Right now running music is simply any music people listen to while running. This is changing as running becomes more popular, musicians become savvier and as technology further enables it. Music composed specifically to fuel running with full cued workouts and long DJ mixed running playlists are already being made, it is a matter of time before it matures into something that has the power to pull people into the sport in itself.
At any park with a good path, look around at the runners and you will notice a large percentage of them with ear buds or headphones. In gyms weight rooms, on treadmills, blasting in studios, music is an intrinsic part of the fitness experience. People dance to music in clubs and at concerts for the sheer joy of it. Movement and music go together. It is primal. It is pleasure.
In Daniel Levitan’s book The World in Six Songs he argues that music, “is not simply a distraction or a pastime, but a core element of our identity as a species, an activity that paved the way for more complex behaviors such as language.” You only need to think about your own life and how your favorite music can express all the stages of it to sense how strong the connection is. Music’s unique role in our lives, our brain chemistry, and it’s potential to be a functional training aid are all reasons that its benefits far outweigh its risks when running.
Music, the Gateway Drug to the Runner’s High
As athletes music can have very tangible benefits. The “zone” or the “runner’s high” is a much sought after almost mythical state among runners. It is a feeling of euphoria, control, and of achieving one’s goals. In a world and a sport that can often be frustrating, to perform with strength, speed and elegance is enough to experience a real sense of elation and transcendence. Music is not necessary to achieve this but it can act as a gateway into it.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has written extensively on reaching this “flow” state or zone. He writes:
Music, which is organized auditory information, helps organize the mind that attends to it, and therefore reduces psychic entropy, or the disorder we experience when random information interferes with goals. Listening to music wards off boredom and anxiety, and when seriously attended to, it can induce flow experiences. (Flow, p. 109)
Basically, music can help remove all the junk that clouds the mind and keeps you from performing your best because it organizes your thinking, focusing your attention where it should be.
In an earlier passage he writes, “One of the most ancient and perhaps the most popular functions of music is to focus the listeners attention on patterns appropriate to the desired mood.” Really good running music is not only about trying to forget the exhaustion of running but actually putting your mind where it needs to be in order to reach your goal for the run. It can be a guide to where your breathing and steps should be for the optimal performance.
Rhythm and Tempo for Running Music
In running the most crucial element for music is the rhythm and its tempo. It has to be something that feels right to your feet in a running cadence. As Oliver Sacks wrote in his book Musicophilia, “Rhythm in this sense, the integration of sound and movement, can play a great role in coordinating and invigorating basic locomotor movement.” He goes on to quote a competitive cyclist with a favorite song:
“ … it stimulated my performance, settled my cadence at just the right tempo, and synchronized my physical efforts with my breathing. Time collapsed. I was truly in the zone, and for the first time in my life I was sorry to see the finish line. My time was a personal best.” (p. 263)
If the music is at a tempo that is not right these effects are more difficult to come by. There are a lot of advantages to cultivating a high tempo leg turnover and 180 steps per minute is often sited as the optimal number. The article 180 bpm Cadence explains this rational for this in more depth.
Arguments Against Running to Music
When music is at a tempo that is too slow or the music does not enhance the experience in some other way it can actually create some dissonance in your running performance. However, for the people who are most against it this is not the main argument. The biggest danger of listening to music while running is volume. Listening to music that is too loud in particular through noise cancelling headphones that drown out all other sounds closes the runner out of his/her immediate environment. The ability to hear your own breathing and the loudness of your steps is very important. Not to mention a car, bike or other runner coming from behind.
Personally, when I first started running I hated running with music. I could never keep ear buds in my ears, the wires were cumbersome and if a song came on that did not sync up perfectly to my run (or worse a song I absolutely hated came on over the gym sound system) it immediately took me out of the moment. However, once I got more serious about the concept of running music I found that the benefits out-weighed the deterrents. Also, I have always been able to maintain a volume where I could still hear oncoming traffic and street noise under the music and I am always able to check in with my body by keeping one ear uncovered when needed.
I have met many people who say they can not run without music and I would discourage that as well because there are many merits of running without music. Particularly in races when there is so much going on around you. It is very possible to be able to enjoy running both with and with out music.
Types of Running Music
Any music at the correct tempo that inspires you can be used as music to run to. There are tons of sites and apps out there to help you find the bpm of your favorite songs. The easiest way is just to look at a clock with a second hand and tap the beats for 30 seconds. Double that number and you will get the beats per minute. Songs that are between 177 bpm to 190 bpm tend to be the best. If it comes to around 90 to 95 bpm that is OK too because your feet will naturally find the double time. Arrange these songs creatively to make running playlists.
With the advent of so many people with mp3 players running to music there is a growth of companies and artists who make music specifically with running in mind. Lady Southpaw is one of these projects. “Strides: Choose to Run” is an example of a full workout on HellaSound.com.
There was a study out of Australia that was covered by the BBC awhile ago that sums up the potential of this movement. It shows that listening to music while exercising triggers the brain to work harder and perform better. However, the deeper conclusion they draw is the point that if nothing else music can increase the enjoyment of exercise inspiring people to do more of it, which in itself is a victory in a sedentary society.