Exercise / Psychosocial / running

Moving to Music

Picture taken from www.musicpsychology.co.ukI 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. Picture taken from www.run2r.comHere’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!


5 thoughts on “Moving to Music

  1. I realize that most of your column concerns running and associated rhythms, but in your final paragraph you write about the benefits of disasociation through music as a benefit in exercise. This may work during running, but I’ve found some information that suggests that one of the keys to having a better muscular workout is to increase the mind’s role in your workout… beyond that which is automatic. If we can focus our mind on the muscles we are attempting to work out, we can achieve more consistent and continued gains. Again, I realize that the focus of most of your blog is on running, it does appears to be more comprehensive at the end. Research, as we’ve all found, can tell you one thing on one day, and another the next, but I thought this may be an interesting supplement to the researched information in your blog.


    • Great point! Muscular strength and weight lifting have a strong neuromuscular component, so research does indeed suggest that focusing on muscle engagement through mental training can improve muscle recruitment. My point was specific to long endurance events; music can lead to disassociation which appears beneficial for sustained aerobic exercise.

  2. I feel conflicted about music.I used to listen to songs when I ran, and it did make it easier. On the other hand, running is one of the only unplugged activities I have in my day. I think my best thoughts when I run (or shower) and have had some breakthroughs out on the road.Then again, these breakthroughs are fairly rare, and my ‘time to voluntary exhaustion’ seems to be dropping. I’m not sure what to do.

    • You know, I totally agree. When I listen to music, it’s much easier to zone out– the whole disassociation concept. As a result, I think I’m less likely to tackle the higher order thinking that leads to really novel concepts and ideas. And, I miss the natural sounds and observations that occur from watching the outside environment. On the other hand, listening to the same songs over and over lets me internalize them and really KNOW them in a way I don’t if I’m just hearing them in a less focused manner. Like anything…tradeoffs. Perhaps I should have mentioned that 🙂

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