For many runners, a pair of headphones is more important than the best running gear out there. Listening to your favorite tunes while working out can make training more enjoyable, but beyond the subjective experience, is there any evidence that music can actually help you run more or faster? As a matter of fact, yes.
There are quite a number of studies that support using music to get fired up before and during running. In a 2015 study led by Marcelo Bigliassi, an expert in psychophysiology and neuroscience from Florida International University, 15 well-trained male long-distance runners participated in five experiments. The effects of music on the performance during a 5-km run were assessed in four contexts: pre-run motivational music (110-150 beats per minute); running with slow music (80-100 beats per minute); running with fast music (140-160 beats per minute); post-run calming music (95-110 beats per minute). The participants also ran a 5-km trail with no music, as a control.
The researchers measured pre-run brain activity, arousal, and heart rate variability; perceived effort and completion time during the run, and post-run mood and heart rate viability.
According to the results, listening to “motivational music” before the run aroused the runners, charging them up for the 5-km trail run. During the run itself, the participants who listened to music completed the first two laps faster than those who ran without music. However, the differences in lap times between the two groups greatly decreased with each loop.
That’s consistent with other studies that showed the higher the required intensity of effort, the less effect music has on performance.
“Although some people may experience performance detriments while exercising in the presence of music, the majority of individuals tend to benefit from the use of music during sport- and exercise-related tasks,” Dr. Bigliassi told MetaFact.
In another study conducted by researchers at the Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, the effect of music listening on running performance and perceived exertion was assessed in a cohort of 28 undergraduate students. The students had to complete a relatively short 2.5-km run either while listening to music or without.
“The results of this study indicate that music listening has a significant effect on running performance during a maximal 1.5-mile run. However, music listening had no significant effect on the rating of perceived exertion at this distance,” the researchers found.
While these results suggest that listening to music doesn’t have an effect on perceived exertion, a recent study conducted at the University of Edinburgh found that music improved training performance when you’re already mentally fatigued. Music may also help when running conditions are difficult. A 2018 study that appeared in the journal Frontiers in Psychology had volunteers run on a treadmill in hot and humid conditions. Those who did so while listening to music ran 67% longer than the non-music control group before they felt exhausted.
“Music listening during sports and exercise is believed to capture attention, distract from fatigue and discomfort, prompt and alter mood states, enhance work output, increase arousal, relieve stress, stimulate rhythmic movement, and evoke a sense of power and produce power-related cognition and behavior,” Edith Van Dyck, an expert in musicology and psychology from Ghent University in Belgium, told MetaFact.
Van Dyck added that music in the same tempo of the exercise or slightly higher rendered the most optimal performance. But since music preference is so subjective, the best workout music is often whatever your favorite playlist happens to be. What’s more, for some, listening to music actually hampers their performance.
According to Dr. Costas Karageorghis, an expert on the effects of music on exercise, at Brunel University, elite athletes have the least to gain from training while listening to music. That’s because they’re, what Karageorghis calls, ‘associators’, meaning they focus inwardly when running. Amateur athletes, on the other hand, are ‘dissociators’ who are more susceptible to external stimuli and distractions, so music can help nudge them when they aren’t feeling motivated.
Perhaps a bit too hyperbolically, Karageorghis says “music is a legal drug for athletes” but “like any drug, if you use it too much, it begins to have less effect.” This is why he recommends saving music for the end of your run, so it acts like a boost, he told The Guardian.