I love my music while I’m running. It helps me to focus and the run however seems easier. But what does science say about listening to music while you run? Is it a good or a bad thing?
The positive effects of music on performance
Many people use music while running for motivation, especially if they don’t particularly enjoy running. But also at high-level competitions, you’ll see top athletes listening to music before they race. There have been quite some studies that look at the effect of music on athletes, and especially runners. According to dr. Costas Karageorghis, head of the Music in Sport Research Group at Brunel University, music lowers your perception of effort. It can trick your mind into feeling less tired during a workout and it also encourages positive thoughts. (see also www.bbc.co.uk/wales/raiseyourgame/sites/motivation/psychedup/pages/costas_karageorghis.shtml). According to dr. Karageorghis and his fellow researchers, music can be seen as a legal performance-enhancing drug, capable of reducing an athlete’s perception of effort by 10% while increasing performance by 20% (see www.musicworksforyou.com/news-and-charts/news/202-is-music-a-legal-drug-that-improves-performance). He states that carefully selected music can make you more efficient by reducing your oxygen uptake by as much as 7% for the same performance. Several elements come into play here. The first is music’s ability to establish an optimal mental state that psychologists call ‘flow’, an ultimate motivational state in which you are completely immersed in what you’re doing and feels as if you’re functioning on autopilot. Music can also alleviate pain caused by exercise, making working out more pleasurable (see also www.bbc.co.uk/wales/raiseyourgame/sites/motivation/psychedup/pages/costas_karageorghis.shtml).
Do these effects count for all type of exercise and for all athletes?
The mentioned effects are most pronounced with repetitive exercises such as weightlifting, but can also apply to running. For a lot of elite athletes however, music is irrelevant, Karageorghis says. Reseach has shown that when you cross the anaerobic threshold, which happens at 70-80% of maximum heart rate, music is less effective and doesn’t seem to contribute any additional motivation (see www.armpocket.com/blog/music-improves-running/). Also, elite runners tend to be associators, who tend to focus inwardly on regulating their bodies, rather than outwardly to stimuli such as music. Above 85% of maximum heart rate, silence may be golden. Several studies back up this claim, including one from the University of North Carolina’s psychology and sport science departments. Research showed found that “listening to fast, upbeat music during exercise may be beneficial for untrained runners but counterproductive for trained runners”.(www.bbc.co.uk/wales/raiseyourgame/sites/motivation/psychedup/pages/costas_karageorghis.shtml).
What are the cons to running with music?
So there’s a lot of research and testimonies to be found about the positive effects of music on running. Music helps people run, or run longer, or faster, especially when they don’t actually like to exercise. For purists however, performance gains are only smart part of the running experience (see; www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/the-running-blog/2013/mar/13/running-with-music-for-against). Many elite runners came to see listening to music while running as a distraction. They run for pleasure and don’t need the motivational boost. If you run enough, you basically get addicted to it and you won’t need a playlist to get you pumped. You simply run because you enjoy it.
Runners who prefer to run without music also mention that without music pumping in their ears, they feel more in sync with their bodies and can focus better on their breathing and the way their feet hit the ground. It’s easier that way to focus on effort level and the surroundings (www.runnersworld.com/running-debates/should-you-listen-to-music-while-running). Of course, running without music also adds to your safety. Loud music takes away one of the body’s natural senses to warn against dangers.
Which music to choose?
What seems to work, is self-selected motivational music. When accompanying training and workouts with music, researcher have suggested assembling a wide selection of familiar tracks that meet the following criteria in order to achieve benefits to performance:
- Strong, energising rhythm;
- Positive lyrics having associations with movement;
- Rhythmic pattern well matched to movement patterns of the athletic activity that you’re doing;
- Uplifting melodies;
- Associations with sport, exercise, triumph or overcoming adversity;
- A Music style suited to your taste and cultural upbringing
Ideally, the beat should be even throughout the song, i.e. there shouldn’t be any changes of rhythm during the song (www.nhs.uk/Livewell/c25k/Pages/running-music.aspx). Choose tracks with a relatively slow tempo (bpm about 100) for your warming up and cooling down, and with a higher number of bpm’s during the actual run or workout part (believeperform.com/performance/how-to-benefit-from-music-in-sport-and-exercise/).
In the end, whatever you choose, make sure it’s music you enjoy listening to!