Running and other sports can be a great way to improve your fitness, improve your self-confidence and lose weight. But while starting is (relatively) easy, taking this resolution and turning it into a long-term lifestyle change is absolutely not.
We all find our motivation in different ways, but music can be hugely helpful in raising your spirits and heartrate, or distracting you from burning muscles. Which is where a really decent pair of headphones can make all the difference. In this article we round up our pick of the best running, sport and fitness-focused headphones, and offer general advice about what you should be looking for when buying headphones for physical activities.
What to look for
Fit: Your headphones are going to be jolted and bounced around more than in civilian life, so the fit needs to be spot on. Headphones with multiple sizes of bud are a good idea. In case the headphones do get jogged out of your ears, some kind of neck attachment may be useful, or the ability to survive a drop. Which leads us to...
Build quality: You're looking for something robust and light. And also reasonably water-resistant, to account for sweat and rain.
Audio quality: This is probably less of a priority than when selecting headphones for home listening pleasure: the sound of traffic may drown out much of the musical nuance in any case. Talking of which, if you're going to be cycling, or running across roads, consider your safety. Noise cancellation may be a dangerous option.
Wired or wireless? Most of the models we've picked in this roundup are wireless because, when running, wires are a pain. It also means you can play music from your Apple Watch, which is a plus for fitness activities. But going for Bluetooth does increase the price tag, and those who go out running in all weathers may prefer a cheaper option - don't rule out wired headphones entirely. (Or Lightning headphones, for that matter.)
AfterShokz Trekz Titanium
Wearing headphones in the gym is safe enough - the biggest risk is that you end up looking like a bit of an idiot if you get carried away and start singing along to Kylie Minogue in mid-workout. But wearing headphones when you're jogging or exercising outdoors can be genuinely dangerous if you can't hear what's going on around you.
Aftershokz takes an innovative - and also slightly bizarre - approach to this problem with its new Trekz Titanium headphones.
At first glance, the Trekz look like a set of fairly conventional Bluetooth headphones. They're available in a variety of colours, with a neckband that goes around the back of your head while the earpieces hook over the tops of your ears. But instead of going right inside your ears, the earpieces actually rest just in front of the ear and use 'bone-conduction' technology that causes your cheekbones to vibrate in order to produce sound inside your head.
The vibrating sensation feels a bit odd at first, but that doesn't last for too long. My workout tracks sounded a bit underwhelming initially, producing a rather thin, weak sound, but there's a bass-enhancement option that makes a big difference, although it's probably worth checking the Trekz out in a showroom before buying if possible.
You will, to be honest, get better sound from most conventional headphones in the £100 price range, but what you're paying for here is the extra safety of headphones that don't cut you off from the outside world. If you're looking for hi-fi headphones that immerse you in sound then you should look elsewhere, but the Trekz Titanium will be a good option for regular joggers who want to pound the pavements in safety.
Bose SoundSport Wireless
Bose, one of the great names of the traditional hifi industry, brings its years of experience to these classy sports headphones.
The Bose SoundSport Wireless headphones are not, admittedly, the most elegant in-ear headphones we've ever seen, as the earpieces are relatively large, with a plastic outer shell that visibly protrudes from your ear rather than just sitting inside the ear. They feel nice and comfortable, though, and the 'StayHear' earpieces - with three different sizes included in the box - have a soft rubber hook that fits inside the outer ear and provides a firm fit while you're running around and getting sweaty. The headphones are sweat- and water-resistant, so they're fine for use outdoors, and the wire that connects the earpieces also has a little clip so that you can attach them firmly to your clothing.
Battery life is around six hours, which might not be long enough for a long journey on a train or plane, but should see you through a decent workout without any trouble. Bose also includes a handy little carrying case for when you're travelling.
And, of course, the Bose name means that they sound great too. We like the fact that you don't have to jam them right into your ear in order to get a full, firm bass sound, and the higher frequencies are clear and detailed, with a warm texture that works well with a variety of musical genres. The set we review here use Bluetooth for wireless connectivity, but if you don't like the compromises of Bluetooth streaming then there's a wired version available for a very competitive £80.
Jabra Sport Pulse Special Edition
I'm a big fan of Comply memory foam ear tips - which mould to the shape of your individual ear canal - as I find they get a much better and more comfortable fit than the standard rubbery ear-tips provided with most headphones. So the inclusion of three sizes of Comply buds with Jabra's latest Sport Pulse Special Edition gets a big thumbs-up straight away. Jabra includes three additional sets of conventional silicon tips as well, and the earpieces also have a small fin that fits into the outer ear to help keep them in place during your workout.
Sound quality is very good, helped by the Comply tips, which provide a really snug fit inside your ear. This helps to produce a nice strong bass sound for you motivational workout tunes, while the mid- and high frequencies are satisfyingly clear and well-balanced.
There's more to the Sport Pulse than just good sound, though. They also include a 'clinical-grade' sensor to monitor your heart-rate while you're exercising, and can also calculate your 'VO2' - the oxygen level during strong exercise - which is a good indicator of overall fitness. Jabra's Sport Life app can monitor the distance you cover and calories burned, and even give you some motivational feedback to help you keep going.
The headphones are sweat- and water-resistant, as you'd expect, with a full three-year warranty and protective pouch thrown in for good measure. Our only minor complaint is that the five-hour battery life will see you through a workout, but does leave some room for improvement if you just want to listen to some music while you're travelling.
Jaybird Freedom Wireless
Jaybird's claim of 'infinite battery life' might be a little over-the-top, but its new Freedom headphones do have an ingenious design that provides longer battery life than most of their sporting rivals.
On their own, the Freedom headphones provide just four hours of battery life, but they also include a separate back-up battery charger that clips onto the in-line remote control to give you another four hours. It does feel a little awkward having the charger attached to the cable and bouncing around as you move, but it only takes 20 minutes of charging to give you an extra hour of battery life, so you can quickly charge the headphones on the way to the gym and then take the charger off when you're ready to get going.
The smart design continues in other areas, too. The tapered metal ear-pieces fit easily and comfortably into your ear, and you get three sizes of silicon ear-tips, along with three sizes of my favourite Comply memory-foam tips, and three sets of detachable fins that help to hold the headphones in place. The Bluetooth streaming lets you listen to any music or app on your iPhone, but Jaybird's MySound app provides additional EQ settings so that you can adjust the sound to suit your taste.
The snug fit of the ear-pieces helps to ensure a full bass sound, backed up by plenty of detail on the higher frequencies. The MySound app also includes a number of presets that make it easy to quickly adjust the sound for different types of music. They're not cheap, but the attractive design, back-up battery, and sound quality of the Freedom headphones ensure they'll earn their keep when you're working out.
JBL Reflect Contour
JBL makes a wide range of sporty headphones, including the excellent Reflect Aware, which sound great and include a Lightning connector for the latest iPhones. But, of course, the Lightning connector means that the Reflect Aware is a bit pricey (see Best Lightning headphones), so the Reflect Contour provides a more affordable alternative with straightforward Bluetooth for wireless streaming.
The big problem for sports headphones, of course, is keeping them firmly inside your ears while you're running and jumping and doing all that exercise malarkey. The Reflect Contour headphones take this seriously, with a 'dual-lock' system that includes a hook that goes around the back of year ear, along with a little rubber fin that fits inside your ear to keep the ear-piece stable. That should keep the Reflect Contour in place even if you're bungee jumping off the white cliffs of Dover.
The IPX5 rating provides really good protection from the elements when you're out and about - most of its rivals are just IPX2 - and the reflective cables are an extra safety precaution for those late night/early morning jogging sessions. Battery life can be a problem for smaller in-ear headphones, but JBL somehow manages to squeeze eight hours out of the Reflect Contour, so they'll be a good option for general day-to-day use, as well as your workout sessions.
And, most importantly, they sound really good too. The bass isn't massively powerful, but it should be fine for most rock and pop music, and the higher frequencies are clear and detailed, and subtle enough to handle more laid-back sounds when you've finished pounding the pavements.
If your exercise headphones are going to take a beating then it might be worth just buying a basic set for your workout sessions and having a separate set for normal day-to-day use. You can find the Philips SHQ6500CL headphones online for as little as £24.99 (we'd suggest Amazon, but it's the same price at time of writing on Argos), so they won't break the bank, but they'll still provide good sound quality to help get you through your exercise sessions.
The design of the headphones might not suit everyone, though. Rather than inserting them right into the ear-canal for a firm fit, the moulded ear-pieces - shaped a bit like a big comma - sit quite lightly on the outer ear, relying on the large rubber fin to hold them in place. This is intentional, though, as the headphones are designed to let in ambient sound so that you remain aware of traffic and other possible catastrophes while you're running around outdoors. That makes a lot of sense, although some people do prefer ear-pieces that fit more snugly and block out background noise more effectively.
Sound quality is good, though, despite the low price. The way that the ear-pieces sit over the ear means that the bass isn't as penetrating as it could be, but it's fine for listening to a few rock and pop tunes while you're exercising. It's a clear, detailed sound too, and coped equally well with gentle acoustic songs and some of Queen's multilayered epics. The 4.5 hour battery life is a bit underwhelming, but the SHQ6500CL headphones will see you through your workouts without costing a fortune.
Sennheiser OCX 686i Sports
You need to pay close attention to the model numbers on Sennheiser's sports headphones, as there are several models in the 686 range with a variety of different prices and features. The 686i model that we tested is made specifically for Apple's iOS devices, and is one of the few sports headphones that still uses a conventional 3.5mm audio cable, rather than Bluetooth (so iPhone 7 users will need to use the Lightning adaptor supplied with their phone).
The large hooks that go around the back of your ear might not suit everyone, but the hooks are made of soft rubber and we didn't find them uncomfortable to wear, and they also do a good job of keeping the headphones firmly in place while you're exercising. They're well suited for outdoor use too, with a tough, tangle-free cable, and a detachable clip for attaching them to your clothing. They've also got an IPX4 rating for water-resistance, and an anti-microbial coating on the earpieces to stop anything unpleasant coming along for the ride.
Some people might prefer Bluetooth headphones with just a little neckband cable for their workouts, but sticking with a wired connection does have its advantages. Sennheiser headphones always have a characteristic warm tone that we really like, and avoiding Bluetooth compression means the 686i headphones don't make any compromises on quality. You don't have to worry about battery life, either, so you can listen to music all day long when you're out and about, and you get a little carrying bag to stow them away when you're done.
The Urbanista Boston headphones have had a bit of an update, replacing the original ear-pieces with a new 'winged' design that helps to hold them more firmly in place when you're moving around. They've also got an IPX5 rating for water-resistance - more than enough to cope with a bit of rain if you're out running in the park - so they're a good choice for exercise. They're available in a variety of colours, and our only minor complaint is that the inline controls are a bit high up towards your ear, which sometimes feel a little awkward when you reach up to use them.
Like most sports headphones, the Bostons use Bluetooth for wireless connectivity. Urbanista's website skirts around the battery life a bit, but Urbanista says that this new model should provide six hours of music playback time. That's pretty good for a set of headphones in this price range - it'll see you through a long session at the gym with no trouble at all, and they'll keep going on the train back home too.
The Bostons will help you along too, as they provide a good, strong bass sound that will really drive you along the pavements. There are other sports headphones that provide strong bass - such as Apple's own Powerbeats (£170) - but they tend to be pretty pricey. If you shop around you can find the Bostons online for less than £50, making them a good choice if you want some headphones that can get you motivated without spending a fortune.