In need of some extra motivation for those autumn/winter runs? Writer Hannah Bradfield finds out how we can use our playlists to improve our performances.

As somebody still in the relatively early stages of their running journey, I’d be lost without my headphones. Music plays a pretty significant part in my runs – whatever the distance. I’m also very nosey, and every time I pass another runner with headphones on, I wonder what they’re listening to. Abba? AC/DC? A bit of Britney? Classical, even?

In a global Runner’s World survey, 82% of respondents said they listen to music while running. And according to a 2020 US survey commissioned by fitness app RockMyRun, 65% of respondents said they needed music during their workout or they’d have no motivation. This scientific study, published in the Journal Of Science And Medicine In Sport, found that perceived exertion, blood lactate concentrations and oxygen consumption were all lower with music.  

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How important is tempo when selecting running songs?

Professor Costas Karageorghis is a sport psychologist at Brunel University and a world-leading expert in the field of music for sport and exercise. He’s published a book, Applying Music In Exercise And Sport, on the topic and has consulted for organisations like British Athletics, Nike, Red Bull and Spotify.

Although it’s long been thought that the harder and faster you run, the faster the music should be, Karageorghis advises that it’s not quite this simple. After conducting a series of studies, his research team recently found what’s known as a cubic relationship between the two. The faster the tempo, the faster you run… up to a point.  “Over 140 beats per minute, you don’t seem to derive additional psychological or aesthetic (the pleasure we get from it) benefits from the music,” he tells Stylist

He thinks this could be down to two things. Firstly, when running at a high intensity, you’ve got less attentional capacity available (the number of items you can hold in your memory while undertaking a task) to analyse more rhythmically complex music. 

Secondly, most commercial recorded music (eg what we hear on the radio) tends to be around 115-125 BPM, meaning that we’re conditioned to prefer this narrow tempo range.  

The ideal running song tempo might be lower than you think.

When you’re using it as ambient background music, Karageorghis advises keeping the tempo between 120-140 BPM. If you’re consciously synchronising your movement to the rhythm, he recommends thinking about your target work rate. For example, if you want to run at a stride rate of 180 strides per minute, use a track that’s 90 BPM and take a stride cycle on each beat.

Jasmine McKenzie from Essex, who’s just completed her second London Marathon, found that selecting songs with a similar tempo helped her with pace consistency – particularly on 10+ mile runs.

“It’s easy to start quickly and slow down towards the end,” she says. To avoid that, she used her top Spotify songs from over the years and Beyoncé’s new album, Renaissance (particularly the song Cuff It), to boost motivation.  

How can music help improve our performance?

Music can help to recreate memories

“From a neurological perspective, music can serve as a superhighway to our memories,” says Karageorghis. If we associate a song “with heroic imagery, a certain protagonist or excelling in a particular activity”, hearing it can conjure a mindset “associated with reaching a higher plane”.

GB long jumper Jazmin Sawyers has utilised this in training. Sawyers, who won bronze at the Commonwealth Games this summer, is also a singer-songwriter and appeared on The Voice UK in 2017. She says she regularly listens to Alessia Cara’s song Here during warm-ups: “That song will always have a special place in my heart as it’s the song I sang when I auditioned for The Voice and got a chair turn from!”

Alisha Rees, a fellow Team GB athlete and Scotland’s fastest woman in history, also gets fired up by memories. While preparing for a race, Rees likes listening to tracks that remind her of past performances – songs that “take me back to competitions I have been at previously”, she says.  

Playlist order can help inspire and push through

Although you might have the patience to listen to one song on a loop, Karageorghis advises ordering a running playlist so the most stimulative songs play during the most intense parts – probably at “around 80-85% of aerobic capacity”.

Author and runner Lazara Canton says that if you’re running 5k, Young the Giant’s Mind Over Matter is great for the 2k mark while Elbow’s One Day Like This works well for the final stretch. Heather Houghton, a member of Norfolk Gazelles AC, recommends preparing a set playlist for a target Parkrun time – something that’s helped her PB in the past.

Safety considerations: louder isn’t always better

Listening to loud music beyond 80 decibels at ear level can cause damage to your hearing. However, high-intensity music combined with high-intensity exercise can increase risk. This is because “the cochlea (the shell-like parts of the inner ear) is covered by follicles (hair-like substances) and the resonance and reverberation caused by loud music during a time when blood is drawn away from the cochlea and taken to the working muscles can leave the follicle susceptible to damage,” explains Karageorghis.

Additionally, to avoid becoming desensitised to its effects over time, he advises trying to switch between running with music and without.

Best running song recommendations (from runners)

Before racing at the Commonwealth Games, Alisha Rees listened to LF System’s Afraid To Feel. “It’s just a really upbeat song and makes me want to run fast. And in general, it’s just a banger,” she says.

Although fellow GB athlete Sawyers changes up her playlist regularly, she says Go The Distance from Disney’s Hercules and Jump by Kriss Kross always feature. Sawyers also enjoys the track All-American Prophet from The Book Of Mormon and says that although it might not be a typical workout song, she’s “never listened to this song and NOT felt ready to move with a smile”.

After approaching my running club, Norfolk Gazelles, for song recommendations, I wasn’t disappointed:

  • Shake It Off, Taylor Swift
  • Start Me Up, The Rolling Stones
  • Hung Up, Madonna
  • Thunder Road, Bruce Springsteen
  • Keep Your Head Up, Ben Howard
  • You Must Be Prepared To Dream, Ian McNabb 

So, there you have it – whether it’s on our psychological or physiological state, the science shows that the impact of music on running can be far-reaching. As Karageorghis says: “You might not have a coach screaming at you, but you might have Tina Turner, the Black Eyed Peas or Eminem – or whoever it might be.” 

Images: Getty

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