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The science behind your running playlist

5 min read
28 Jun 2016

However, there is just one thing that can get anyone sprinting, boxing, cycling and swimming like there’s no tomorrow: a perfect music playlist. As soon as the earphones are plugged in with the right tune, the arms and legs start to move and we’re off. Music is essential in any part of a workout and can help people escape from their busy lives for an hour or so.

What many people don’t know is there’s an actual science behind a great playlist. Just like jazz music can wind you down after a long day and a pop song can get you pumped up for a big night out, different types of music help you perform at different levels.

The history behind your gym jig

In the last 10 years, there has been a huge amount of research surrounding workout music, looking into the idea that exercise and music are a perfect pair. From the very beginning, music has distracted people from pain and fatigue, elevated moods, increased endurance and promoted metabolic efficiency. When the music is turned up, people run farther, bike longer and swim faster.

Dating back to 1911, American investigator Leonard Ayres discovered that cyclists pedalled faster while a band was playing rather than when it was completely silent. Ever since then, psychologists have conducted hundreds of studies on the way music can change a person’s physical performance. In fact, music can be viewed as a “type of legal performance-enhancing drug”, according to a 2012 research review by Costas Karageorghis, leading expert on the psychology of exercise and music. He says that listening to music with an up-tempo beat while running can boost performance by up to 15 per cent.

Musical milestones over time

Whether you’re strolling or sprinting, the two most important qualities of workout music is tempo and rhythm response (i.e. how much a song makes you want to boogie). The type of music that excites a person varies from individual to individual, but the most popular types of exercise music seem to be hip-hop, rock and pop.

Some psychologists have shown that people have a preference for rhythms at a frequency of 120 beats per minute (bpm) or two beats per second. If a person was asked to tap their fingers or walk, many would subconsciously settle into a rhythm of 120 bpm. When running on a treadmill, however, most seem to favour music around 160bpm.

What songs should you be boogying down to?

Ethiopian Olympian Haile Gebrselassie’s amazing 10,000 metre run broke the 1998 world record in Norway and you know what he said helped him beat the record? Listening to the powerful beat of the 90s hit “Scatman” (140 bpm). So, if you’re in the need of motivation to get you up and running, Scatman could be for you. Or perhaps try listening to some classic tracks like Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” (128bpm) or “Beautiful Day” by U2 (136bpm).

If you’re more inclined to get a steady stride going and keep up with the latest music trends, have a listen to tracks like Beyonce’s “Run the World (Girls)” at 127 bmp or raise the pace with “Shake it Off” by Taylor Swift at a high 160 bpm.

The right music elevates moods and persuades people to ride out waves of exhaustion rather than giving up. Consider a song from your favourite musical or Broadway show such as “One Day More” from Les Miserables or “Defying Gravity” from Wicked; both build energy and are about overcoming all limits. The memories of particular characters in a musical along with the exhilarating melodies creates an almost new reality while at the gym or outside. What we ultimately listen to for motivation is based on our emotional reaction to that song.

Best tempos to run to

If you want something more specific, check out some playlists designed to speed you up or cool you down.

How do you choose the perfect playlist?

  1. Order your tracks: Your music tempo should follow the routine of your run and the changes in your heart rate. If you slow down in some parts, then plan your music to be slower. Having upbeat songs all the time may not keep your pace steady or your routine as solid as you would like it.
  2. Start with a banger: Make sure those first few songs are full of high energy beats (approx. 140bpm). This will help you boost the start of your route as well as your overall motivation and mood.
  3. It’s all about that bass: Choosing songs with a strong beat will help keep you in time with every movement. Bass builds a strong rhythm whether running, swimming or weight lifting.
  4. Turn that music up when it gets tough: Plan those intense and loud tracks at the most challenging parts of your exercise routine. The emotions you’ll feel from listening to this kind of hard core music will push you harder to keep going.
  5. Save that best song until the very end: Don’t slow down as your playlist comes to an end! Finish on a high with your favourite song playing loudly to keep those endorphins flowing.

Check out some of the best workout/running playlists to use when getting pumped up for a big exercise session:

The added health benefits

Having that ultimate workout playlist isn’t just something to keep you motivated; it keeps you healthy and fit too. As we all know, exercise has many benefits physically, mentally and emotionally. So combine the power of exercise with the power of your new and improved playlist, and you have a list of benefits coming your way. You’ll…

  • Reduce stress
  • Boost “happy” chemicals
  • Improve self-confidence
  • Prevent cognitive decline
  • Alleviate anxiety
  • Boost brainpower
  • Sharpen memory
  • Help control addiction
  • Increase relaxation
  • Tap into creativity
  • Control your weight
  • Reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes
  • Strengthen bones and muscles
  • Increase your chances of living longer
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