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Can Music Help You Run Faster?

Music’s ability to positively affect mood is upheld by science. (We performed an experiment with Beyoncé on our Jambox just to be sure). But when it comes to running, is it better to pump up the beats or move to straight silence? Women’s Running checked in with Dr. Costas Karageorghis, author of Inside Sport Psychology, a new book which covers this very topic, to gain some definitive answers regarding music and running performance.

Women’s Running: We’ve heard music can help you run faster—is that true?
Dr. Costas Karageorghis: Under certain circumstances, music can, in fact, help you run faster. The way music can be used most  effectively is in a synchronous mode. This means that you synchronize your stride to the rhythm in order to gain a performance-enhancing effect.

WR: How can beats benefit runners?
CK: Our studies have shown that music can help running performance on many different levels. It reduces the perception of exertion, making running feel less strenuous. Music can enhance positive aspects of mood, like happiness and excitement, while reducing negative aspects, such as anger and confusion. By engendering a more positive mindset, it inspires people toward higher levels of performance.

When we use music in the synchronous mode, it appears that music makes you run more effciently as well. There are energy gains of up to 7 percent when you coordinate your movements with music. Essentially, it has a metronomic effect in regulating your stride.

WR: Is there a type of music that is most effective for improving performance?
CK: There is no Holy Grail. Music is very personal. Preferences will depend upon your social-cultural upbringing and the type of musical influences you had during your formative years. The key components in a running context tend to be fairly loud music, with a high tempo, a rhythmically constant beat and affirmative lyrics.

WR: Is it okay to listen to music during every workout?
CK: Running with music all the time will cause a desensitization effect, which means that you derive less benefit from it over time. My research shows that conducting two sessions with music to every one without seems to be the perfect balance for maintaining an ongoing benefit. The music program  (i.e., your playlist) should also be churned every couple of weeks.

WR: What beats per minute (bpm) range is best?
CK: Tracks with a tempo of 150 to 190 bpm are ideal for running one step per beat. If you prefer one stride cycle per beat, use tracks in the range of about 75 to 95 bpm, because you can complete a whole stride cycle with each beat. If you are going to use music in the background (i.e., not synchronizing your stride rate to it), the “sweet spot” tempo for running is 120 to 130 bpm for low-to-moderate intensity and 130 to 140 bpm for moderate-to-high intensity.

WR: What are some songs on your playlist?
CK: As I’m mentally preparing for a workout, I enjoy a song like “Happy” by Pharrell Williams at 80 bpm. The music puts me into a positive mood and prepares me psychologically for the workout. While I warm up, I might use a track like “Mas Que Nada” by Sergio Mendes, featuring the Black Eyed Peas. It has a strong, syncopated rhythm and inspiring lyrics and is incredibly energizing.

As I get into the belly of my workout, I’ll use one of my favorite Michael Jackson songs, such as “Wanna be Startin’ Somethin’.” It has a tempo of 122 beats per minute, an incessant baseline, a driving rhythm and uplifting lyrics.