How to choose the right music for running

Countless studies and scientific research dating back as far as 1911 confirm the use of audio, particularly music, increases stamina and endurance levels. Simply put, music enhances sports performance.

Like most other regular runners, I start off with a goal in mind. Whether this is to improve on distance, speed or time, I am determined to beat or at least maintain my best performance level. I am my own competition.

But how can you ensure you get off on the right foot?

It starts with the motivation to get out the door 

You may think that music is mostly required mid-run to give you that sudden and explosive burst of energy to push through, but it is in fact pre-run, that music plays its most crucial part. Many Olympic athletes listen to music to increase motivation ahead of competing, US swimmer Michael Phelps being one of them. Listening to music with the right tempo, before you hit the gym or start running can have a lasting positive impact on your training. Just having the right track to energise you to get out the door is just the first step.

But then how do you know which music and tempo will keep your motivation levels up and enhance your performance?

Don't sweat it 

Music genre comes down to personal choice but it’s no surprise that up-tempo tracks with a fast beat, strong bass and motivational lyrics are key. You can spend hours curating a perfect playlist but it’s only when you’re out there going the distance that you know which tracks work for you and match the pace at which you run. There is no universal fit.

Taking the time to consider a song’s beats per minute (BPM) is valuable however when planning how to order tracks in your workout or running playlist.

What is beats per minute? 

All music has BPM. Generally, the faster the track, the higher the BPM. This can be calculated by the number of rhythmic beats you can tap in 15 seconds of a song and then multiply by 4 to get the BPM.

Tracks for pre-run and warm-up exercises should ideally range between 90-110 BPM. Mid-run tracks should be higher at around 140-175 BPM depending on your speed level. With cool-down and stretching coming back down to 90-110BPM.

Run to the beat

So why does BPM matter for running? Because in order to gain the most out of your run, the tempo of your music should be in line with the intensity of your exercise. When compiling a running playlist, the positioning of your tracks should depend on their BPM, the different stages of your training and your change of heart rate.

Starting off with music that is fast may push you to run faster but can also lead you to ‘hit the wall’ and burn out far sooner than expected. Similarly, playing your music on shuffle could mean a range of random speeds that may be too slow or too challenging for your body.

Your ‘start off’ music should be carefully selected and must match the pace you want to begin your run. 

Steady, easy and comfortable.

As each step is attuned to the beat in your ears, your pace will start to become more rhythmic and breathing becomes easier. Your legs will be able to maintain speed and your motion starts to seem almost fluid or robotic as you subconsciously adjust your pace to the tempo.

'Matching beats per minute (BPM) to our heart rate when running, or doing any type of strenuous exercise, helps us to stay on beat.' Melinda Nicci, Sports Psychologist.

Get lost in music 

Accelerating your pace to more intense tracks is now no major alarm to the body. Focusing on the beat and motivational lyrics allows you to forget the physical pressures, miles covered and distance ahead. Instead, music takes you to a place that enables you to raise your cadence or increase your stride and power through for longer.

For this reason, it’s important to choose the right tracks and consider positioning them in your running playlist when you plan to go harder and increase the intensity of your training.

How can I use music to help me go faster? 

Quite simply, you train like a pro.

For years athletes have integrated interval training into their fitness routines. It’s an effective concept of alternating between short and high-intensity speeds with slower recovery periods to ultimately increase speed and enhance athletic performance.

Accompanying this with music which builds up and drops tempo repeatedly within a track can help motivate, improve speed and achieve results much faster. Julio Bashmore’s ‘Holding on’ is a great example of a song, where the beat routinely switches between fast bursts and a gradual rhythm, helping intensify your training for short periods of time and then dropping to a gentle pace in between.

Another example, Florence and the Machine’s ‘Dog days are over’ is an excellent track for interval running, slowly building up to a high tempo while delivering positive and empowering lyrics:

‘So you better run, run fast for your mother, run fast for your father, run for your children, for your sisters and brothers. Leave all your love and your longing behind. You can’t carry it with you if you want to survive...’

Cool down, stretch, recovery 

While a lot of emphasis can be placed on selecting the right tracks to propel your training, it’s equally important to choose the right tracks to bring the body back down to full recovery. A BPM of 90-110 is recommended for cool down and the transition to stretching, reducing cortisol levels and returning to a calmer and more relaxed pre-run physiological state.

While music can provide much distraction and motivation to push on and improve your fitness levels, it’s important to remember to listen to music at a moderate volume to avoid damage to hearing. Always be aware of your surroundings and exercise safely in an environment away from busy roads.

Written by Rajinder Rai