Does Running With Music Make A Difference?

I’m no marathon runner by traditional standards. I can’t run 26 miles in a day. I’ve never even tried. But I’ve been known to do it in a week. Marathoner or not, I consider myself a part of the running community. I crave runs. I go crazy without them, and I know the difference between a good and a bad run.

Running is about becoming one with rhythm. It’s about losing my feet to the beat. It’s about transforming into a sound wave and crashing down hard on the earth’s surface. For me, it’s more about rhythm than lyrics. Needless to say, when I watched as thousands of mega-athletes run by me headphoneless in the NYC Marathon, my stomach churned with uneasiness.

What was wrong with these people, these monsters? How anyone could run 26 miles without a killer playlist beats me. In fact, I had to do some serious research. Was music important for runners?

Confused and outraged, I scoured the internet to see if science could offer any consolation. Enter Lady Internet to the rescue: in 1998, Ethiopian runner, Haile Gebrselassie, achieved a world best time in a 2000-meter race in the U.K. And guess what? He pinned his success on a song. He simply had matched his running cadence to tempo of a song officials had been blasting throughout the race. The song was called “Scatman” — and it was fast.

There’s a science behind what Gebrselassie’s story. It’s called auditory-motor synchronization.  It simply entails lining up your physical movements with a rhythm, whether it’s in a song, or just clicking on a metronome. If you’re lucky, you do this when you dance. If you can’t dance, perhaps you do it when you tap your foot to a song. If you can’t tap your foot to a song, you’ve got no rhythm. But that’s beyond the point …

Back to business: in a paper published in PLOS One, researchers wanted to see how auditory-motor synchronization and motivational sounds could influence running performance.  They put 19 runners on a treadmill until they reached exhaustion and varied acoustic stimuli as they ran. Runners heard one of three things: nothing, a metronome-produced beat synchronized to their cadence or a motivational song, also synchronized. If you’re curious, “Pump It” by The Black Eyed Peas, made their list.

In the end, whether runners heard a song or a metronome, they lasted longer than when they heard nothing. And when it came to performance, the metronome improved running economy, pushing them to work more efficiently. On the other hand, runners listening to motivational songs worked harder when the going got tough.

My nonexpert opinion? On your next run, bring some rhythm with you. Start off with something steady, bells would even work, then power through that finish line with something hard and heavy. If I were you, I couldn’t wait to make the playlist.

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