Does Music Help You Run Faster? A Look at the Scientific Research
One thing that’s nearly ubiquitous among recreational runners at health clubs and on the roads is an iPod or mp3 player strapped to their arm.
Most of these folks probably just use them as a distraction, especially if they don’t particularly enjoy running. But even at high-level competitions, you’ll often see top athletes listening to music before they race.
The idea of music as a performance enhancer is a fairly new topic in exercise physiology and psychology, and as such, has been mostly relegated to lesser-known authors and journals. Nevertheless, there’s a substantial amount of work that’s been done of the effect of music (and different types of music) on athletic performance, so that’s where we’ll turn our attention today.
The research on music and athletic performance
The first study we’ll look at is representative of many of the basic studies on the issue of music and performance.
A 2003 paper by Atkinson, Wilson, and Eubank looked at how sixteen physically active subjects responded when listening to fast-paced electronic dance music over the course of a simulated 10km cycling time trial on a stationary bicycle.1 A trial with no music was conducted as a control.
The outcome showed that when listening to the fast-paced (142 beats per minute) music, the subjects cycled significantly faster for the overall distance, but interestingly, the difference came chiefly in the first few km and over the final km—the riders’ splits from 5km to 9km were nearly identical. The riders also perceived that they were riding slightly harder throughout the time trial while listening to music.
Music tempo and loudness
As you might suspect, there are so many factors to take into account when considering how music affects performance that scientists have a hard time comparing studies directly. Music can be fast, slow, loud, quiet, or anywhere in between. To help clear up some of the confusion, Judy Edworthy and Hannah Waring at the University of Plymouth in the UK authored a 2006 study on the effects of music tempo and loudness.
Using two variables, music tempo and music volume, Edworthy and Waring tested 30 “physically active” participants in five conditions (loud/fast, loud/slow, quiet/fast, quiet/slow, and no music) at a self-selected pace for 10min on a treadmill.
The results showed that both loudness and tempo boosted the participants’ speeds and heart rates in a predictable manner. Louder and faster music resulted in the subjects selecting a faster treadmill pace than slower and quieter music.
Is it the music itself or the motivation
To date, all indicators point to the performance-boosting effects of music being a result of increased motivation. It should come as no surprise to any experienced runner that motivation plays a big role in performance: it’s a lot easier to turn out quarter-mile repeats when it’s sunny and you’ve got a group of training partners than when it’s rainy, cold, windy, and you’re alone.
This was pointed out by Kenny and Kristal Brooks at Louisiana Tech University in a 2010 review article. The benefits of fast-paced music have been demonstrated by several studies, but they all have similar setups: relatively inexperienced subjects, exercising alone in a laboratory, either on a treadmill or a stationary bicycle.
Will music help you run faster during a race or just in training
Preliminary work which compares untrained and trained subjects has found that music has a smaller effect on trained subjects (even though the study’s definition of “trained” is pretty generous—exercising for an hour at least three times a week). I suspect the effects of music would virtually disappear in a real competition with experienced athletes.
Sports psychologist model competitive readiness with an inverted-U curve, the peak of which represents the ideally-stimulated state. When you are understimulated, you are insufficiently motivated to perform your best (like during a cold, windy, solitary workout). And when you are overstimualted, you are too anxious to perform (a phenomenon commonly described as “choking” or “cracking under pressure”).
In low-excitement conditions, like carrying out an artificial time trial alone in a lab, it’s very likely that music will help you work harder. But in a real race, you’ll likely already be very stimulated and ready to go. Which is just as well, seeing as most races today discourage runners from wearing any kind of headphones, and some ban it outright.
Safety issues when running with music
There are also safety issues to take into consideration when thinking about listening to music while running: headphones make you oblivious to cars, bicycles, and other potential dangers. For this reason alone, I discourage people from wearing headphones while they are running, unless it’s on a treadmill.
Fortunately, some evidence indicates that you can retain some of the benefits of getting “pumped up” by music even after you’ve listened to it.
One study found that listening to high-tempo music for a 10-minute warm-up enables better performance in high-intensity exercise, even when there’s no music playing during the actual trial period.
So, while some high-energy music might be able to get you in the mood to bang out a hard workout or really push it during a race, for safety’s sake, you can probably garner most of the benefits by listening to your tunes after you’ve warmed up and before you’ve started your workout or race.
Also keep in mind that there are a lot of issues with these studies: none have used real athletes, and the proposition of defining “high energy music” is a pretty difficult one. For example, Edworthy and Waring used fast-paced jazz music, while Atkinson et al. used trance music, a type of electronic dance music you’d hear at a nightclub.
It’s pretty clear that most research so far has connected the benefits of music to its effect on motivation and mood.
There’s a possibility that future research can look into some of the additional benefits that are sometimes proposed, like maintaining a high cadence: some people feel that music with the proper tempo can encourage you to maintain a particular stride frequency or running intensity. But the research for that hasn’t come out yet.
Furthermore, even the more basic research on the effects of different types and tempos of music on “real” running performance (i.e. with real runners and possibly real competitions) hasn’t been done yet.
Hopefully the next few years can bring this topic out of the “backwater journal” realm and into a more prominent place in sports physiology and psychology. Until then, listen if you like, but be safe about it!