AirPods Sport: My marathon runner father envisions his perfect headphones

apple watch music
apple watch music (Image credit: iMore)

AirPods and Apple Watch

AirPods and Apple Watch (Image credit: iMore)

On Friday evening, I was just getting ready to close down my computer for the day when I got an iMessage from my dad.

"These look pretty slick," he wrote, linking the Jaybird Run wireless sport headphones. "See if you can snag a pair to test and report back?"

It's not that my dad doesn't love his AirPods, which he carries around almost everywhere. But when he's not working on his music or obsessing over an audiobook, my father runs. And I do mean runs. His weekly forays into the mountains would put most folks in their 20s to shame, let alone someone with two grown children, and he holds a number of course records for his age group.

He certainly tried to use Apple's AirPods during his outdoor adventures. "I've run almost exclusively with them since I've got them, and the AirPods are great on the whole," he told me. "Unless you inadvertently brush your ear… and it flips on the ground."

That's not a great feature when you're running on single-person-wide trails with sharp drop-offs. Much as my family grew up treating the wilderness as litter-free holy ground, we also had a hard and fast rule: If it falls off the trail, you don't try to free-climb down a mountain to save it. Especially when the thing in question is a tiny white earbud.

Thankfully, my dad has never had to make that call. But he's definitely more cautious about running with AirPods than he is running with wired earphones.

Back to our Friday evening conversation: I'd seen the Jaybird Run press releases, and the headphones did look pretty slick. Water-resistant, with the same ear cup and wing build as the company's many great wired sports headphones. I plan to test them out myself in the coming weeks, but the Jaybird's battery life does give me pause: Four hours' active use isn't a great option for long-distance runners.

Out of curiosity, I asked my dad to forget the Jaybirds for a moment. What would his perfect "SportPods" set look like?

Form and fit

A good pair of running AirPods needs to have a sports fit. So says my father, and I tend to agree with him. His biggest complaint is also a longstanding issue with the AirPods in general: If your ears don't cradle the buds comfortably, they can slide or slip around and not provide as solid a sound experience as with others.

"For me, [the Airpods] stick out at a funny angle," he said. "I've never had one fall out, but I've reached up to keep my hat on or go by a bush, and had a number of panic moments."

The current AirPods do have a number of third-party options for augmenting their fit, but none provide a perfect experience.

There's also the sound issue: "I've run almost exclusively with [the AirPods] since I got them," my dad told me. "And they don't work well in wind." Because the AirPods don't have any sort of insulation cover, they end up with a quieter overall sound when running in windy weather than their insulated rivals.

Sweat resistance

While neither my father (and his running) nor I and my skating have shorted out a set of AirPods from sweat, that doesn't mean the risk is null — nor that it's worth the risk to damage a set while working out.

"The original Apple wired headphones [EarPods] sucked when they got wet," my dad told me. "When you got to perspiring, they just died." So far, the AirPods have persisted through even his toughest mountain runs, but he's not counting on them lasting forever.

Tech writer and former Apple Genius Jordan Merrick had an issue earlier this year with one of his AirPods shorting out:

I work out three or four times a week, and I'm generally very sweaty by the end of each session. I wipe down my Apple Watch and AirPods immediately to keep them in the best condition possible. I'll also do this during a workout if I'm the need arises. I spent many years working on the Genius Bar and have seen my fair share of iPods and iPhones that suffered liquid damage from perspiration, so I'm meticulous about keeping my devices dry.

Unfortunately, it wasn't enough. Several weeks ago, I noticed that my right AirPod had stopped charging. I took a closer look and discovered the telltale sign of liquid damage: green corrosion at the base of the AirPod and a scorch mark where it had shorted out. This was almost certainly due to perspiration.

While Apple replaced the broken AirPod free of charge, the issue prompted Merrick to switch to the sweat-resistant PowerBeats 3 for his workout uses.

But my dad doesn't want to switch; he just wants water resistance for his existing AirPods. He did briefly try Apple's over-the-ear PowerBeats 3, but he wasn't impressed. "Over the ear [headphones] are okay, but they're not as convenient," my dad told me, largely because of the tethered cord that sits on the back of the neck while running.

Jokingly, he noted that the only over-ear experience he'd support is one that would double as ear muffs — to keep his ears warm during cold running mornings.

Even Merrick told me on Twitter that he'd switch back to AirPods were a sweat-resistant model an option:


While the AirPods have a solid battery life for most activities, long-distance running is the exception, not the rule. The headset's 5-hour battery falls short on anyone doing all-day hikes, runs, or races.

"I've never had earphones when I've raced — I kept my mind on running," my dad said. "But I'm not everyone, and the longer the better, especially for people that do ultra-long events.

[Those] that do really long things, they have to deal with battery life… One [AirPod] will go out before the other, and it beeps at you when it gets low."

That beep may be helpful to quick-charge an AirPod while sitting in a café or on a plane, but runners don't exactly have the luxury of stopping, taking out their headphones, sticking them in the case, and then restarting.

"I do carry the case when I go run," my dad said, but laughed at the prospect of re-charging on the fly. "You're not going to want to do that; it's something to fiddle with and breaks your flow."

When his AirPods do die out on a run, my dad generally just lets them sit in his ears and continues his stride. He ran with silence for years; losing his audio is frustrating, but he's managed without it before.

The PowerBeats 3 have optimal battery life for the long-distance runner: Their bigger profile allows for a full twelve hours of battery life to the AirPods' 5 hours.

In an ideal world, my dad would love AirPods with the battery power of the PowerBeats. Physics isn't quite there yet, however: Other companies (like Jaybird) rely on bigger wireless buds, and even those don't have great battery life. One of Apple's triumphs is the W1 chip, which provides smarter, lower-cost Bluetooth connections; it lets the company make the most out of its tiny lithium-ion batteries. But can the W1 (or Apple's newer W2) chip really boost battery life all that much without drastically changing the form factor of the AirPods? I'm skeptical.

I think that were Apple to make a set of "SportPods," they'd need to split the difference in size between the PowerBeats 3 and existing AirPods: Provide a slightly bigger form factor — and some sort of insulated ear support — without overly weighing down your head or requiring cumbersome ear clips.

Even an increase in battery life closer to the Beats X's 8 hours could suffice for most long-distance runners (though it's worth noting that the Beats X gets most of that battery life due to the elongated battery packs in its neck cord, something most runners would like to see disappear).

Would you buy AirPods Sport?

So let's take a look at my dad's hypothetical pair of AirPods sport earbuds:

  • Sweat-proof
  • No neck cords
  • Form-fitting earpieces (wings and over-ears optional)
  • A little larger in exchange for longer 8-12 hour battery life
  • W2 chip

The PowerBeats 3 cost $199.95, and I wouldn't be surprised to see the above theoretical pair at a similar price. (I might even pay $250 for a physics-defying 12 hours of battery life in a similarly sized package to the AirPods.)

Is the added price worth it? An informal poll on Twitter shows an emphatic yes:

It's not a perfect solution. As back-country runner Mathais Eichler pointed out on Twitter, many of Apple's audio playing devices won't quite make 12 full hours without a charge:

As for my dad, he's fully on board to purchase his perfect set of headphones. "After what I have goes bottom-up, of course."

And you?

What do your ideal sport AirPods look like? Sound off in the comments below!

Serenity Caldwell

Serenity was formerly the Managing Editor at iMore, and now works for Apple. She's been talking, writing about, and tinkering with Apple products since she was old enough to double-click. In her spare time, she sketches, sings, and in her secret superhero life, plays roller derby. Follow her on Twitter @settern.