From perceived exertion to reduced fatigue, here’s what the latest research says…

“Evidence does indicate that listening to music [through a pair of the best running headphones] can positively help with running: impacting strength and power output, an improved work rate, and energy efficiency,” says Dr Martin Turner, Reader in Psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University specializing in sports and exercise. “Also, music has been shown to trigger various physiological changes that can all help with running performance.”

Recent research from the Sports Science Research Group at the Federal University of Alagoas, Maceio, Brazil, delves into the effects of music on runners during a 5k time trial. The study assessed pre-run brain activity, arousal, and heart rate variability, along with during-run perceived effort and time, and post-run mood and heart rate variability.

Four music scenarios were examined: pre-run motivational (110-150bpm), slow music during running (80-100bpm), fast music during running (140-160bpm), post-run calming music (95-110bpm), and a control scenario with no music.

Pre-run music reduced vagal tone (raising a runner’s capacity for bodily stresses and challenge) and heightened runner arousal, better preparing them for 5k time trials. During 5ks with music, initial laps were faster compared to no-music conditions – though subsequent lap time differences diminished.

The findings suggest that music holds the potential to enhance both mental and physical aspects of running performance.

How does music help with running?

“The main psychological mechanisms at play are mood, perceived exertion, motivation, attention, and performance preparation and recovery,” Dr Turner suggests. He emphasises six key performance factors enriched by music:

  • Mood: Uplifting music tends to evoke more positive feelings than downbeat or melancholy tunes.
  • Perceived exertion: Music can reduce the perception of exertion, enabling individuals to work harder and longer.
  • Motivation: Music motivates and when runners craft playlists aligned with their preferences, they look forward to running, enhancing overall motivation.
  • Attention: Music acts as a distraction during exercise, diverting attention from pain and exhaustion.
  • Performance preparation: Integrating music into your warm-up serves as an effective stimulant to get individuals pumped up and focused.
  • Recovery: Music plays a role in the post-performance wind-down, including sleep.

So, are there specific types or genres of music that have been found to be more effective in enhancing running performance?

“Not necessarily,” says Dr Turner. “But there is evidence that if the music is synchronised to the exercise, then the effects of the music can be enhanced.

“The foot lands on the beat – either on the kick drum or the snare. A stride rate of 180 could be paired with music that has 90 or 180 beats per minute (bpm), for example. Hip hop music often sits in the 90bpm range, with songs such as ‘The World Is Yours‘ by Nas and ‘Gangsta’s Paradise‘ by Coolio being potential choices.”

But more important than all of this, is that runners choose music for certain purposes. “So, if I say to myself that ‘Rock and Roll‘ by Led Zeppelin is my go-to track for intense parts of run, then I will make sure this is the music I select when I reach that stage of my run,” says Dr Turner. “I will not use this song for any other purpose, because I want to strengthen its associated with the intense parts of my run.”

Be intentional and specific with music choice is the message here. But what about any potential downsides or distractions associated with listening to music while running?

“Noticing traffic, obstacles and the like can of course be affected if you are deeply absorbed in music,” warns Dr Turner. “Also, if music becomes a key to your running, and you cannot run well without it, then you may find that in events where earphones are not permitted that you may struggle to perform well.”

So, while there’s plenty of benefit to be had from tuning in on your runs, it’s also worth running without music on occasions just to prepare yourself for events or occasions when you can’t plod along to your favourite playlist.

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