Music Makes You Run Faster: Myth Or Scientific Fact?


Ever feel like when your favorite song starts streaming through your ears mid-run that your pace picks up a bit? Is that burst of energy just in your head, or are you actually running faster because of your music? Could you improve your running performance just by changing your playlist?

Music can increase speed and motivation temporarily for runners who are not running at their peak performance. Both volume and tempo can have an effect on the speed of running.

So it’s not all in your imagination, but how and when and what type of music should you listen to in order to optimize your running, and can there be any detrimental effects to listening to music while you run? We’ll cover everything you need to know about running to a beat.

me-in-wilderness-in-cold-weather-running-gear-with-earbuds
Me running with earbuds… like… every time I run pretty much

Does Listening To Music Make You Run Faster?

Listening to music while running improves running performance and endurance, but there are a lot of factors including but not limited to music tempo, loudness, motivational effect, as well as the type of running.

As humans, it’s built into us to have a sense of rhythm. Many of us have been in the position where we find ourselves involuntarily tapping our feet or bobbing our heads to a beat or a tune we can hear. We’re hardwired to respond to music! This basic human trait doesn’t escape us while we’re running, although some people are affected more than others.

Studies agree that running with music doesn’t impact your performance as much if you are training at max effort (sprinting). However, if you are running at low to moderate intensity music can definitely help your performance.

This study showed, in particular, that music helped those who were “self-paced”, meaning for people who aren’t running for a specific time.

Additionally, this study showed higher running performance during the first part of a 5k. This and the other studies are just more examples of how there are a lot of different things that change how music can affect your run.

I know for myself, personally, that high tempo or high energy songs boost my tempo and motivation for a limited amount of time.

However, I personally can’t maintain my boosted speeds for constant high energy or constantly high tempo songs–the effect is only temporary. However, if you plan your playlist carefully, you can allow the music to push you further than you would have gone, before.

Does Music Help Everyone In Their Running?

No two people are the same, and what’s motivating for one may not be motivating for the other.

If you tend to be more inward-motivated. That is to say, you are likely to be internally motivated to run, focus on your stride, pace, breathing, and other metrics, then music can act as a distraction. Finding music that fits your pace, perfectly, is more work than it might be worth for you.

On the other hand, if you run for exercise or for mental health, you are not as concerned about the motions and metrics of running in the same way. In fact, many runners get bored while running and want to have some sort of mental distraction like chatting with a friend, a good podcast, or music.

In this case, music can provide a beat that helps runners to set a strong pace. The music helps the body to go into autopilot and move to the beat. If the beat is fast (or just energetic), you’ll feel that extra mental motivation to increase your speed. I personally have experienced this phenomenon.

Studies have shown that listening to music on shorter runs can put your mind into a feel-good state, whether it’s the lyrics or the bassline that keeps you going. Either way, your brain is tricked into focusing on moving rather than how tired you are, which allows you to push yourself to run faster, particularly if you decide to listen to music one or two beats faster than you would naturally run; your pace can quicken subconsciously.

In fact, in this unusual study, they measured the brain waves of participants while running and found that runners had the same brain wave activity from running as they did from listening to their favorite pieces!

Does Music Make You Run Longer?

Besides running speed, music can even make you run farther! Listening to music helps to block negative thoughts associated it’s running and can limit the psychological perceptions that you have of mental and physical fatigue. Your mind and movements can become stimulated by the beat of the music, and this helps your body to push itself to run for longer.

In fact, this study showed that runners lasted up to 19% longer with music that was beat-synchronized to the runner.

That’s incredible! Just adding music can give you extra mental endurance. The key from this particular study was finding music that matched the same tempo as your running. Although, songs that you really like that don’t necessarily match the tempo can still give you a lot of mental benefits.

This is not the case for everyone, though, and while music can motivate some people to run for longer, it can also push others to overexert themselves and to become tired quicker.

By running to a tempo faster than what is natural for you, it is possible to push yourself to run both faster and longer. However, if you run with the fastest tempo songs you have, you will run faster for a shorter time, and you’ll get tired more quickly and slow down sooner than you would have you paced yourself.

Music can be a double-edged sword. You’ll have to plan your playlist carefully to help, not hurt, your run. You’ll have to listen to your body and tune into your goals to find out how you want to use this tool.

This study is an example of how playlist selection can impact different people while running.

Can It Be Bad To Run With Music?

There are a few reasons where running with music can actually be a bad thing:

Loud Music Hurts Your Hearing

One of the strongest factors in whether music helps your running is music loudness. We like to turn up the volume! Higher volume feels more energetic and more motivating.

However, running on a street with the noise of traffic with music blasting in our ears can have a terrible effect on our hearing. (source).

The key to running safely with music is to find the minimum volume where you still feel like you’re getting the benefit from the music.

Always start quiet and go louder than the other way around. If you start loud, your brain and ears get used to it and so going quieter doesn’t feel like an option.

If you use noise-isolating or noise-canceling headphones, you don’t have to crank up the volume as much, but that plays into the next problem:

Distracted Running

Part of the reason why people run in the first place is to not think about running. It can be very difficult to wake up extra early, or go running after work (wondered about when the best time to run is? Check out our article on the subject)–people often look for any way they can to distract themselves during their run.

The problem is that when you put on headphones, you instantly lose awareness of your surroundings. Especially if you use headphones that have the rubber tips that make a seal–these headphones isolate you from noise (so you don’t have to turn up the volume as high), but they also isolate you from awareness of potential dangers;

  • Other People: Like it or not, it’s good to trust others, but it’s also good to be cautious. If we can’t hear we are somewhat more vulnerable to those who might hurt us, running or riding up beside us.
  • Vehicles: If you have your music loud and you have noise-isolating headphones, you definitely run the risk of not being able to hear approaching vehicles. If those drivers are distracted or if you are not easy to see, this could be deadly. This is perhaps the most dangerous consequence of wearing noise-isolating headphones or listening to loud music.

Even if you’re running alone in the wilderness, there are definitely risks of tuning out the world. It’s a risk many of us take (including myself), but it’s good to be aware.

Some noise-isolating headphones actually can pass outside noise into your ear so that you can still hear what’s going on around you. Apple does this with their Pro Air Pods (see here on Amazon) with their “transparency mode”.

Other new styles of headphones are getting around this problem with bone-conduction headphones (here for examples on Amazon) that use vibrations directly on your skull so you can hear outside noise and still hear your music.

Gear Problems

Another downside to running with music is that now you have to manage more gear. Here are a few considerations that you may not have thought about :

  • Finding headphones that don’t fall out of your ear while you run is a lifelong search for many: Not everyone’s ear canals are made the same, and so it can be challenging to get the perfect fit. Not only that, many headphones might work great at a jog, but fall out when you sprint, which can limit how your workout goes.
  • Shorts in the cable: If you’re using corded headphones, you will lose all the benefits of music if your headphones malfunction. Nothing is more distracting during the horrendously difficult part of your run than one of your headphone speakers failing. Nightmare!
  • Batteries die: It can also be extremely jarring to be at the hardest part of your run and your music stopping because your phone died or your headphones if they are wireless. It’s probably better to not run with music at all than to experience that.
  • Now you have to hold the thing: Runnerswear isn’t always conducive to holding stuff. If you’re lucky, you’ll have pockets that you can stow your phone, but particularly runnerswear for females you may find that you don’t have a good place to stow your phone during your run. This means that you might have to get an MP3 player that you can clip on, or an arm band that you can secure your phone to, or one of those runner fanny packs that you used to make fun of.

In any case, running with music presents additional gear you have to think about.

broken-phone-on-asphalt
Well, there goes your music…

Dependency on Music

If you think about Spiderman for a second–what if he couldn’t spin his webs? Sure, he can still do a lot of awesome stuff, but he definitely would not feel as confident in a dangerous situation as he would with his webs.

Running with music can be instantly invigorating–if you are used to running with music and for some reason you can’t, or decide not to (such as if your battery is dead unexpectedly), then running can actually be pretty hard.

I personally love listening to podcasts and audiobooks (I’m not usually running to a specific pace), and when I can’t listen to them, I’m less motivated.

Getting too dependent on music can actually impact your future runs where you don’t choose or otherwise don’t get to have your music with you.

Is It Better To Listen To Music Or Podcasts When You Run?

Like music, podcasts or audiobooks also offer a mental distraction while running, but of a very different nature.

Running With Podcasts Or Audiobooks

Running with podcasts or audiobooks gives you the opportunity to actually learn something while you run. This allows you to gain some life efficiency, maximizing your running time. They are more engaging than music, so they will require more concentration and will also activate your brain more. There is constantly new content, daily or weekly, so you don’t end up getting stuck listening to the same playlist or content on a regular basis.

Because you’re focusing on the words, you won’t be as focused on your running and your running technique. In fact, you might even run slower with a podcast than if you run with music. I don’t know about anybody else, but even the exciting parts of an audiobook don’t really make me want to run faster. At least not usually.

If your goal with running is for exercise and to get some cardio in, podcasts or audiobooks are a phenomenal way to learn and burn at the same time.

If you’re wondering whether podcasts or audiobooks affect your emotions or mood while running, this study actually tried to determine if there was an emotional difference between running with podcasts or audiobooks vs. running with no audio. They found little to no difference. So, running with audiobooks or podcasts won’t change the outcome of your run, but will definitely help the time pass.

Running With Music

Running with music requires a careful selection of the best songs that will work for your run. Not every song works well. If you choose the right songs you can get a powerful motivation boost and even increase your running speed more than you would with no music at all. (This is true for me, and many others, but it really depends on the person)

You can easily passively listen to music, which means that you aren’t dedicating your entire brain’s attention to listening, but rather you can focus on your running form, technique, and on the scenery as well as any hazards.

If you are more interested in performance, choose music over podcasts or audiobooks.

How Do You Run Without Music?

Turning off music can be challenging for some people, as running with noise provides a distraction that helps the miles to tick by faster. When you run in silence, though, you become more aware of metrics that matter – whether it is breathing, social engagement, or even mindfulness. These can be beneficial for you and your running; let’s see what some of the benefits of running without music are that can motivate you to give it a try.

  • Elevated social engagement – running with people can help you to bust the boredom of running alone and make the time go faster, as well as challenging your pace by running with a partner or in a group that can push you. As a note, I’ve never enjoyed running with others. So, it really depends on the person and your partner.
  • Improve your wellness by appreciating nature, improving the sensory experience, and exposing yourself to green space, which has a number of other health benefits. There is actually a significant mental health benefit from being exposed to green spaces–you can learn more about that in my post about hiking mental health benefits here (many of these same principles cross over)
  • Better focus– can help you to clear your mind, think through problems, situations, ideas, changes you want to make in your life, what to make for dinner, relationship issues, etc. It’s difficult to unplug from entertainment, learning, or music--but some of the best time for self-reflection is when you have nothing else to think about.
  • Enhanced performance–you don’t need music to set the pace so you can be more adaptable on hills and intervals to set your own pace. Music doesn’t boss you around, but it can impact your pace. If you are training at maximum performance, studies show that music doesn’t make that much of a difference anyway.
  • Safety improves without the noise distractions that music can provide you with, whether you are running on the road and can hear traffic sounds or off-road and have a heightened sense of awareness of people and animals around you.
  • Enjoyment could go up! Letting your body guide your pace instead of measuring metrics like pace and distance. You’ll be more in touch with your natural rhythm.

Trying to focus on the benefits of running in silence or just with the sounds of your immediate environment can be helpful if this is something you want to do. Everyone has their own preferences, though, and for many, running with music provides a dependable escape from their thoughts and realities on a regular basis – for which there is no good reason not to run with music. Choosing to run without music is totally dependent on the individual.

What Is the Best Music To Listen To While Running?

Whatever works for you is the short answer! The music should motivate you to run at a pace at which you are comfortable. Whichever genre that may be go with what you like and will give you a positive attitude. In terms of speed, there are some general guidelines to follow, no matter what type of music you’re listening to. For a slow jog, 120-125 BPM (which is about 2 beats per second); for an all-star effort, try 140-145 BPM.

If you’re trying to pick up the pace and push yourself, anything from 150-180 BPM is a good tempo.

Since popular songs rarely change tempo mid-song, one easy trick you can do is to find a song where you can run double time. If the song has a heavy downbeat once per second (around 60 BPM), then you can walk two steps per beat, easily. Then, when you want to jog, you can run 4 steps per beat.

If you are doing interval training, you can pick a song in the 80 BPM range (as long as it has the right energy), and be okay with a slow jog that doesn’t meet the beat exactly, but when it’s time to pick up the pace you can do two steps per beat and run really fast at 160BPM.

If you’re into dancing, you can even run in syncopated rhythms to the music. What I’m saying is that don’t be immediately put off if the BPM doesn’t match your running pace exactly, there is some musical wiggle room and you can make a song you like work.

Now, while everyone has their own taste in music, here are some suggested songs that should go on your playlist to really get you going.

  1. We Will Rock You By Queen (run double time)
  2. Happy by Pharrell Williams
  3. Roundabout by Yes
  4. Vagabond by Beirut (run double time)
  5. Paradise by Coldplay
  6. Bohemian Like You by the Dandy Warhols
  7. Tightrope by Walk The Moon
  8. Hey Ho by the Lumineers (run double time)
  9. Dog days are Over by Florence and the Machine
  10. Eye of the Tiger by Survivor (run double time… a bit fast!)
  11. In the Garage by Weezer (run double time)
  12. Popcorn by Hot Butter

I tried to find songs from my library that were diverse enough to give you a taste of different styles. Music is so personal! So you have to do the work of finding your favorites.

If you don’t want to do too much music work and are flexible of what you listen to, there are some options:

Many music streaming apps have pre-made playlists for running, some of which even have the BPM specified so you can set your pace easily by simply running to the beat you’ve chosen. Pick one that appeals to you, and play around with adding your own favorites to them until you’ve found your running groove.

For example, Spotify has this playlist which has a variety of songs of different genres at beats that will suit a workout.

This other Spotify playlist is specifically songs at 150-180 BPM (great for the fast parts of your run).

What Is BPM?

I was a bit unfair and didn’t explain in detail what BPM is.

BPM is a musical term meaning beats per minute. Many songs have what’s called a downbeat. If you can tap your foot to the rhythm of a song, chances are you are tapping to a downbeat. It’s very easy to do this with popular dance music since they heavily emphasize the downbeats. How many “downbeats” there are in a minute is called beats per minute.

Most songs hang around the 110-140 BPM range, which conveniently fits into easily runnable paces.

How Can I Listen To Music Offline?

For some people, listening to music while they run may not be an option. Data could be costly, so their standard streaming service may not be an option, especially when traveling or in another country.

Maybe you don’t have space on your phone or are running outside of a city where there may not be good service. It is handy to have some downloaded playlists on your phone so that even if something happens to disrupt the signal, you’ll still have a dependable source of music.

These apps will help you to listen to your music without an internet connection and are some of the best out there, available in the Apple and Play stores.

  • Spotify (what I use and my personal favorite)
  • Musify
  • AIMP
  • Shazam
  • Music Player
  • Jet Audio
  • Pulsar
  • YouTube Go
  • Power amp
  • Rocket Player
  • ITunes

What Is the Best Way To Listen To Music While You Run?

Is your phone the best way to listen to music while you run, or do you have any alternatives? And how should you carry your device so as not to impact your running style and technique long-term?

Running with your phone in your hand does impact your stride if you’re running distance, and your form can be off-balance as a result. (source) If you trip, you also have one less hand to help you break your fall.

Furthermore, running with a phone in hand can take more energy and slow you down over time (for me perhaps this is just mental… I really dislike carrying things on a hard run), so while doing it for shorter runs or infrequently is not a problem; if you’re trying to maximize your running ability and improve your technique, then there are better alternatives to consider.

An armband can be a good option if you still want to keep your music accessible for changing the track and being able to see messages and other notifications. While this is convenient, it does still leave you slightly imbalanced, so wearing your phone in a belt carrier or pouch (one of those running fanny packs) is a more ‘balanced’ option. This is also good if you want your phone out of the way and don’t want to be distracted by it.

woman-recovering-with-phone-armband

The Apple Watch (Amazon) is getting closer and closer to becoming its own full-fledged computer. You now can use it to run and listen to music without bringing your phone.

You can definitely carry your phone in your pocket while you run, although it’s not super ideal (it’s what I do, honestly). I often will snake the headphone cords underneath my shirt and into my ears, this prevents the cords from bouncing all over the place, and will help keep the headphones in your ears. That is, if you are lucky to have access to pants or shorts that have big enough pockets for the smartphones of today.

Is your phone the only way to carry music, though? iPods or other smaller digital music players such as the SanDisk Clip Jam, Mighty Vibe, and other MP3 players are available for a smaller and lighter weighing option than your phone. These are great if you want to disconnect while running and not be available or connected for a short time. For those wanting sound to be the only distraction they have while running, leaving your phone at home is the best way to do this.

The big disadvantage of MP3 players is that you have to download the music tracks individually and put them on an MP3 player, and not all streaming services support this. When you buy a song through ITunes you are actually buying a license to download the song and do with it as you please (except sharing it with others), so that’s an option if you want to put songs on your MP3 player.

Are There Any Alternatives To Running With Music?

Now, if you haven’t tried audiobooks or podcasts, I highly recommend giving these a shot. Running becomes a treat when you get to listen to your favorite books.

Otherwise, if you’re looking for a distraction, for a way for your mind to wander and relax, without having to plug in and have planned stimulation for your brain, or you don’t want to be connected to a device but need something to distract you mentally, there are other options, particularly during races. Focusing on the crowds, or following other runners, are great ways to distract yourself from the repetitiveness of running.Games

Games

Playing games with yourself is something you can do on your own or in a group.  Whether it’s finding specific things to spot along the way, or counting the number of cars you see in a particular color, or if you’re running a race, finding a runner in front of you to follow (from a distance, in a non-creepy way), there are some great ways to keep yourself entertained while you run that don’t involve music.

Guess people’s names that you run past. Some people seem to fit their names so well (probably all in my head), and it’s a fun challenge to try and figure out what it might be. You can even take this a step further and make make up some backstory about their lives, who they might be, and where they might be going to or coming from. This is a great way to keep your imagination active too!

One easy mentally distracting game is to find each letter of the alphabet from the various signs and license plates (or no license plates if you want a challenge) you might see. X’s, Q’s, Z’s, the high scoring Scrabble letters, are a bit trickier to find.

Mixing Up Your Regular Routine

Running with a partner or in a group can help you to beat the boredom, provided those around you like to talk, which not everyone does. If you find people who do want to do that, though, you can have interesting conversations while you run, which will help the time feel as if it is going faster. Furthermore this only works for the type of run where you have enough breath to talk.

An alternative is finding different points of interest to run to along the way. This essentially means setting yourself mini goals, and whether you take a selfie at each spot and log it on an app or on social media or not, it helps you to break down the run mentally and focus on achievable targets.

You can also mix this up by running to more minor landmarks, such as between mailboxes or streetlamps, and mixing up the speed at which you run, alternating between resting and speed challenges. Our minds are powerfully goal-oriented. When you think you can’t make it, if you say to yourself: “I’ll just make it up to that big Oak tree”, by which time you make a new goal, you may find yourself running farther than you thought possible.

Explore a new running area so that you are distracted by your surroundings and don’t just fall into the habit of going on your regular route on autopilot. This breaks the monotony of habit and gives you new sights to see and people to watch along the way.

This could also include going for a trail run and getting out into nature. Trail running requires more concentration and engages your brain more.  (check out our article on the advantages of trail running for more details)

Running around a track is another excellent way of adding some variety to your routine. Doing time trials with yourself per lap can leave you so focused on beating yourself that time will fly by. This is a great option for those runners who have a competitive streak and also comes with all the advantages of interval training.

Registering for a race to give yourself something to work towards and for a change of pace and scenery is another idea for those who want to mix things up a bit. In many cities, there are smaller, more informal races happening very regularly – it’s simply a matter of seeking them out. This is great to meet new people in your area as well!

MeetUp is a popular app for people of like interests to find each other and do things. There are running groups for several areas–if you want some running buddies, this is a fantastic option if you have the courage to meet some strangers.

(some inspiration from Runnersworld)

Running Motivation

Sometimes music acts as a motivation for running – you know you’ll get some time just to chill out and listen to your favorite tunes or podcasts, or learn the words to songs off by heart so that you look like a music buff in front of friends or colleagues. But if you don’t have access to music and still need to find the motivation to run, what do you do?

Believe it or not, running at certain times of the day is easier than other times. Your body has naturally evolved to run best in the late afternoon or evening. Running feels easier because our circadian rhythms are geared towards many systems functioning fully at this time. This makes running feel more effortless and could mean that the need for music at this time of day is minimized.

We have an in-depth article on which times of the day are optimal to run, make sure to check it out.

Getting competitive, rewarding yourself, and setting goals along the way are some ways to motivate yourself.

Getting dressed for doing exercise is a great way not to make excuses when the time comes, particularly if you’re working from home: if you put running shoes and pants on, and a running shirt on if you don’t have video calls, then it becomes one less barrier to actually stepping out the door when the time comes. Dressing for the occasion definitely helps to get you into the right mindset.

Conclusion

Depending on your level of running and the individual goals that you set for yourself in running, music can help you to achieve those goals to differing extents. Running with music is so popular that whole marathons and other races have been organized with DJs with live or recorded music along the way to help motivate runners who prefer to have audio stimulation.

Whether this works for you as an individual or not, it is no doubt a fun way to boost morale and can improve performance for many people too.

Additional Reading

The studies out there on music and exercise are imperfect for dozens of reasons, but if you want to see a meta-study about all the data (and weaknesses), this is a fantastic study to read.

Peter

Peter is a software developer who loves to take every opportunity to go outside that he can get. Peter grew up going on long backpacking excursions with his family every Summer and now enjoys staying at the beautiful Texas State Parks and swimming in the amazing Texas Rivers.

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