Are you listening to the right songs when you’re running?
Read on to find out the science behind why music can make you a better runner.
Whether you’re running the Virgin Money London Marathon or just jogging round your local park, a great playlist is a like a good pair of running shoes - it can help you perform better. Jasmin Hutchinson, Professor of Exercise Science and Sport Studies at Springfield College, Massachusetts, explains why the right music really gets you going...
Does music really help you run faster?
Yes, there’s a strong body of evidence showing that it has a positive effect on physical activity. Music is associated with the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain where we also process movement and emotions. In layman’s terms, the correctly chosen music can pump up your body for a task.
So, what sort of music is best?
There is also a tendency for runners to match their stride to the beat of the music, known as an “entrainment effect”. The ideal tempo range seems to be approximately 125 -140 beats per minute (bpm), which would include songs like David Guetta’s “Memories” or “Greyhound” by Swedish House Mafia. A lot of rap songs have a low bpm, but the lyrics tend to have a tempo of their own that is quicker than the underlying beat. “Superheroes” by Stormzy is a good example.
So, is it simply a question of matching the bpm to the speed you want to run?
No, there’s more to it than just that. A song can have other psychological effects. For instance, hearing your own national anthem might make you dig a bit deeper and run faster, just because of the associations it has with you. Similarly, tunes that are associated with heroism or hard work can trigger a direct response in the body. The classic example, which was used by many sports teams in the build up to big games, is “Eye of the Tiger” from the Rocky movies. It’s hard not to form a mental picture of Rocky Balboa running up steps and punching people! Even a song with a relatively slow tempo can work - anyone who has watched Chariots of Fire will probably be inspired by the theme tune, even though it’s quite gentle on the ear, because it’s associated with grace and effort and never giving up.
Elite athletes aren’t allowed to listen to music during competition races. Do you think they’d run even faster if they could?
Well, top-level runners usually want to monitor their breathing and heartbeat, and listen to what their competitors are doing. But the great Haile Gebrselassie says that he preferred to listen to music when he was training. There’s a techno song called “Scatman (Ski-Ba-Boo-Ba-Dop-Bop)” that was his unofficial theme tune, and he says he kept it ringing inside his head whenever he was racing on the track. When he broke the 10,000m world record in the Netherlands, the stadium had it blaring out over the public address system, and he gave it credit for helping his time.
What music do you prefer when running?
Ha, I’ve only run one marathon, but I gave the music in my earphones a lot of thought. I began with slow tracks to counter the excitement I knew I would feel at the start of the race. There was a bit of Coldplay and some chilled-out music to stop me getting over-excited and hammering off the line too fast. Then I changed to more energetic tracks to pick me up at mile 5. I actually turned the music off at mile 12 so it would be fresh again when I hit the wall, which was about mile 17 for me. I remember listening to “Glitter in the Air” by Pink, when I trudged over the line, but that wasn’t by design!
Are the words of a song important?
The lyrics of songs you know well can be like a mantra. You can lose yourself listening to them, and that functions like “mind over matter”. You don’t feel so much pain in your body if you’re concentrating on something else.
Are some tunes better suited to sprints, and others to long-distance?
Yes, the intensity of the music should match the intensity of the activity. Even just cranking up the volume really loud has a direct effect, especially on a sprint. For long-distance running, slower songs with lyrics you need to listen to and engage with seem to be preferable.
What other benefits might music have for runners?
On the most basic level, it can make running more enjoyable! Sometimes, it’s boring or lonely doing circuits of your local park, so it’s like a companion. On top of that, music can be used to manipulate or regulate your emotional state, which is why armies used to play the drums as they went into battle. If you’re feeling ‘flat' before a run, then upbeat tunes will help give you a lift. And when you need to cool down afterwards, a slow relaxing tempo will help.
What playlist of, say, five songs would you recommend to inspire recreational runners?
This is really difficult, because so much of music choice revolves around personal taste. It's more important that a runner selects music in a genre that they like. Some songs I would recommend 'scientifically' as being good for running are “Godzilla” by Eminem, “Popstar” by DJ Khaled, and “Sikko Mode” by Travis Scott. For inspirational lyrics to keep your spirits up when the going gets tough, you won’t go far wrong with “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen and “Don’t Stop Believin” by Journey.
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