I love listening to music. Driving, cleaning, working, late at night, early in the morning…it doesn’t matter, there’s a soundtrack to it all. In fact, I love to listen to music so much that I sweated through 3 iPhones while running in the course of 6 months. But as I was cruising along this morning, watching the sunrise and thinking how perfectly that moment matched what I was listening to, I found myself wondering about music and performance. Does music actually help my running OR does it just make me happy while I run?
As it turns out, a lot of researchers have asked this question. For example, a group in Taiwan found that listening to music increases physical running performance and decreases perception of effort associated with that task (i.e., makes it feel easier). Interestingly, some of the most effective music for increasing performance was that which scored highest in runner preference. This agrees with my own sentiment that music choices for running tend to be highly individualized. One way in which listening to music while exercising may facilitate performance is that it helps runners regulate emotions. For example, another study found that listening to music during running (particularly if it was motivating) increased pleasant emotions associated with exercise. In fact, runners believed that these positive emotions related to improved performance: they performed better because they felt better.
How do you pick the music you should be listening to? Well, I use an intuitive approach: I pick whatever suits the overall mood of my life at that point in time. I listen to it repeatedly while running until I discover the meaning of every word, every cadence, every unexpected harmony. But if you prefer a scientific approach, reference the research of Costas Karageorghis of Brunel University, who created the Brunel Music Rating Inventory. This questionnaire rates the motivational qualities of music for sport and exercise. Twenty years of research has led Dr. Karageorghis to conclude that the tempo of music should be between 125-140 beats per minute (BPM) in order to optimally enhance performance. This seems to be a sweet spot in tempo that corresponds to both the average individual’s heart rate during exercise as well as the range associated with most rock songs. In other words, your heart syncs to what your ears hear. However, for running specifically, the tempo should probably be faster, as demonstrated by the schematic on the right. Here’s a quick and easy way to check the tempo of a song, simply by tapping your mouse (or another key) along to the music.
There are multiple other established benefits to listening to music during exercise: It is an effective pre-task stimulant that can arouse athletes before exercise (“psyching them up” to improve performance); reduces time to voluntary exhaustion during exercise by up to 15%; improves efficiency of movement during exercise; and may actually allow athletes to “disassociate” from exercise during grueling longer-duration exercise such as marathons to better persevere through the task.
Conclusion: Listen to what you enjoy. Listen to what motivates you. Believe that the happiness coming from your music makes you perform better. And run faster.
I’ll leave you with another song I’ve been listening to lately. Obviously I’m stuck on a specific album!