The Magic of Music

Up until a week ago, I had stopped running to music. When I first started running, I found it impossible to run without music. I slowly started weening myself off music because there were a few races that had a strict rule about no headphones. For that first no headphone race, I kinda cheated. The race director said that racers couldn’t wear headphones for safety reasons. Loud music could make it harder to hear warnings from race officials, runners and cars coming up from behind your, or other potential dangers. Since at the time I could only run if I had music AND I didn’t want to flout the rules totally, I wore one earbud. This way I had my music, but I could still hear what was going on around me.

For the next no headphones race, I got Sprigs Banjees, a wrist wallet. The wrist wallet was perfect because I could play music on my IPhone. I adjusted the volume so it was just loud enough for me to hear and no one else unless they were right next to me. Surprisingly the weight of the IPhone on my wrist did not hamper my arm swing as I ran. It was much less bothersome than carrying a water bottle in my hand.

Then I slowly started running without music. First it was the short speed work sessions and then I gradually moved up to my longer runs. Eventually I was able to do all of my runs sans music. I fell out of the habit of listening to music. In many ways this was good. I learned to rely on myself to power through runs. I looked the world around me. I listened to my own breathing. I learned how to interpret the amount of exertion my competitors were exhibiting by their breathing. I learned how to be a better racer by being able to gauge their effort level. If they were breathing easy, I knew better than to exhaust myself by pushing the pace. If they were breathing heavy, like a predator chasing its prey I ran slightly faster to wear them out. My kills took the form of dropping them behind me.

One of the pleasures of off-season training is doing something different. I decided to reacquaint myself with music during my runs. Last week I did my treadmill speed work with music. It was the first time in several months that I listened to music.

Oh my goodness! I ran like I drank a couple shots of espresso right before hopping on the treadmill. The beat of the music coursed through my veins. I ran 1.5 miles at 8.9 mph (~6:45 pace), which is the fastest sustained pace that I’ve ever ran. It felt comfortably fast. I was working hard, but I didn’t feel like I was dying, which is often how I feel during speed work. At the end of the session, I thought I still had enough left in me to run a bit longer. Another novel feeling. Usually I’m so dead and absolutely thrilled to be done.

I can’t underestimate the power of music.

I don’t have just personal experience on my side. Consistently scientists have found that music improves performance in endurance sports, such as running, cycling, and swimming.

Dyrlund & Winiger (2006) did a very interesting study investigating the relationship between music and exercise intensity. There were over 200 participants. There was no information given about their level of fitness nor level of physical activity. However, exercise intensity was calibrated to each participant’s own VO2 max. Low intensity was 30%  VO2 max, moderate was 50%, and high was 70%. Dyrlund and Winiger randomly assigned participants to run on a treadmill at one of the three exercise intensity levels and listening to either their preferred music, nonpreferred music, or no music. Unsurprisingly participant experienced greater enjoyment listening to their preferred music. But what was interesting to me was that the enjoyment of the music was magnified when the participants were exercising at moderate intensity. It’s possible that when exercising at a low intensity, boredom can set in and that exercising at a high intensity leads to discomfort that the music cannot mask. One limitation of this study is that it is quite probably that most of their participants were untrained and somewhat sedentary because they were college students. It’s unclear from this study whether trained athletes would still experience enjoyment from music when exercising at a high intensity because of their practice with tolerating physical discomfort.

Nakamura et al (2010) found the physically active recreational cyclists cycled longer (which was equated to cycling a farther distance because exercise velocity was the same for all participants) when they were listening to their preferred music compared to when they listened to nonpreferred music and no music at all. They thought that listening to preferred music helped cyclists because 1) it increased their motivation, and 2) nonpreferred music increased mental effort and mental fatigue because it was an unpleasant stimulus.

Aside from providing psychological motivation, music can provide valuable aid to athletes by its tempo. Edworthy et al. (2006), Waterhouse et al. (2010), and Terry et al. (2012) found that faster performance (in elite triathletes for Terry et al.’s study) was found when athletes listened to faster tempos. The participants matched their movements (cycling in Waterhouse et al’s study and running in Edworthy et al.’s & Terry et al.’s study) to the beat of the music. There have been several studies finding that fast paced music helped untrained participants perform better (exercise longer and faster), but Terry et al.’s study found that this benefit extended to elite athletes as well.

In order for music to have an effect, it must be interesting enough to demand our brain to pay attention, which then allows us to dissociate from the discomfort experienced by our body (Pennebaker, Lightner, 1980). The right type of music helps to create an environment where we exercise harder because it provides motivation, mental stimulation, and dissociation from physical discomfort.

If you would like to read more, I found a nice little overview written here and there are references below.

Do you regularly listen to music while running? And if so, what do you listen to?


Dyrlund, A. K., & Winiger, S. R. (2008). The effects of music preference and exercise intensity on psychological variables. Journal of Music Therapy, 45, 114-134.

Edworthy, J., & Waring, H. (2006). The effects of music tempo and loudness level on treadmill exercise. Ergonomics, 49, 1597-1610.

Nakamura, P. M., Pereira, G., Papini, C. B., Nakamura, F. Y., & Kokubun, E. (2010). Effects of preferred and nonpreferred music on continuous cycling exercise performance. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 110, 257-264.

Pennefbaker, J. W., & Lightner, J. M. (1980). Competition of internal and external information in an exercise setting. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 165-174.

Terry, P.C., Karageorghis, C. I., Saha, A. M., & D’Auria S.(2012). Effects of synchronous music on treadmill running among elite triathletes. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sports, 15, 52-57.

Waterhouse, J., Hudson, P., & Edwards, B. (2010). Effects of music tempo upon submaximal cycling performance. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and  Science in Sports, 20, 662-669

19 thoughts on “The Magic of Music

  1. Great post! I mostly run without music. However, on a very long training run I’ll treat myself to it and love the distraction. I can’t use music in a triathlon so I don’t want to rely on it, but I do have songs in my head that I play to help on certain patches. :). In a 5k I’ll also crank up the tunes if it’s allowed.

    • Thanks. I hadn’t done a long run outside by myself in such a long time. Music is great for those types of runs. I’m kinda liking music during speed work because it takes my mind off the pain. I swear 10 seconds never last so long as they do for speed work.

      • Isn’t it amazing how time goes so long in speed work?. I do a treadmill workout that is 30 fast and 15 rest and I really have to psyche myself up! :).

      • I whimper. I often resort to “tricking” myself by saying I can do only 4 sets instead of 6. Then after I finish 4, I tell myself one more. Then I’m like, “Might as well do the last one.”

  2. I alternate between music and television when I’m on the treadmill or on my wind trainer. I like music the best out of the two though. I never run with music outside because of the wildlife issues I contend with. I need to hear what might be chasing me – lol. I also need to pay attention to where my dog is (and what she’s chasing) as she runs off leash most of the time.

    • I don’t watch TV when I’m on a treadmill because it doesn’t provide enough distraction for me. Ben is the complete opposite. He actually plans his runs so he can watch his shows while running.

  3. I’ve been working on learning how to run without music, and I’ve only done it a few times with a few miles each run. I’m excited at using my thoughts to power myself through the long runs, and then being able to use music for races to give me that extra boost!

    • I remember the very first time I completed a race without any music. I was scared that I would fall apart. I focused on the scenery around me and the other runners, especially if they were just a bit slower than me, but ahead of me. I would focus on them and “hunt” them down to pass them. It made the time/distance go by faster.

  4. How interesting! I think it is okay that you have found through your own experience (and through research) that you enjoy running more…..and run faster, with music. I think it is personal preference, and understandable. I need to focus a lot more on my breathing, effort level, and keeping easy runs easy at my level. On the hard days, I need to get into a rhythm, and the changing pace of music would make that difficult. I also need to focus on what I am doing. I have to admit though, when I do allow myself to use music, the time goes by much quicker….I love it! Keep up the good work 🙂

    • Thanks.

      I run both with and without music. I used to need it all the time. Now I’ve grown used to running without music and most races officially don’t allow them anyway. For me, it’s a nice way to changing things when I feel a little stale with running.

      Thanks for reading!

  5. Holy moly that’s FAST! Nice job on the speed work! I still do regularly listen to music although I’ve made a commitment to try to get away from it a bit more. I don’t wear headphones at all for my treadmill workouts and am trying to do an outside run every so often without it also. I definitely still need it for my long runs though.

    I think I will probably always listen to it sometimes. I don’t feel the need to remove it completely.

  6. Thanks. I find music most helpful when I’m unmotivated or when I know I have a particularly painful speed work. After having such a long time away from music, adding it back in was a huge boost.

  7. great post. thank you for the links to the studies and such. I like when a blogger provides backup 🙂
    as for running without music, I just can’t do it. maybe someday, but right now I find my music is what keeps me going and often provides the proper pacing.

    • In the beginning I couldn’t run without music either. I weened myself slowly. Having a really nice view while running helped. So did running with someone else who did the pacing and the yakking so I had something to distract me.

  8. I gave up listening to music the morning of my first half marathon. I decided that I wanted to really experience the race…and I never went back!

    With all of the winter running I’ve been doing in the cold and dark lately though, I’ve been craving some external motivation. Maybe I’ll try the one headphone idea this week when it’s extra cold and miserable out!

    • It’s much easier to run without music when you have lots of external stimuli, such as other runners and bands playing.

      Props to you for all the winter running. I’ve been sticking to the treadmill lately. I’m too much of a wuss and too accident prone to be trusted to run outside right now.

  9. I find a mix works best for me. Always: Treadmill. Usually: Park runs/Rec paths/Off-road. Never: Races, Track workouts, Busy Roads, Errand runs through the city, etc. For those, I like to be alert to my surroundings. Even when I’m running through the park, sometimes I like to leave my music at home and just enjoy the park. But music really does help. I’ve been tempted to bring music to a few half-marathons to see if it helps my racing, but I have yet to do it. I’ve done every race music-free.

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