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Running to the Beat: How the Right Music Can Boost Your Workout

Permission to spend the rest of the day putting together the perfect playlist, granted.

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A study in The Frontiers in Psychology has confirmed what the dedicated runner-audiophile already knows—fast-paced music makes working out easier. Well, at least it seems easier. 

The researchers, based in Italy and Croatia, evaluated both high-intensity exercise and endurance exercise under four circumstances: No music, low tempo music (90-110 bpm), medium tempo music (130-150 bpm), and high tempo music (170-190 bpm). In each scenario, heart rate and the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) were assessed. 

What they found: High tempo music increased the metabolic demand of both types of exercise, while reducing the perceived effort more than the lower tempo or no music sessions. And the difference in RPE was even greater in endurance training. 

As the researchers explain, while working on endurance, our brain is more susceptible to outside stimuli. Like when you’re on a long run and can’t stop thinking about how the wind is chapping your lips or how your shoes aren’t tied quite right. Since listening to music involves the cortical and subcortical areas of the brain, it requires nearly your full attention and is pretty hard to ignore. So in theory, you’re not thinking about that pesky wind or your shoe laces and can keep on running without thinking as much about it. 

RELATED: How ‘Perception of Effort’ Can Make or Break a Race

Another recent study conducted by the University of Edinburgh found that listening to music while running can help with a similar problem: mental fatigue. Ever tried to go for a run after a demanding day at the office? Even though you may have been sitting all day, it’s still hard to shake off that worn down feeling.

 “Mental fatigue is a common occurrence for many of us, and can negatively impact many of our day-to-day activities, including exercise,” said Dr. Shaun Phillips of the University of Edinburgh. 

In the study, published in the Journal of Human Sport and Exercise, each runner was given a 30 minute computer test before heading out for high-intensity exercise. Half of the runners were allowed to listen to a motivational playlist while the other half was not. 

They found that interval running capacity was greater in the mentally fatigued runners who listened to music while they exercised. The music group also performed better in a 5K time trial. And like the Italian study, the Scottish researchers attributed the better performances to a lower perception of effort—which goes to show how connected the body is to the mind.  

Curious what kind of songs were on the “motivational” playlist in that study? To name a few: “Everyday” by A$ap Rocky; “Addicted To You” by Avicii (RIP); “Run This Town” by Jay-Z; “Power” by Kanye West; “No One Knows” by Queens of the Stone Age; and “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor. 

There are many opinions out there about whether or not you should listen to music while running. For some, being in tune with their body and not forcing distraction is going to help them avoid injury and over-training. For other runners, the distraction is necessary to get past the mental barriers they face in training. 

If music is what helps to move your body, then go for it.

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