Music: A Legal and Healthy Performance Enhancer

Music: A Legal and Healthy Performance Enhancer
Do you run with or without tunes?

I spun the click wheel of my old iPod until I found the song I wanted: “Farewell” by Kamelot, a power metal assault on the senses, fueled by multi-layered guitars, furious keyboards and a galloping double-kick bass beat.  By all accounts, it would be the perfect song to fuel several laps around the track.  I hit “Play” and took off, each step hitting the track as if it were a giant snare drum.  However, this was 2004 and I still had a second-generation iPod that would look like a shiny microwave by today’s standards.  So two laps into the run, the constant shaking had caused the tin can to panic and shut itself down.

It wouldn’t be until eight years later that I would go out on another run while listening to music.  My reasons for eschewing an mp3 player in those early days as a nascent distance runner were twofold.  Normal headphones fall out of my ears with just a gentle nudge and I was too lazy to buy specialty sports earbuds.  Secondly, there might be a scientific explanation for this, but covering my ears with anything warms me up considerably.  As someone who sweats just thinking about the sun, I opted to keep my ears well ventilated.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that my head is a quiet echo chamber when I lace up.  I always manage to find the right song from the mental jukebox, but it can’t just be any enjoyable tune.  There are two characteristics it must have.  It has to be good enough that I can listen to it on repeat for an hour and its tempo has to line up with my gait so that each footstrike is a (half/quarter or full) beat.  For example, “The Takedown” by Yellowcard could get me to conquer a small country but my feet can’t sync with its beat.  Similarly, “Tucked Away” by the Goo Goo Dolls might not rile up a Viking horde into battle, but it matches my cadence perfectly.

(It only sounds OCD when I spell it out because I’m pretty sure this is how most runners behave … right?)

Motorola MOTOACTV Fitness Tracker and Music Player

Motorola MOTOACTV Fitness Tracker and Music Player

Eventually, I started using an mp3 player for the stationary bike at the gym but it got to the point where I would simply not exercise if the device was out of power.  My running buddy at the time would also completely forego runs if his Nano were out of juice, which led me to believe that it was possible to become so attached to running with music that the two could become indivisible.  The idea of being so dependent on a shiny box of circuits, which could literally decide whether or not to run, was so crazy, that I almost felt indignant toward those who behaved in such a way (and we can ignore that this describes exactly how I am about my Garmin).

But my sneer wouldn’t have very much company.  A quick glance at the treadmills of any gym will show that pretty much everyone is listening to something while they run.  Nine out of ten runners that I see on Chicago’s lake front path have a pair of colorful cables wired into their ears, feeding them whatever catalytic melody gets them moving.  On a few occasions last year, I took a shiny new MOTOACTV player to the lake to try it out and write a review.  For those select runs, I was part of the music movement, experiencing firsthand what the vast majority of runners do every time they lace up.  The results were remarkable.

Evidence From People More Reputable Than I

It didn’t surprise me to learn that the scientific studies on the issue almost universally support music’s positive effects on athletic performance.  A simple study out of the University of Texas A&M had students running a maximal 1.5-mile run with and without music.  Not only did they find that they finished the run faster while listening to music, but their level of perceived exertion was kept constant.  In other words, they didn’t notice how much faster they were, most likely because their brains weren’t focusing on the body’s natural feedback.  This latter finding intrigued me because the fact that they were faster shouldn’t surprise anyone.  But in knowing that the students themselves didn’t feel like they were running faster lies the real potential for performance enhancement.

The 2012 Garmin Marathon, the race where I easily carried the most STUFF with me while running, but a portable music player was not one of them

The 2013 Garmin Marathon, the race where I easily carried the most STUFF with me while running, but a portable music player was not one of them

But perceived exertion is so subjective.  Although the students ran the course faster, it’s possible that they had higher heart- and sweat rates while listening to music but simply didn’t know it because they were being distracted by the tunes.  A study by Brian Matesic and Fred Cromartie published in the Sport Journal in 2002 has compelling evidence against this claim.  In their study, they actually measured trained and untrained students’ heart rates as they completed laps around a track both with and without music.  Predictably, lap times were faster while music was playing.  But even more fascinating was the effect it had on their heart rates.  “Among the untrained runners … a significant relationship was found, namely that average heart rate fell by almost six beats per 2.5-min interval when music was played.”  Trained runners also exhibited a drop in heart rate, but only by less than 3 beats per interval.

These findings therefore suggest that music has not only a psychosomatic effect on the subjective experience of running, but can provide an actual physiological advantage that can improve performance.  As I ran on the lake path with my MOTOACTV blaring fast songs into my head, I was experiencing this boost in real time.  I felt like I was out for an easy run, barely breaking a sweat, only to realize I was flirting with the 7-minute pace barrier, which is usually reserved for intense tempo runs.  The chorus to a mosh-worthy song would kick in and I would find myself running 6:40 splits as easily as ordering a milkshake.  Not only was I faster, but I felt like I was barely trying.  Why wasn’t I doing this all the time?

After all, the effects were real and significant.  During the course of my research, I noticed that many authors were citing Brunel University’s Dr. Costas Karageorghis, a leading researcher in sports psychology with a keen interest in the effects of music on performance.  In one of his many studies, he notes that music “promote[s] an ergogenic (work-enhancing) effect.  This occurs when music improves exercise performance by either reducing perceptions of fatigue or increasing work capacity. Typically, this results in higher-than-expected levels of endurance, power, productivity or strength.”  Earlier I noted that I only run to songs that match my gait.  Karageorghis goes on to explain that “[s]ynchronous music use (i.e., when an exerciser consciously moves in time with a musical beat) has been shown to provide ergogenic and psychological benefits in repetitive endurance activities.”  In other words, matching music to your gait can improve your endurance.  In his studies, this can mean a difference of 15%.  It can also make your movements feel more natural, thus increasing your efficiency and delay fatigue.

So music not only has the potential to make you faster and lower your heart rate, but it can control you like a witch doctor and improve your form?  That’s perhaps taking it a bit too far.  But the idea that your body can latch onto a beat, run consistently to it and thereby increase its biomechanical efficiency is fascinating.

Of course, not all studies show the same results.  In a widely cited 2010 study from John Moores University in Liverpool, cyclists exercised while listening to pop songs at varying tempos.  Some listened to the songs in unaltered states, while others listened to the same song but sped up or slowed down by 10%.  Predictably, they found that those who listened to the “fast version” cycled faster and enjoyed the exercise more than those who were subjected to the slower version.  “Paradoxically,” experimenters noted, “[participants] did not find the workout easier … but [the up-tempo music] seemed to motivate them to push themselves.”  This goes a bit against the earlier studies on perceived effort being lowered by music.  In this case, having fast music made the athletes accept an increased level of effort and discomfort in exchange for a more enjoyable exercise session.

But what if we were to knock up the tempo more than just 10%?  Does this boost still apply in the upper echelons of training?

Karageorghis’ studies focused primarily on what he called “exercise participants” rather than elite or professional athletes.  However, the many benefits of music are not strictly reserved for mortals.  Matt Fitzgerald, a prolific runner, correspondent for Active and Competitor, and author of many books on running, met with US 50k record holder Josh Cox and Olympian Kara Goucher to learn that they too need an extra jolt now and then to get through particularly brutal workouts.  In a very revealing moment during a 15-mile tempo run, he witnessed as Cox turned on an mp3 player midway through the run, as if asking for a stamina-boosting fix.  Fitzgerald did the same at his next marathon, where he noted that “[i]t made a difference. The pain I experienced in the last 5 miles was no less severe than in any other marathon I’ve run. But the music made the pain more bearable … I’m convinced I wouldn’t have finished as strongly as I did without the iPod.”

Even the king himself listens to music while he trains.

Even the king himself listens to music while he trains.

Even the great Haile Gebrselassie, the Emperor of Distance Running, the Smiling Assassin, says he listens to the late Scatman John’s eponymous hit “Scatman (Ski-Ba-Bop-ba-dop-Bop)” for intense runs because it puts him in the kind of mindset that grants him access to new gears.

“Especially in harder workouts,” Fitzgerald writes, “like Josh Cox’s epic tempo run, the right music almost seemed to act like a (fair, safe, and legal) performance-enhancing drug.”  It’s no wonder then that mp3 players are banned for runners competing for prizes in all major US marathons (though that has more to do with the USATF ban on two-way communication between athlete and coach, which could be done through a cleverly re-engineered iPod … and literally as I type that, I realize that I just described an iPhone).

It really makes you wonder whether Gebrselassie or world-record holder Patrick Makau could run a marathon under 2:03 if they were allowed a Nano with their favorite pump-up jam blaring from mile 20 onward.

Science says: unlikely.

According to Karageorghis, “the benefits of listening to music decrease with the level of intensity of the running. The faster you run, the less effect the music has.”  While music can serve as an effective distraction for those of us on a long run or during those middle miles of the marathon, elite athletes run at such an unfathomably intense level that anything shy of complete focus would prove deleterious.  Citing Karageorghis’ 2009 study, the New York Times notes that “when you increase the speed and intensity of a workout, ‘perceptions of fatigue override the impact of music, because attentional processes are dominated by physiological feedback.’”  In other words, no amount of Blink 182 can get Dathan Ritzenheim’s mind off the strains of running a 4:53 pace for over two hours.

So why do I still, in spite of all the studies, insist on running without music?  What kind of idiot would forego such a simple, free and amazingly potent enhancement?  With the ever-growing catalog of fast, heart pounding songs out there, why bother sticking to just the sound of wind, breath and cars?

The Verdict

“Music is a legal drug for athletes [and like] any drug, if you use it too much, it begins to have less effect.”  Like Fitzgerald, Karageorghis uses the uses the word “drug” liberally – and not altogether jokingly – when describing the effect of music on the run.

All serious runners are intimately familiar with the body’s remarkable ability to condition itself to increasingly tougher training loads.  It’s therefore not a stretch to say that listening to music during every single run will eventually attenuate its jolting effects.  In fact, it might even make it so running without music would have negative effects both psychologically and physiologically.  After all, if the cyclists in the Liverpool study came up short in performance and enjoyment when the music was slow, what if the tunes were shut down completely?

That question will be left to other studies to explore.  As for me, I could say that I’m perfectly content with the sounds of my body, the pavement and the world around me.  Like journalist Matt Kurton, I could take the free-spirited approach that tends to characterize the stereotypical trailhead and say that “listening to birdsong and rainfall rather than Bill Withers and Radiohead, I don’t feel like I’m missing out.”  But that’s only half the story.  I run without music because, so far, I actually enjoy just running.  I fear that if I were to start adding fast songs to my weekly mileage, no matter how much faster they make me, I would risk eventually losing the enjoyment of plodding along to my own beat.

It’s very easy to talk about this topic and divide people into those who leave the tunes at home and everyone else.  Karageorghis has his own categories for it: associators, who focus inwardly and dial into their exertion; and dissociators, who look for external stimuli and distractions to get through the activity.  Given the vast wealth of runners out there, I think this black and white sorting is too simple.  After all, even the most insistent purist will probably find themselves kicking a little harder as they pass a rock band playing their favorite song near the end of a marathon.

But if it were completely up to me?

Where It Gets a Little Wacky

One day ...

One day …

I would want a music player to seamlessly gel with my body, wires and hard drives meshing in perfect symbiosis with my neural circuitry.  In the last third of a long race, I would turn it on with simple taps to my palm (or temple or shoulders, naturally I would know the best spot after several weeks of beta testing) and I would instantly hear songs playing in my head in beautiful high fidelity.  The device would know the tempo of each song and calibrate each selection according to my cadence.  Changes in speed would result in real-time changes in song.  As I ramp up, 311’s “Down” would lose its zip, prompting the device to intuitively segue into Yellowcard’s “Breathing.”  Once the effects of the SoCal quintet’s infectious pop-rock have been exhausted, the player would kick it into high gear with Amon Amarth’s “Live for the Kill” because nothing lights a fire under my ass like Nordic death metal.

Finally, when there’s only five minutes left until the finish line, the iDan would unleash its wild card, the song that I only play in a car if I have a wide open road ahead of me.  Sure, it’s a frontrunner for the dorkiest song you’ve ever heard and the band likely met while LARPing in an open field, but on the run it’s like an injection of ox blood and shark teeth:


(Only partly ashamed to admit that I love, love this song)

Once this musical singularity happens, I’m pretty sure you’ll see me destroying PRs left and right.  My blood would be tested by anti-doping officials, displayed prominently in museums of human achievement and used to make redwoods reach maximum height in just weeks.  But as long as man and machine remain separate, I’m happy just listening to the sounds of a person putting one foot in front of the other.  There may come a day where I’ll channel my favorite metal gods for the last haul of a marathon, dialing down my perception of pain while putting a little more spring in my step.  Only time will tell.

Do you listen to music while you run?  Do you do it because it helps you pass the time?  Or because it makes you feel like a demigod?  Are you as OCD as I am or can you run to any beat?  What song makes you want to start a bar fight with a wolf?  Did you know that “Bye Bye Bye” perfectly [N]syncs with my cadence?  Might sound crazy, but it ain’t no lie.