Can running with music really improve your times?

The pros and cons of running with music

It’s so often a topic of robust debate and something that is ultimately an issue of personal choice, but does music really help your running?

Some runners would rather stick pins in their knees than entertain the prospect of a 10-mile run (16km) with music blaring in their ears. But for others, the thought of running for an hour and a half without any background noise is unthinkable. If however you fall into the undecided category, there are some technical and scientific factors you might want to consider before you pop on your iPod and head out the door. So we’ve done our best to round up all the factors here to help you make an informed choice.

Stay safe

It almost goes without saying, so let’s get this bit out of the way fairly rapidly, that you do need to be safety conscious when you have headphones on. Running with music late at night probably isn’t the best idea for fairly obvious reasons and even in broad daylight, you do need to be safe and be aware of what’s going on around you. The same applies in a race environment. It is easy to get lost in your own little world and then make a sudden move that takes out a fellow runner who you simply didn’t hear coming up behind you. And playing it too loud for a sustained period just won’t be good for your ears. Right, so that’s the common sense bit done. Now it’s time to throw ourselves head first into the debate.

Music and emotion

Music definitely evokes an emotional reaction. How many times do you find yourself saying ‘I love this song’ and smiling when a track you like is played on the radio? Our ability to compile our own playlists these days means we can choreograph a run to the sound of our favourite, most uplifting music. If you constantly play music that puts you in a good mood, that positivity can have a hugely beneficial impact on your performance/training and your mental attitude to it. This is especially true when we don’t ‘feel’ like running. A few good tracks at the start of a session might be all you need to help get you through it.

Uplifting music that has successful connotations or songs that are relentlessly positive with inspirational lyrics will also have the same effect. A song that talks about fighting back and making it against the odds will make you want to do the same. Your pace is likely to quicken and you’ll want to keep going when it really hurts. The same is true of podcasts, which are increasingly popular. Listening to the most famous sports stars in the world talking about how they reached the top of their sport can do wonders for club runners on their regular training runs.

And crucially if you are focusing on music or a song and the lyrics, you are much less likely to be thinking about how much your legs hurt. The music will block out the negative signals your brain is trying to send you and in that way it’s a terrific distraction tool.

Jump to the beat

Research has shown that music can definitely help you run faster if you choose a collection of songs with a quick tempo. It is a natural and almost unconscious response to try to match your stride pattern to the beat of the music and if you do that song after song, you will run faster.

Indeed, according to one researcher at the Brunel University, music and its pace and mood enhancing qualities, can boost performance by as much as 15%. Indeed running with music has become so popular it has inspired the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon series, where runners can tackle races accompanied by a love music soundtrack all around the course. Some runners love it. Others are less keen and point out that musically inspired surges in pace might not be best for your overall race or training strategy. Hurtling off at the start of a race on a massive high inspired by the best of Eminem is all well and good, but it might leave you out of gas later in the race.

Silence is golden

Although a lot of elite athletes listen to music in training, they’re not allowed to run in races with headphones and still seem perfectly able to pace themselves without a disco beat ringing in their ears. Experts put this down to the fact that top runners are so in tune with their bodies that they can successfully shut out what’s going on around them and focus on every step of their run and how their body is coping with it. They want to listen to their footfall and breathing patterns to detect the slightest change in performance.

And remember for some the joy of running is getting away from it all and wanting to switch off and be alone in their thoughts. A constant noise in your head doesn’t necessarily allow you to lose yourself in quite that way, although some might argue that the ability to listen to music and run is in itself a way of switching off from their regular lives.

Ultimately the choice is yours. If you have never tried running to music or podcasts, then at least give it go. It might transform your training. If you have tried it and hate it, then you never have to do it again. It is totally up to you.

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