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Does Music Make Running Easier?

Keep on Running

I am one of those people you are likely to find up and out the door before the sun rises, running in the Vancouver rain. I run, therefore I am...nuts. Depending on my route, you will sometimes find me wearing ear buds listening to music.

Perhaps you have a favourite playlist for exercising? Even if you haven't, you'll have seen people exercising with headphones in their ears. Lots of us love to exercise to music. Listening to music causes the brain to release dopamine, a feel-good chemical. Music can enhance or change your mood, it can relax and it can energize. We use music to accompany us in many activities from reading to exercising.

Music helps many of us when exercising, but how?

Dr Costas Karageorghis is renowned for his research into the psychological, psychophysical and ergogenic (performance-enhancing) effects of music on exercise. Research has been looking into how music can motivate you to “get up and move” by studying the effect on, for example, your mood, emotions, encouragement of rhythmical movement and focus. Many factors may influence a person's level of motivation, and music appears to be one of them.

Can music boost a person's physical endurance? Exercise scientists used to believe that fatigue occurred when the muscles or the cardiorespiratory system hit some kind of hard physiological limit. It is now understood that such limits are never reached. Instead, the brain imposes fatigue to protect the body from serious harm and so offers some flexibility in setting performance limits. With a highly motivated athlete, the brain will risk a bit more and allow the body to come a little closer to this limit in pursuit of better performance. Current research of the ergogenic effect of music suggests that exercising with music can alter your perception of effort and fatigue by up to 12%.  

The body has natural rhythm and is at its most efficient when it is moving in rhythm. Running to the beat is a bit like dancing to music. We tend to dance to the tempo of the music, albeit badly for many of us. In the same way, with running, we will naturally have a tendency to keep in step with the speed of the music. In other words, matching music to how you move when you run (gait) can improve your endurance. In Karageorghis’ studies, this can mean a difference of 15%.

Several studies in recent years have looked at the effects of music of different speeds (tempo) on performance. Karageorghis describes a “sweet spot” for music when used for exercise with a tempo range of 120–140 bpm that has "good psycho-biological and information processing-related reasons for the efficacy of this narrow range." Happy by Pharrell Williams has a fast tempo of 160 bpm and is therefore especially suited to cardio training and very high intensity workouts, whereas Move by British girl group Little Mix is better for warming up.

Factors that influence responsiveness to music in exercise and sport settings include rhythm, melody, harmony and associations that a piece of music may carry. Research also suggests that males generally express a greater preference for bass frequencies compared to females and extroverts respond more favourably than introverts to lively musical selections.

However, according to Dr 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.”  He goes on to explain “elite athletes are usually 'associators', which means they tend to focus inwardly when they are running. Most other runners are "disassociators" (or are somewhere between the two). This means they look for stimulus and distraction from what is going on around them.”

Conclusions are that music has effects on the behaviour and psychological states of people who exercise. Music can also positively influence performance by improving endurance and/or exercise intensity. The effect is even greater when the music is selected according to its motivational qualities.

Exercise is just one way that music moves us, literally.

Remember: Never listen to music or use headphones whilst running in traffic.

For more information:

A nice summary of the research mentioned above can be found at the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences website (BASES), of which Dr. Karageorghis is a Fellow.

To learn more about the wonders of the human body, be sure to visit our BodyWorks Gallery and while you're at it, set your feet to music with our Dancing Feet exhibit in the Eureka! Gallery