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Training & advice

Can music improve running performance?

Running with music is like marmite: some people love it and some people hate it. No one should run with music if they don’t enjoy it or find it helpful and no one should run with music when it compromises their own safety (e.g. outside late at night) or others (eg in a race).

However, there is a growing body of evidence that running with music can increase performance and enjoyment.   For example you can watch the findings reported by the BBC here from research conducted by Professor Costas Karageorghis that confirms the importance of beat.

Beat is an obvious characteristic of music that can functionally help runners increase their performance. If you want to be pushed along at a fast pace then choose tracks that have a fast tempo (beat) to match and drive your stride. An obvious beat will make it easier for you to keep you foot strike in time. If you are going for a recovery run or a long run choose tracks with a slower tempo.

A track that will keep you at a good running pace will have between 160 and 180 beats per minute.  Having said that very little mainstream music has a beat that is fast enough to match the running stride e.g. most disco music goes at around 120 bpm.

As well as beats, the vibe of the music is key to creating the right emotional state for running; dance and pop generally bounce you up; thrashing rock can inject some positive aggression, soaring choral work in the classical genre inspires some. Some runners find that trance gets them into the zone for a long run and chilled lounge might be what you find relaxing before a race or to cool down and stretch out. 

When you make a playlist for a particular type of running session, you really need the skills of a DJ working a dance floor.  For example, if you’re interval training you want to choose tracks to pump you up to sprint, and alternate those tracks with a more chilled out vibe to help you recover and relax in between.  That’s where professional sport music companies like AudioFuel can make a really difference by composing tracks designed to manipulate your emotions effectively and compiling them to create this type of session.

Also important is memory.  It’s a powerful tool that you can use to prompt the right emotions to positively affect the way you feel when you run which will in turn improve your performance.

So listening to music that you associate with some of the happiest periods or moments in your life can potentially create a good positive mindset for running.

Alternatively, songs that have been played in association with success and sporting events can be extremely powerful. A really obvious track is the theme tune to Chariots of Fire (and of course the theme tune to Rocky!) but there are many more which will resonate with you depending on what kind of sport you watch, who you supported and who won!

You may not have noticed, but the lyrics can have a very positive subliminal effect on your emotions when you run.   Songs that have relevant and encouraging lyrics can help: any lyrics about keeping going, getting stronger, pushing through will help with those long runs.   More aggressive lyrics can fire you up to get through some interval training or get out there in the first place if you create a pre run motivational playlist.

So where do you go to get the right kind of music for running?

There are a number of organisations, large and small, supplying what could be defined as running music. 

Nike Sport Music is sold via the iTunes store - look under the Health & Fitness section. They have commissioned some well established bands such as de la Soul, Cassius and the Crystal Method to write 45 minutes of music for running.  They have released five of these products, which they call Original Runs, since 2007.  They sell for £7.99.  None of the music is beat specific.

They have also developed a range called Coaching Runs.  These are coached sessions, using some well known sports/coaching personalities to do voice over, e.g. Serena Williams.  They use music by well known artists such as Mika and Amy Winehouse.  There are five of these Coaching Runs. They have one product called at Workout.

Some of the big record labels like EMI (101 Running Songs 1 and 2) and Ministry of Sound (Running Trax) have realised that creating compilations that are in some way tailored to running is a commercially successful enterprise. They use mainstream music, that it is not beat specific and there is no coaching.

Total Fitness is another company that uses well known music to create their own branded compilations or compilations for other brands.  They have done licensing deals with the likes of Men’s Health magazine and Race for Life and the music based half marathon event called Run to the Beat.

Run2Rhythm, Podrunner, AudioFuel and MP3 Running provide music that is custom composed for running, with a beat to match the stride and some of it comes with voice coaching.

Running Music Mix, and JogTunes simply categorise existing music by bpm and then direct people to buy it from iTunes or other digital channels. Hellasound take it one, useful, step further by asking you what music you like, what bpm range your want, and how long you want to run for and then they create the readymade playlist for you.

Independent academic research conducted by Professor Andy Lane in 2009 amongst readers of Runner’s World demonstrates that using music custom composed for running, such as AudioFuel, is a highly effective way to increase performance.

With thanks to AudioFuel for this article.