Don’t Forget Your iPod: Music Enhances a Run

Music you love or songs of a certain tempo actually make you run faster, research says.


Is her iPod helping? Photo via Shutterstock

During a winter running season in which stubbornly cold weather leaves us probing the depths of our souls for any last glimmer of motivation, new training advice of any kind is welcome. Even if it sheds light on something that seems obvious, like new research that says music is to running what heavy drinking was to last year’s Red Sox season: sometimes the only thing that keeps you hanging on.

A new study from the University of British Columbia found that there are real, scientific reasons why listening to music while running can be one of the best ways to enhance performance. As the New York Times reported, our bodies naturally want to move in the most efficient way possible, which doesn’t always correspond with reaching our training goals. The scientists found that perhaps the only way to fool oneself into moving in a non-efficient way—faster, for example—is to listen to up-tempo beats.

Dr. Marie Pasinski, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, says one reason for music’s impact is that multiple areas of the brain are involved in listening to music. In addition to the auditory cortex, the part of the brain involved in hearing, the motor cortex (involved in movement) and the cerebellum (involved in coordination) also light up when you hear music. That’s why you can’t help moving your body when you hear your favorite song—your brain uses movement to help you understand what you’re hearing.

Pasinski says tunes of about 130 beats per minute are typically considered ideal exercise accompaniment. Not sure what that means? Not to worry. In light of their study, the scientists from British Columbia created an iPhone app, called Cruise Control, that selects the music that will best help you hit your target pace from your phone’s playlist based on each song’s tempo.

And the emotions and memories music conjures up are just as important as the beat, says Dr. Jeffrey Brown, psychologist for the Boston Marathon medical team. Brown says music can help elicit self-confidence and positive beliefs, which in turn improve performance. “When you’re listening to something inspiring it’s pulling on ways we talk to ourselves, affirming to ourselves that we have the capacity to run, that today’s a beautiful day, etc.,” Brown says. Our favorite songs, he says, are the most helpful for enhancing performance.

They also help achieve the elusive “runner’s high.”  Pasinski cites a study in which people listened to music inside an MRI machine. When subjects heard music they really loved, it triggered the release of dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter, but when they heard generic music selected by the researchers, no dopamine was released. “It’s a very personal thing, what you want to groove to,” said Pasinski.

So are there any reasons runners shouldn’t listen to music when hitting the pavement?

“I would encourage runners who are running with an injury to look for alternative ways of being motivated,” Brown cautions. Listening to music can encourage disassociation from the task at hand, he says, which can cause runners to push through pain they should be paying close attention to.

For safety reasons, runners are usually discouraged from using headphones during races, including the upcoming Boston Marathon. Elite athletes and those eligible for prize money are barred from listening to music during the race, since music is a performance enhancer and prohibiting it keeps everyone on the same playing field. Even if you’re not an elite athlete, the Boston Athletic Association encourages runners to forgo headphones in order to hear the crowds cheering them toward Boylston Street. And while there many not be any studies or apps for that, we’re pretty sure thousands of cheering fans also have the power to inspire, encourage, and motivate.