Why listening to music can make athletes run a bit faster

What is it about music that makes most athletes run faster? We pursue the latest research

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 March, 2015, 6:20am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 March, 2015, 6:20am

It's no secret that music is like a performance-enhancing drug for runners. But while fast-tempo songs that match one's pace are often thought of as the most effective, a new study has found that it's not only the beat that counts.

How a song motivates an individual is more important, according to research by Brunel University published last month in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.

Music strikes a chord with people in different ways: through melody, tempo, lyrics and even by triggering a feeling or memory.

"The general meaning of music apparently overcomes the acoustic properties of the song; in other words, people seem to feel music as a sum of its parts, regardless of tempo," says lead researcher Marcelo Bigliassi, a PhD student at Brunel.

"It is impossible to say that a certain excerpt of music is motivational because of the tempo or tune," he says. "There is a big interaction between different components such as lyrics, tempo and melody, and the sum of all these creates the motivational content of music."

Over 30 weeks, Bigliassi and colleagues put 15 well-trained amateur male runners through a series of all-out 5km tests around a 400-metre track.

The participants did a total of five running tests spaced between three and seven days apart, in various experimental conditions:

  • Listening to self-selected motivational songs ranging from 110 to 150 beats per minute (bpm) before the run - such as Coldplay's Viva La Vida (138 bpm).
  • Listening to self-selected slow motivational songs (80 to 100 bpm) during the run - such as Eminem's Lose Yourself (86 bpm).
  • Listening to self-selected fast motivational songs (140 to 160 bpm) during the run - such as Outkast's Hey Ya! (160 bpm).
  • Listening to calm songs after the run. This was selected by the researchers and played in this order: Enya, May it Be (110 bpm); Bach, Air on a G String (106 bpm); Hilary Stagg, Pleasant Dreams (95 bpm).
  • Running with no music at all.


Unsurprisingly, runners were faster when listening to music compared to silence. But the difference in finish times when running to fast or slow music was not great - in fact, slow music had a slight edge.

On average, the runners completed the 5km in 26 minutes flat while listening to slow music, in 26 minutes and five seconds with fast music, and in 27 minutes and 19 seconds with no music. The men were about 5 per cent faster when running with music compared to silence.

The music choices of the runners comprised an eclectic mix that ranged from rock'n'roll to reggae, classical to trance, heavy metal to bossa nova.

Examples of songs included Chopin's Nocturnes, a-ha's Take on Me, Cerveja Barata's Rock Rocket, John Dahlback's Comet, Johnny Cash's You Are My Sunshine, Iron Maiden's Aces High, and Dreaming of Bag End from The Hobbit soundtrack.

Running with music specifically speeded up the first 800 metres of the 5km run. Thereafter, running with or without music seemed to elicit the same response.

Music had an initial effect, the researchers say, because the runners needed time to process the information.

People seem to feel music as a sum of parts, regardless of tempo
Marcello Bigliassi, lead researcher

"As soon as the brain realised the exercise intensity, a mechanism called attentional switching occurred by directing attention to the most important signals," the report says.

"It decreased the effects of music on running performance because they have focused on internal processes instead of external influences."

Music can influence running performance in different ways. First, it captures attention and works as a distraction. "When this mechanism occurs, exercisers feel the activity as easier than under normal circumstances," Bigliassi says.

Second, a song's tempo can help runners synchronise their movement patterns. "Results of previous studies demonstrate that synchronisation can make exercisers spend less energy and oxygen," he says.

And finally, music-related interventions can boost self-confidence and motivation.

"The cerebral and physiological mechanisms underlying those responses are still under-researched, but evidence suggests that music integrates different neural systems such as emotion, memory, attention and motor," he says. "This integration assumes the partial control of movements when the exercise is performed at low or moderate levels of intensity."

Some running events ban the use of personal music devices, so would relying too much on audio stimulus during training cause a negative effect if music is disallowed on race day?

Bigliassi says it's "considerably possible", and advises listening to music before the run in this case. Based on his study results, runners who listen to music just before competitions have a 39 per cent chance of posting faster times.

Post-run, cooling down to calming tunes can accelerate faster recovery and prevent cardiac-related complications.

But for some runners nothing is sweeter than the sound of silence. "I listen to the birds, the wind in the trees - this is what I cherish the most," says Thibault Mercier, a recreational triathlete.

As a runner myself, I agree. My preferred soundtrack is a mix of nature, my laboured breathing, and the silent scream of my burning legs.

Bigliassi has done several studies since 2009 on the use of video, music, verbal encouragement and mental tricks during diverse modes of exercise. He says the effects of sensory strategies such as music rely on the attentional style of the individual.

Some people, like me, prefer to focus on internal bodily responses such as heart rate and respiration rate. "These people are referred to as 'associators'," says Bigliassi.

"The use of sensory strategies such as music and video can represent a threat for these exercisers. They can lose the control of the activity because there are dissociative influences - for example, sensory stimuli - which jeopardise the conscious control of the exercise."

For "dissociators", music is a distraction from the boredom, and possibly the pain, that's associated with running.

Go to scmp.com/lifestyle/health for a playlist of top motivational songs from a survey of runners