Move to the rhythm: music and your run

Music has long been used to direct human movement. Ancient Romans would play drums on their ships to synchronize the strokes of their rowers. Our bodies just naturally want to move along with music and this can be a powerful tool when incorporated into your training.

Speaking to the American Council on Fitness, Costas Karageorghis, Ph.D., a leading authority on music and exercise, says that “Music is like a legal drug for athletes.” He went on to explain that well-selected music can not only reduce the perception of effort during a workout, but it can also measurably improve endurance.

Music is a powerful potential exercise aid. How can you incorporate it into your workout?

Timing Is Everything

The key is to capitalize on our natural tendency to make our movements match the beat of a given song. When we run, we do so with a certain amount of steps per minute – this is defined as our pace. By choosing music that has the same beats per minute (BPM) as our desired pace, we essentially give ourselves an entertaining and easy-to-follow coach.

For this reason, it’s important to pick songs that have a very distinct beat. There are programs, generally intended for DJs, that will tell you the BPM  of a song so that you can design your own playlist. But there are also several podcasts that have done this for you.

One of the most popular free programs is called PodRunner, produced by electronic music DJ and runner Steve Boyett. Each edition of PodRunner is designed to provide you with a specific BPM so that you can easily achieve your goal pace by following the music.

Additional Research and Considerations

Although the positive effects of music on exercise are well documented and have been used for centuries, recent research has shown just how deep and powerful the connection is. These studies also point to some interesting facts to consider when using music in your routine.

A 2004 study in the Journal of Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation experimented with different genres of music on a cycling workout. The subjects were told to perform a normal workout and their exercise output was measured. What was interesting about the results of this study is that the subjects’ output increased in conjunction with the tempo of the music regardless of the genre. Specifically, the researchers looked at musical genres, such as Polka, that the subjects either hadn’t listened to before or didn’t enjoy. Performance improved regardless.

The lesson here?  Be willing to go outside of your musical comfort zone to new genres when building your playlist.

This was emphasized by a 2010 study that looked at specific components of music to find which was the most influential on exercisers. Subjects were played a song and then split into three groups. The groups heard either a percussion track of the initial song, a matching metronome track or a track with no rhythmic elements. The subjects all responded the same to the full song, the percussion track and the metronome. This study suggests that while we might enjoy all musical aspects of a song, it’s the percussion and rhythm that is the driving force of good workout music.

As with all things health and fitness, caution is necessary even when picking your workout music. A study published in the same journal in 2007 increased the tempo of music used in a chair aerobics class by 33 percent. The patients followed the music even when their heart rates increased to potentially dangerous levels. Based on these findings, it’s important not to underestimate the push you can receive from music and make sure that you don’t exert yourself beyond what you can handle based on your fitness level.


Although music can be very useful for runners, and all endurance athletes, bringing it with you can be challenging. Many runners are sensitive to any additional weight slowing them down, so using small, lightweight devices are your best bet.

Storing these devices in your pockets can be difficult, too, since this can mess up your stride. Fortunately, armband cases are available and perfect for runners and endurance athletes. Make sure that your headphones are also comfortable and fit tightly. Few things can be as frustrating as fiddling with earphones while you’re trying to focus on your run.

Have you used music to improve your workouts? Please share your tips and experience in the comments section below.


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