21 during the race. So she was also disqualified. The eventual win and $500 cash prize went to Corina Canitz in 3:04:20, the third woman to cross the line.

So there’s at least one precedent where the money got moved down the line because of somebody wearing an iPod and that is why you’ll never see elite runners racing with them.

(More Info: USATF Competition RulesIAAF Competition Rules)