Normal earbud headphones fall out of my ears with just a gentle nudge, as I am too lazy to buy specialty sports earbuds. I don’t want headphones that cover my ears, though, because, despite the science that tells me otherwise, covering my ears with anything warms me up considerably, almost as much as wearing an extra layer. As someone who sweats just thinking about the sun, I opt to keep my ears well ventilated.
Once, I did relent, however, and I began bringing an mp3 player for the stationary bike at the gym. Ironically, it got to the point where I would simply not exercise at all if the device was out of power. My running buddy at the time would also completely forego runs if his Nano was 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 for you whether or not you are going to go for a run, was so crazy that I almost felt indignant, superior to those who did so.
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.
Music as a Performance Enhancer
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 their bodies’ natural feedback. The fact that the students ran faster while listening to music is not that shocking; however, finding that that the students didn’t feel like they were running faster lies the real potential for music as a performance enhancer.
Perceived exertion is subjective. Since the students ran the course faster, it is possible that they still had higher heart rates and sweated more, but they simply may have noticed this because the music they were listening to distracted them from paying attention to what was happening in their bodies. A study by Brian Matesic and Fred Cromartie published in the Sport Journal in 2002 provided 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 suggest that music has not only an effect on the subjective experience of running, but that it can actually change one’s physiology, and therefore provide an advantage that can improve performance.
As I ran on the lake path with my music device 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.” Karageorghis goes on to explain that “Synchronous 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? Probably not; 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.
Like with most scientific claims, not all studies examining this idea 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 as you’d hear them on the radio, 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.
Music at Extreme Activity Levels
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 Cox turning 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 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 it probably has more to do with the USATF ban on two-way communication between athlete and coach, I like to think the they were banned because of science).
It really makes you wonder whether Gebrselassie or world-record holder Dennis Kimetto could run a marathon under 2:02 if they were allowed an iPhone 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? Why 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?
Tolerance to Music as a Performance Enhancer
“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.
This science seemed foolproof to me. After experiencing their results firsthand, I was very nearly converted. But ultimately, I stuck with the tuneless approach because I was concerned that I’d lose the enjoyment of 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.
That said, if technology advances so I can listen to music in my head without headphones or an external device, then we’ll talk.
Daniel Solera received his BA in English from Northwestern University but finds ways to cultivate his diverse interests in science and technology. His love of running often allows him to explore the physiology of the sport and other areas of human anatomy. At any given point, he is training for his next big race, which will likely contribute to his goal of running a marathon in all 50 states. Follow along with his marathon musings at dans-marathon.com.