Do you feel a magical burst of energy every time your favorite song comes on your running playlist? While Kanye’s jams may have superpowers (just us?), research indicates that music can directly influence our performance in more ways than one. It has been shown to elevate mood, distract from fatigue and increase endurance. But if you can’t force yourself to break a sweat without some tunes to help, should you rethink your headphones habit?
“I see on social media, ‘I couldn’t finish my workout because my iPhone died,’ and I’m thinking, ‘You can!’” says Jonathan Cane, exercise physiologist and coach at City Coach and JackRabbit Sports. And let’s admit it: Our muscles definitely still function without a running playlist pumping into our ears.
The great music debate is far from black and white, though. Since 78 percent of runners report that they enjoy listening to something for motivation, it’s clear that tuning in has become an essential part of many runners’ routines. But some experts also think blasting beats might prevent you from focusing on your pace, or tempt you to push past pain when you shouldn’t. How does music change the way we run? Here’s the scoop on what happens when you pump the volume and when you’re better off hitting the track without your tracks.
Fast Beats, Fast Feet
A runner’s behavior and psychological state can both be influenced by music. Costas Karageorghis, a professor at Brunel University in London and a leading expert on the psychology of workout music, has even gone so far as to call music “a legal performance-enhancing drug” in a 2012 review of studies in the Journal of Sports Sciences.
Why is music so manipulative? For one, you’ll want to move to the beat. A study of cyclists conducted in 2012 revealed that athletes who timed their cycling to the music were able to use seven percent less oxygen to expend the same amount of power as athletes who didn’t synchronize with the music. The conclusion: Your body is more efficient when exercising in time with a tune. New apps like TempoRun and RockMyRun now make it especially easy to sync your tunes to your stride.
Plus, research shows that music can reduce your perception of your body’s limits. For low to moderate exertion, tunes can effectively distract your brain from focusing on your rapid heart rate, sweating body or other physiological cues of fatigue. For higher exertion activities (think: marathons or endurance runs), music won’t be as effective at distracting you from an aching body — but it can fortify your mental toughness and motivate you to keep going despite creeping exhaustion.
When Silence Can Be Golden
There’s also a dark side to the distraction music provides. “You don’t want to totally disassociate your fatigue, because you want to understand how different fatigue levels feel,” says Jason Fitzgerald, running coach and founder of StrengthRunning.com. Coach Cane agrees. One of his clients reported having a great training run but then suddenly feeling too fatigued to keep up her pace. She didn’t realize what went wrong, but Cane knew the problem. “She wasn’t listening to what her body was telling her since she was listening to music,” he says.
“The more complex your workout, the more you need to focus on it.”
If you’re tuning out your movements and breathing, you might not realize you are pacing yourself too fast, feeling dehydrated, or ignoring excruciating pain that could lead to injury. Plus, studies suggest that disassociating from running could even cause you to go out too hard at the start of a race and hit the dreaded “wall” later on.
Both Fitzgerald and Crane believe that runners training to achieve new personal records during races should leave the music at home when doing more structured workouts. For intervals on a track, completing a hill workout, or pacing themselves on a long run, runners need to devote their mental energy to their performance.
“The more complex your workout, the more you need to focus on it,” says Fitzgerald, explaining that it will be harder to pace yourself during both long runs and sprint workouts if you’ve got the music blasting. Though he’ll sometimes listen to music or cue up a podcast for easier runs, he never wears an iPod on the track if he knows he won’t be listening to music during the race. (According to a 2007 ruling by the USA Track and Field, runners vying for a prize at a race aren’t eligible if they use music.)
March to Your Own Beat
Even if you aren’t competing for the podium, there can be advantages to unplugging on race day. Coach Cane says he’s seen instances where runners nearly collide or failed to clear a path for emergency vehicles because they were blasting tunes too loud to hear noises around them.
Plus, why would you ignore all the screaming fans lined up from start to finish? As Fitzgerald sees it, “If you don’t have music, the next best thing is a really loud, cheering crowd.”
Yet, if music helps you find the motivation to lace up your sneakers and get out there for a few miles, both Cane and Fitzgerald say they are all for it. But don’t be afraid to hit the pavement tune-less once in a while — you may find that the beat of your feet, the scenery or a conversation with a running buddy is just as stimulating. Whether you’re rocking out with tunes or leaving the iPod at home, give yourself props for sweating it out on the pavement instead of sitting it out on your couch.