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Can Running with Music Aid Performance? Pros & Cons (2020)

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Want to know whether running with music can give you the boost that you need?

Perhaps you’re beginning to question whether it has the ability to improve your performance, especially if you’ve been confused by the contradictory information that is spread across the internet. 

Or, maybe you’ve been running for a while and you’ve simply lost your motivation… 

Not to worry, we’ve got everything you need to know about the pros and cons of running with music, so that you can make an informed decision as to whether it’s best for you.

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Pros of Running with Music

#1 – Boosts Motivation

It’s no secret that many fitness enthusiasts enjoy running with music. Whether this involves listening to their favourite songs to get pumped up pre-run or rocking out as they go, many runners swear by music as their main source of motivation.

Costas Karageorghis, a sports psychologist of Brunel University in London who has studied the positive influence that music has on athletes states:

Listening to music is a type of legal performance-enhancing drug.

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Here at OriGym, we couldn’t agree more. We think that music is great for motivation as not only does it get you pumped up, it seems blends exercise together with other things that you’re passionate about.

If you have personal music interests or even a podcast that you love, it’s easy to see how these things could help you to push through strenuous physical activity. 

We would go as far to argue that this makes exercise more sustainable, as it makes running something that you can link to your existing life and interests to rather than something alien that you try for a few weeks and give up on.

So, is there anything to backup the idea that running boosts motivation? Or is it just a preference that some runners have, as opposed to those who claim that music only deters their focus…

We looked at a study by Peter C. Terry et al, which observed the effects of specific music styles on the motivation of runners:

Notably, during the time-to-exhaustion trail, participants endured for more than a minute longer while running in time to motivational music when compared to the no-music condition, representing an 18.1% improvement in performance. Neutral music was also superior at prolonging endurance performance when contrasted with the no-music control, a 19.7% improvement.

While this is only one study, we have to say that we are pleasantly surprised to see that our view is supported through the work of experts in sports science. 

Another thing we’ve seen referenced in multiple studies that ties in directly to what we’re saying here is rhythm response. To give you a better idea of what this is, here’s Costas Karageorghis’ definition:

Rhythm response refers to the effects of musical rhythm, especially tempo (speed of music as measured in beats per min [bpm]. 

Typically, psychologists and experts in this field agree that the human body responds to music tempo. Many have remarked on patterns between running with music and the effect that it can have on exertion during the exercise.  

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For example, if you have ever found yourself running to the beat of the music you are listening to, matching both its tempo and speed, you are experiencing this thing that experts call rhythm response. 

Maybe your feet are tapping to the sound of the song playing in your ears, even now, whilst reading this article. That's rhythm response! And the same reaction occurs in your body when you’re running to music. 

Studies have shown that when athletes work with music they often work harder for more sustained periods of time.

Two researchers, Judy Edworthy and Hannah Waring from the University of Plymouth, recently produced a study on the effects of music tempo and loudness on performance.

Thirty “physically active” participants were selected for testing using two variables: music tempo and music volume. The participants were tested in five conditions: loud/fast, loud/slow, quiet/fast, quiet/slow, as well as a control group with no music. Each participant ran on a treadmill at a selected pace for 10 minutes.

Following the study, it became clear that both the loudness and tempo boosted the participants’ speed and heart rates. Music that was faster or louder resulted in the subjects selecting a quicker pace on the treadmill. Whilst the participants listening to relaxing, slower and quieter music opted to run at a slower speed.

The popular running website Runners World acknowledges the importance of music while you run. They hold running music in such regard that they’ve dedicated a section of their website specifically to producing a monthly playlist tailored to the kind of running experience a runner might seek.

It’s clear from each of the studies and expert comments that we’ve referenced that music can boost motivation for a good percentage of runners, and ultimately help them to run for a longer period of time. This is definitely classed as aiding performance if you ask us!

#2 – Improves Mood

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Much like motivation, mood can be manipulated to some extent by listening to music during exercise. 

While emotions are technically more involuntary, the combination of ‘happy sounds’ and the positive psychological effect that exercise has on the brain has the ability to shift negative thoughts. 

Even if you’re only remotely interested in running, chances are you’ve heard of ‘runner’s high’, the hyper-elated feeling that comes with the exercise. It is triggered by endorphins in the brain, that act like natural painkillers to neutralise your discomfort during a long run, and boost your mood both during and after it! 

According to RunnersWorld, to achieve this runner’s high you need to ‘push yourself hard, but not too hard’, and that tempo running is a great way to boost your chances of experiencing it. This involves running at your half marathon pace, for around 20-40 minutes at a time. 

How do you think a pace like this is best achieved? That’s right, with some great music to run with. If you balance out your tempo by running with music, you’ll be more likely to get that runner’s high. 

Your mood will increase thanks to the endorphins, and twofold if you enjoy the music that you’re listening to!  

To make what we’re saying clear, in this study on how music can positively impact mood during exercise, Nicole T. Gabana et al state: 

Researchers have attempted to tease out which particular aspects of music influence emotional states in listeners. Two key elements are tempo and mode (i.e., major or minor key). Music generally classified as “happy” sounding is characterized by fast tempo and major mode.

Here, it’s evident that selecting the right kind of music can positively impact your mood when running. If you take these elements into account, it becomes easy to identify which songs you should choose for your mood-boosting playlist. 

You select music with the right tempo for your run, you work up to running at that pace, and then you get the runner’s high. If you enjoy the music, your mood will get a simultaneous boost. It’s a win-win situation!

This spike in your overall mood during the run will ultimately make it easier to push through. You’ll associate running with positive feelings, and therefore be more likely to maintain a long-term routine. 

With regular practice, using music to manipulate your mood and run in this way will improve your performance. This is clearly one of the greatest benefits of running with music, especially if you’re wondering why you should give it a try! 

#3 – Helps you to Dissociate 

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One of the most obvious pros of running with music includes its ability to distract the body from the strain that it is being put under. 

Now, you may think that there’s something psychological about this, and that it’s just an effective way of luring yourself into the exercise rather than something that actually eases the strain. However, you’ll be glad to know that this isn’t the case! 

In their study on how music affects running perseverance, which you can read here, G. Tenenbaum et al write: 

Under low to moderate physical load, perceived exertion can be manipulated by attending to external cues, such as music (passive) or solving mental problems (active).

This a great observation of how music can be used to detach yourself from any unfavourable body sensations during your run, as well as letting your mind solve through other things that may be happening in your life. 

The two can go hand in hand and make it a therapeutic experience, all while distracting you from your physical exertion! 

Back to the question of can music aid running performance?, notice how G. Tenenbaum et al mention that this is most effective during ‘low to moderate’ exercise. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the type of running that we’re talking about in this article is the moderate ‘tempo running’ kind, through which you can enhance your performance with music. 

This is the kind of running that you will likely be looking to optimise, whether you’re a beginner working up to a steady yet moderate pace or a pro in marathon training. 

It’s evident that the dissociation you gain through listening to music and letting your mind wander as you run can give your performance a real boost, as also make running more of a long-term activity for you. 

You’ll find yourself addicted to the lead up to the runner’s high, and the clear head space that you get from going for a run. Focusing your mind to maintain a good tempo and strong, consistent pace is a skill that music will aid you in. This leads us into one of the other main pros of running with music...

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#4 – Establishes a Strong Pace

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One theory in the world of sport science is that depending on the tempo of an individual song or playlist, running to music can allow us to build and maintain a strong pace. 

This will set the tone for your overall performance, so it’s something that you’ll want to focus on if you’re looking to maximise your output! 

To support this theory, we have a quote from Poel de Harjo et al in their essay on the pros and cons of synchronizing steps in running: 

Any rhythm offers the possibility and incentive of pacing and synchronization of movements. For instance, when the tempo of an auditory rhythm is nicely aligned to the cadence of the runner, such pacing results in a less variable running pattern, which is thought to imply higher running efficiency. 

In case you didn’t already know, ‘cadence’ is the total amount of steps that you take during a minute of running. If you select a song that matches this (as accurately as possible), then your pacing will be more consistent. 

You will likely be able to stick to this pace for longer than you would if you weren’t listening to music, thanks to the tempo providing you with plenty of motivation, as well as the challenge of keeping up with it! 

It’s probably best to incrementally increase the tempo of the music that you use during training, and work your way up to achieving a new personal best in terms of performance. In this case, it would be measuring how long you can keep up a certain pace and then increasing the pace or distance you cover. 

Cons of Running with Music

To answer the question; can running with music aid performance?, we thought that it would only be fair to explore both sides of the argument, especially since experts have been known to comment on boths sides of this argument.

#1 – Running with Headphones is Risky

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It’s unfortunate, but we have to say it; running with headphones can be pretty risky when you’re not on the treadmill. 

This is especially true at night-time or if you’re running in an isolated area (which we wouldn’t recommend unless you were in a group). 

Listening to music while you run outside can make you unaware of your surroundings and any hazards that may pose a threat to you, such as other pedestrians, traffic, or any obstacles/debris in your path, etc. 

The dangers are infinite, and no one wants to end up in A&E because they tripped over a branch that they would have spotted had they been concentrating on their footing… It may sound silly, but many injuries sustained by runners are down to loss of concentration, and aren’t as heroic as you might think.  

This is something that really gets us down, especially since the motivation boost is the thing we enjoy most about running with music.

However, if you run during the day or stick to well-lit areas and build up your confidence on a route that you know well, you can still use music to boost your motivation - just don’t dissociate too much! 

#2 – Some Races Ban Headphones

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One of the most logical (but partially annoying) cons of running with music here in the UK is that headphones are banned from races where they are deemed to be unsafe. 

There’s a lot of sense in this decision outlined in the UKA rules of competition, which you can check out here: https://www.uka.org.uk/competitions/rules/

The section that we are referring to states the following: 

The wearing of headphones, or similar devices, (other than those medically prescribed), is not permitted in races on any single carriageway road that is not wholly closed to traffic. This restriction does not apply to races held on dual carriageways provided that there are clear, structured separations between the separate carriageways.

The ideology behind the rule links back to our previous point, as it serves to protect the safety of race competitors. 

One thing to note is that even if you’re entering a race that is wholly closed off to traffic, the organisers of the event may still choose to ban headphones. It’s something that you should check out beforehand to avoid disappointment, or even worse; disqualification! 

Although this is a bummer, let’s not forget the pros of running with music that we outlined earlier. 

It could still be incredibly beneficial to train using headphones, as they could give you the motivation that you need to keep at it, allow you to reach a certain pace, etc. so don’t give up yet. 

#3 – Could Reduce Your Focus 

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While this is certainly classed as one of the main cons of running with music, it’s certainly not a dealbreaker if you highlight it as a suspected issue. 

In fact, having an awareness of this can help you to run more efficiently with music, and even improve your focus. 

One of the main concerns that experts have in this context is that depending on the volume or how much notice you take of the music you’re listening to (in terms of lyrics, etc.) it could shift your focus from the technical elements of your run. 

Not only could this hinder your performance by allowing you to slack on running form, for example, but it could also put you in danger of injury. 

If you’re not properly focused on your footfall or any hazards that lie ahead, then you could sustain a careless injury and be out of training for the foreseeable future! 

This ties into our final point in this section… 

#4 – Exerting Energy Too Soon

If running with music does cause you to lose focus, depending on the volume or how much attention you’re paying to lyrics, etc. this can overpower important sounds that you should be listening out for, namely breathing and footstrike. 

These factors are good indicators of effort, and so overpowering them puts you at a disadvantage. It can skew your awareness of how much energy you’re exerting during your run.

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If you’re putting too much effort into the first few minutes of the exercise, then you’re not running efficiently and you’re likely to crash before you reach the end of your session. This is bad for a number of reasons. 

Firstly, it can throw off your training routine, especially if you have a deadline that you need to hit in terms of reaching a certain distance for a race, or for your own fitness goals. 

If you’re new to running then this is bad news. We’re not trying to say that your motivation isn’t adequate, but when measuring the success of a new routine it’s incredibly important to stick to that routine. 

The moment that your sessions become shorter or you start missing your desired targets, that’s when you’re less likely to stay motivated (which could eventually lead to you throwing in the towel). 

If you’re worried about evening out your energy input level, It might be a good idea to practice without music at first, or try having your music low enough to give equal focus to these factors.

This way, you’re giving yourself a good chance to optimise how much energy you exert early on in the run before you crank up the volume! 

Do Marathon Runners Listen to Music?

This is a good question, especially since we’ve gone through the fact that headphones are banned in some races over here in the UK. 

The simple answer is that it depends on the context. If you’re asking do marathon runners listen to music during races? then we would say that it depends on which country you’re referring to, and even then it varies from race to race. 

For example, there was actually a rule in place in the U.S. up until recently that banned the use of headphones in all races across the country. It was established by the USATF (USA Track & Field), which is America’s governing body for running. 

The rule outlined in the UKA Rules of Competition is (thankfully) much less harsh, and it is common knowledge that the London Marathon, for example, allows the use of headphones. This is because the route itself is completely closed off to traffic during the event. 

So, now that we’ve got to the bottom of that, do marathon runners listen to music in training? 

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When we look at this question, it seems pretty obvious that the answer is a matter of preference. It varies from runner to runner, and could even depend on what stage of their training they are currently at. 

Linking back to what we mentioned earlier about how running with music is sometimes seen as an activity that reduces focus, many marathon or elite runners actually frown upon the use of headphones, both in races and in training. They argue that missing cues such as breathing and footstrike is careless. 

On the other hand, there are those who swear by running to music, and attribute their perfect pacing to matching their footstrike to the BPM of a song! 

For example, in this study on Creating a Safer Running Experience completed by Chad A. Cooper, it’s clear that marathon runners are often amongst those who advocate the use of music when running: 

93.3% track their runs, 89.8% want to be more aware while running and 78% listen to music while running. With surveying completed, four target audiences were realized. The four audiences were marathon runners, deaf runners, trail runners and lastly the casual runner.

From a survey that also includes trail runners amongst its four respondent groups, 78% of the total number of runners is impressive when it comes to working out how many of them prefer to run with music. 

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Conclusion

When it comes to answering the question; can music aid running performance?, it’s clear that there are a range of opinions surrounding the topic. 

However, from our own research on numerous studies paired with years of running experience, we can certainly determine that running with music benefits performance in a number of ways. 

If you practise this while maintaining a good level of focus on your surroundings, and on any physical cues that you receive from your body, then you shouldn’t encounter any issues.

Just be sure that you stick to running with music in a safe environment, or head to the treadmill for a practise session first if you haven’t tried it before! 

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References

  1.       de Poel, Harjo J., et al. "Synchronizing steps in running: pros and cons." Crossing Borders in Research on Sport and Physical Activity: 75.
  2.       Terry, Peter C., et al. "Effects of synchronous music on treadmill running among elite triathletes." Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport 15.1 (2012): 52-57.
  3.       Karageorghis, C, 2018. The Power of Sound. Inside Sport Psychology, 01, 202.
  4. Cooper, C.A., 2019. Creating a Safer Running Experience: Reducing Runner and Vehicular Traffic Incidents.

Written by Chloe Twist

Fitness Content Manager, OriGym

Join Chloe on Facebook at the OriGym Facebook Group

Chloe graduated with a BA (Hons) English and Creative Writing from Liverpool John Moores University and prior to OriGym worked at J&R Digital Marketing Agency on the Liverpool 'Female Founders' series. Since joining the company, she has become a qualified Personal Trainer and advanced Sports Nutrition Specialist. Chloe’s professional interests intersect content-development and the world of online fitness, especially across social media and YouTube, and Chloe has herself contributed pieces on fitness and weight loss to sites including the Daily Star and The Express. Outside her day-to-day role, Chloe enjoys playing the guitar, gaming and kettlebell training. 

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