Run to the Beat, and Get Faster

Humans, as a species, are pretty predictable. We have consistent circadian rhythms, need similar amounts of sleep, and we all, universally, love ice cream. Ask a human to tap their fingers on a table, and the tempo they’ll likely settle into is close to 120 beats per minute. This is also the cadence at which people tend to walk, and a huge number of popular songs are in this 120bpm groove. Humans, apparently, love this cadence. If we are driven by this universal rhythm, it would follow that other rhythms will affect our baseline functions and perceptions.


Humans also really like being on the beat. No, we really like it. In a study comparing subjects moving in time with the music against subjects listening to music that was a bit slower than the cadence of their movements, those moving with the beat used oxygen more efficiently. Beyond affecting mood, it looks like listening to music can affect our basic bodily functions in a pretty significant way.


On a fundamental level, music influences the rhythm of our brainwaves. The wrinkly organ which drives all of our systems syncs up with musical beats, which has a cascade effect throughout the body. With proven effects on heart rate, blood pressure, mood and work output, it looks like listening to music is a more than pleasant distraction for endurance athletes; it’s a powerful tool. Your background and education seem to be a piece of the music-as-tool puzzle; when listening to motivational up-tempo music, trained musicians seem to be the most affected in terms of alertness. Maybe they are more in tune with their ears? There doesn’t seem to be any habituation effect (meaning the “dose” of music continues to be effective even over time, without tapering off). This is promising: other performance-enhancing techniques, at least those involving ingesting substances, tend to create higher and higher tolerances (as is the case of caffeine).


The recent trend of “body hacking” makes influencing our basic body functions sound more complicated than it is. We don’t need to attach electrodes to our heads to facilitate fundamental brain wave changes just to gain a better 10K time. All we need are some earbuds. The mechanism by which music affects our prefrontal cortex is not known, but the effect has been definitively proven in studies on the subject. Listening to music increases cerebral blood flow, which holds promise for people suffering from brain disorders or dementia.



So how do we focus this positive effect in our running training? Taking a cue from the research, it looks like upbeat, motivational music, with a dominant beat, is the most effective way to amp up your vagal tone. Consider situation-specific music, as your playlist isn’t just useful for your workout but also recovery. The same response that ramps up blood pressure and heart rate in response to rock music responds to relaxing tunes by reducing systemic tension. For endurance athletes, it might be worth considering choosing calmer motivational music to maintain a lower overall heart rate over the course of a long event, thereby conserving energy for the final push.


The emotional impact of music choice cannot be overstated, and this is a huge aspect of its usefulness as a training tool. Music (or the absence of music) has a strong effect on athletes’ perceived rate of exertion over a 5km run. Study subjects found themselves able to run faster in an all-out 1.5 mile test, but when it comes to maximal efforts it looks like music’s power to reduce perceived rate of exertion fades. Its effect on performance remains, however, so even for short sprints music choice is key. If you’re looking to cash in on the effect of reduced perceived exertion (about 10 percent) that music has on running, stick with training below your maximum threshold for speed.


Runners know that reaching a state of “flow” is very desirable, especially when sustaining effort over long distances. Music can facilitate that slip into the groove, and Haile Gebrselassie famously set the world record for 2000 metre sprint, in part by using a musical strategy and syncing his running pace to the beat of Scatman by the late Scatman John. Given music’s reputation for facilitating increased work output, it’s an easy choice to include it in your training regimen.


In 2007, USA Track & Field, which governs most major marathons in North America, famously banned the use of headphones and music players during events. Their rationale mainly proves the earlier points of this article, however, as one of their reasons for banning the devices was so runners wouldn’t have an “edge” over non-musically motivated athletes. The pushback was so great, however, that race officials have largely declined to enforce the ruling. Runners are in love with their music, and it takes a monumental effort to pry it out of their hands.


For many, a running playlist is a deeply personal choice. The music that gets you going may be simply annoying to another runner. Consider choosing music that has a tempo that works for your target pace and you may find yourself setting PRs with less effort than ever. Follow your run with some slower-tempo, relaxing music, and your heart rate and central nervous system will thank you.