Running with music: the case for and against

Matt Kurton: ‘I take much more notice of what’s going on around me and of the way my body is working’

Several years ago, blogging here about training for the London Marathon, I wrote a post comparing running without music to watching a film with the sound turned off. At the time, music was a fundamental part of my running routine: I was no more likely to head out of the door without my iPod than I was to go running in a spacesuit.

But then, one day, without really knowing why, I went for a run without music. The next day I did the same thing. A week later, I was halfway around a 15k route before I realised that I hadn’t even thought about picking up my iPod – and a couple of years on, I couldn’t even tell you where it is.

From a performance point of view, I know I may not be doing myself any favours. After all, plenty of studies have shown that music increases concentration, lowers perception of effort, provides ongoing stimulus and generally leaves you feeling more positive. Put on a pair of headphones, the thinking goes, and running feels easier and more enjoyable, so you get better at it. The only bad thing researchers seem to be able to say about running with music is that you might damage your hearing if you turn it up too loud, and the solution to that one seems fairly obvious.

But, like most non-elite athletes, performance gains are only one small part of why I run. For me – much as I love to see my times drop – it’s more about the joy of running for its own sake than it is about constant improvement. I’m sure those lab-based test results are true, but I’m not sure they really matter to me.

So now I’m listening to birdsong and rainfall rather than Bill Withers and Radiohead, I don’t feel like I’m missing out. I’m still focused and motivated, and I’m happy too, not least because I no longer spend half of each run swearing at the headphones that have just fallen out of my ears.In fact, the longer I have run without music, the more music has started to seem like a barrier to running, rather than an enhancement. I take much more notice of what’s going on around me and of the way my body is working. I’d feel cut off if I raced or trained with headphones on now, and I’d also be less likely to notice if I was landing strangely, or if my breathing was tight.

Sports scientists differentiate between runners who are “associators” – people who prefer to focus inwardly during a run – and “dissociators” – people who spend their runs looking for ways to forget what they’re putting themselves through. But I think running without music actually helps me flit between both states. It gives me space to explore the world around me and to explore whatever is going on in my head.

So I’ve come to think that music acts fundamentally as a distraction. And if I hated running, that might make sense – but I don’t. I love it. And whether I’m sliding through mud, or sweating as the sun rises, or tearing down a rutted hill, or desperately trying to keep up with the guy at the track who used to leave me for dead, I don’t want anything to interfere with that sense of pure pleasure.

Sure, my interval sessions might suffer because I’m not listening to Rage Against the Machine while I do them, but I’ll live with that. Running for me means freedom. It means a clear head. And, over the past few years, it’s come to mean a rare and reliable chance for genuine peace and quiet, too.

Sean Blair: ‘Music helps a majority of runners enjoy their exercise’

Running with music is an emotive subject. Some love it, others hate it. But the facts are that running with music helps a majority of runners enjoy their exercise. A Runner’s World survey (of 3,523 runners) revealed that 75% of respondents were “for running with music”, while other surveys show even higher results.

The science is more revealing. Professor Andy Lane, a sports psychologist from the University of Wolverhampton (and a three-hour marathon runner himself) undertook a project seeking to understand the effectiveness of music to help (1,100) runners regulate their positive and negative emotions. The findings showed motivating music helped improve performance.

In another research project at John Moores University, 12 people rode an indoor bike at a pace they could sustain for 30 minutes while listening to a song of their own choice. In the second trial they rode again with the tempo of the music variously increased or decreased by 10% without the subjects knowledge.

The findings showed riders’ heart rate and mileage decreased when the tempo was slowed, while they rode a greater distance, increased their heart rate and enjoyed the music more at the faster tempo. Though the participants thought their workout was harder at the more upbeat tempo, the researchers found that when they exercised to faster-paced music: “the participants chose to accept, and even prefer, a greater degree of effort”.

Professor Costas Karageorghis from Brunel University, a respected authority on the subject, says: “in some instances we have seen performance benefits of up to 15%. As well as enhancing performance, music lowers the perception of effort. It dulls or masks some of the pain associated with training. We know from scanning the brain that when athletes are played loud upbeat music there is an increase in activity in the ascending reticular activating system.”

But, of course, music is often used in a haphazard fashion – leaving your iPod on shuffle could serve up a vast range of music that might help or hinder a run. So how do you make sure your playlist will help your performance? Lane suggests there are five conditions that runners might consider: Tempo, genre or vibe, lyrics, the memory triggers the music can make and finally the structure or compilation of the tracks.

Uptempo, upbeat tunes with motivating lyrics that trigger positive emotions should, naturally, make you feel great. Classic running songs such as Chariots of Fire or the Rocky theme tune may do the trick.

But there is another role MP3s can play in helping people run better. By adding coaching to the music, we at Audiofuel have found runners are willing to follow instructions that improve running form – vital for staying injury free. They may speed up while interval training, or slow down – taking walk breaks during long marathon training sessions when necessary. Having a coach, or indeed a world champion, yell at you to hold your form for just 60 seconds more can really make a big difference – and after all, holding strong for the final 60 seconds of a three-minute hard interval could mean a 50% increase in performance.

Surveys, research and anecdotes all show that running and music rock. Some still hate it for themselves and that’s absolutely fine. But for purists who look down on people running with headphones, consider this: we know people don’t exercise enough largely because they don’t enjoy it. So if music can help people to run, or run for longer, then music is contributing to the health of the nation, and that is worth a more than a sneer. Perhaps instead a smile and a cheer.

Music and coaching podcasts:

Free Couch to 5k podcasts from the NHS: Begin running with music and coaching with this nine-week programme.

Free 5k+ podcasts from the NHS: Move beyond 5k with the 5k+ podcasts from the NHS and AudioFuel.

AudioFuel Running Music: Running music with coaching.

Do you run with music, or does it ruin the experience? And if you do, is it just for training or for race day too?

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