Why You Need a Running Playlist
Winter being the grottiest and darkest time of the year here in the UK, it is perhaps not surprising that it often takes extra effort to talk ourselves into lacing up and heading out of the front door for a run.
Whether you are training for your next cross-country race in the winter chill or hitting the treadmill in the heated gym, having the right music playlist can make the difference between having a blast on your run, or feeling stale. In the words of Costas Karageorghis, who is one of the world’s leading authorities on music and exercise and also consultant to the ‘Run to the Beat’ musical race series, ‘Music is like is a legal drug for athletes‘. He is of course referring to the mood- and performance boosting effects of music.
I have written this blog post to treat you to a little holiday cheer by showing you how to create your very own, kick*ss music playlist to supercharge your runs any time of the year, using some scientific insights.
Selecting Music for a Running Playlist
First things first – what kind of genre should you be going for? Are dance and pop music better than rock and country music? In a 2004 study called ‘Effect of musical style on spontaneous exercise performance‘, subjects were asked to cycle while researchers varied the tempo and genre of the music played in the background. The faster the tempo, the higher the output—the musical genre did not matter. They found that the test subjects were responsive to the musical tempo, even if it was in a genre of music that they were unlikely to have listened to or did not like! This practically means that you can use any kind of music, as long as the tempo of the songs is fast enough – which takes me to my next point.
In another experiment in 2010, called ‘Effects of music tempo upon submaximal cycling performance‘, volunteers were given music to listen to whilst riding a stationary bike. For the first ride, the music was played as is. In subsequent rides, some volunteers received music slowed down by 10% and others received music sped up by 10%. The riders were not informed of the change, yet their performance changed nonetheless – when the tempo slowed, so did their pedaling, their heart rates fell and their mileage dropped. On the other hand, when the tempo of the songs was upped by 10%, the cyclists covered more miles in the same period of time. The up-tempo music seemed to motivate them to push themselves harder! When you are looking for songs, pick those that have a strong, and energizing rhythm.
There are many different theories about the right tempo for running songs. Some experts swear by matching the tempo with your working heart rate, whilst others promote matching the tempo with your steps. Confusing, huh?
I would like to make things very simple here. Look for songs whose tempo will help you hit at least 180 steps per minute. (A minimum of 180 steps per minute is achievable at any running speed). ‘Why 180?’ you may roll your eyes. Running experts universally agree that this is the ideal minimum number of times your foot strikes the ground in a minute (called ‘cadence’). The logic behind this is that increasing stride frequency (by shortening your strides) could potentially help you reduce injuries and improve your energy management on the run. This is because lower forces are produced this way with each footfall, which often contribute to injuries in the lower extremities.
You will be surprised to find that even slower BPM songs can help you hit that cadence. Under the paragraph about ‘tools’ I will show you how you can test whether the tempo of particular songs will be helpful for you, or not.
Components of an Effective Running Playlist
We have established that music can be a powerful tool to boost your workouts. An effective running playlist can help you to:-
- Tune into your running session;
- Pace yourself right;
- Improve your running technique and lower your risk of injury;
- Enjoy your run more;
- Get over the physical discomfort easier than without music.
When selecting the order of the tracks, I would firstly look at how a typical running session is structured. I have created a pinnable infographic to illustrate this:-
Best Tools for Making a Running Playlist
Now that you have the success formula for creating your ultimate running playlist, here are some tools you may find useful to get started:-
I can personally recommend Spotify. Even if you only use the free service, it is a perfect tool to explore new music, compile playlists for different purposes, flexibly organise your songs, and last but not least, share these on your social media platforms and/or blog. You can also import your other playlists/individual songs from iTunes or from your computer, so that you have everything in one place. The other reason I love Spotify is the fact that you can listen to the full tracks, not just for 30 seconds (unlike in iTunes), before committing to purchase.
The Echo Nest
Once you have a sizeable digital music collection, you will need an analyser tool to optimise the order of the songs on your playlists. I had some really good results with The Echo Nest which is a Spotify owned website. It is super easy to use and it enables you to sort your songs on your playlist in any way you like – based on BPM, energy, length, valence (emotiveness), dance-iness (whoa!) etc., whilst following the principles on my infographic. Unleash your creativity and get your DJ hat on!
Metronome App (for perfectionists only)
Once your running playlist is sorted, you might want to test that it is ‘fit for purpose’ first, before putting it on a mp3 playing device. You can do this by downloading any metronome app on your smart phone, and setting it to a cadence rate of 180 taps for minute. (I actually used to run with a metronome app when I was working on perfecting my technique, to get a good feel for what a 180 steps per minute cadence rate was like.) Once the metronome is on, start playing the songs on your playlist and see if the tempo of the songs work well with the gentle tapping sound of the metronome in the background. You will be surprised to see that even slower songs can work really well.
A Word of Caution About Using Running Playlists
There are instances when it is best to leave your running playlist at home. For example, some race organisers may advise against music – this is usually for safety reasons to avoid any accidental collisions with other runners and to ensure you hear the important instructions the marshals are giving out. Not respecting the rules could even result in disqualification. Secondly, when you are plotting out a new route for the first time, or find yourself alone in dodgy areas such as dark streets, it is best to unplug and be fully aware of what is happening around you. Last, but not least, I find that on the trails, soaking in the natural noises is the best way to tune into my run.
If you would like some inspiration, check out my latest running playlist on Spotify, by clicking into the green Spotify icon on the right hand column of this blog page!
Have you got a running playlist or a favourite running song? Let’s hear it in the comments!