Here’s the music you’ll run a personal best to
Music is good, running is good. Here’s how to get the best of both worlds, according to the science
image Team Woo
words Rhys Thomas
So you’re running. Step step, one two, over and over and over and over. You enjoy running, of course you do, that’s why you spend Friday night packing the kit, and Saturday morning stomping across pavements, parks and woodland tracks. You know it’s good for you, physically, mentally, but sometimes it is a little draining. You know what can help you fight fatigue and run with ease? Music. And some songs help more than others.
You can search for the best running songs, and the streaming apps will tell you ‘the best songs to run to’. But is this list of tunes, some cinematic bangers, some cult rock classics, truly the best songs to be running to? How does the algorithm know? It doesn’t matter anymore, because we do know! We’ve spoken to actual scientists and pored through academic papers to help you choose the songs that will turn your jog into a gazelle-like glide. And yes, based on those findings, we’ve made a playlist for you too. Let’s get into it!
There’s a few ways that music can help us run better, much of it has to do with positive distraction. ‘Perceived exertion’, it’s called in the business. Simply, you’re running (up that hill) and you’re thinking “on a scale of one to ten, how tiring is this?”. You are perceiving the exertion. Well, if you did run up that hill while listening to Kate Bush’s song Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God) and you just so happened to really like that song, your perceived exertion might decrease by as much as 12%. “Even if you don’t like the song, it’ll decrease by 8%” says Costas Karageorghis, Professor of Sport and Exercise Psychology at Brunel University London. On average, then, if you listen to music you can give as much as 10% extra. That’s a lot!
What other qualities about specific music can help running?
Therefore, it’s no wonder many people listen to tunes while they’re running. But there’s a little more to it. Tempo and other qualities of the song can make a huge difference to your speed, rhythm, and fatigue.
Also, sadly, these qualities don’t seem to work at high intensities like sprinting (beyond 75 percent of our Vo2 max, if you know what that is), at those effort levels we’re still going to feel super tired quickly. But even where we don’t get the same magical results as we do with mid-intensity running, music can colour the way we feel fatigue. So we might say something is 10/10 hard whether there’s music on or not, but with the headphones in we might feel less “Stop right now, thank you very much” and more “burn baby burn, disco inferno!”.
To sync or not to sync?
There’s two ways to use music when running. You can use it “synchronously” which means you run on the beat, or you can use it “asynchronously” which is when you just stride however you please and the music sits in the background for you to enjoy.
When you master synchronised running, it can help your workout in ways additional to lowering your perceived exertion. If we run to music, it can influence electrical activity in the brain – our brainwaves. “[Music] can influence respiration rate. It can influence our heart rates, and it can also influence our stride rate. For recreational runners, this is enhanced by as much as 15%.” Says Prof. Karageorghis. Essentially, it makes us more efficient at running.
But if you don’t want to feel reliant on the tunes during your run, rather you just enjoy having music on, to help you keep focussed and less able to think about any fatigue you may be feeling, choose to run to it asynchronously.
Of course, if you’re a synch-er, you’re going to be thinking about matching the tempo of your run to the tempo of the music. All well and good, but there’s a sweet spot. 120-140 beats per minute (BPM) is optimal across all running intensities. The slower end of that is ideal for warming up, and the higher end is for really smashing through the last part of the run,
“What's interesting is that music and the tempo range of 125 to 140 is inherently energising regardless of the exact intensity of your run, so if you are working at a moderate to high intensity as a runner, then based on the science, you should really be using music of 125 BPM or above when using the music asynchronously,” says Prof Karageorghis.
Vibes (tonality, and genre)
Vibes are important, always. Here, specifically, the vibes should be uplifting and energising. You could find a funeral march at the right tempo, but that’s not exactly going to spur you on, is it? Generally, look toward major keys, the happy keys (Happy by Pharell Williams is in C# major, for example). They’re going to be the songs that help to perk you up.
To add some complexity, sometimes music you know you run well to, like electronic dance music (EDM) is almost entirely in minor keys (Sandstorm by Darude is in E minor). Here though, Prof Karageorghis explains that it’s partly because you like that music, which counts for something. But also those booming kick drums and warm basslines are very energising in their own right, which is why they work well for many.
“There's no such thing as the best genre for running. One person's music is another person's noise.” Says Prof Karageorghis. So generally, choose tunes you love within those tempo ranges and you won’t go too wrong!
This is also sort of vibes, main character vibes, anyway, where you’re listening to something that feels reflective of the moment you’re in. If you’re running to a song that has empowering lyrics like “don’t stop moving”, “it’s coming up” or even “simply the best”, it can give you the motivation to keep on keeping on.
If you want to guarantee you vibe with every song, you now have all the knowledge needed to make a playlist of your own! However, if putting a playlist together is yet another thing on your to-do list, woo has put together a playlist in line with the science. Designed for a long mid-intensity run, all of this playlist’s songs fall in the 120-140 BPM range; they're actually listed in order of tempo, too, which is ideal for pacing those long races. They start slow, allowing you to get a feel for things, before building into your ideal marathon pace. Ending with the more upbeat and uptempo tunes to give you every ounce of motivation to fight off the perceived fatigue, and to stride over the line. The playlist is four and a half hours long, roughly the average pace of a marathon worldwide.
This article has been brought to you in partnership with New Balance, which is working to get people on the move with its 2023 TCS London Marathon range.
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