Does listening to music improve your running?

Music in exercise settings can be both a stimulant and a dangerous distraction

Using synchronous music is beneficial during repetitive endurance activity

Using synchronous music is beneficial during repetitive endurance activity

 

I don’t use hairy twine to lace up my running shoes, but I’m still an old-fashioned runner. For example, I’m baffled by those who start marathons laden with more water and provisions than Bedouins crossing a desert; Fitbits should be banned; and as for listening to music while exercising, uhhh … I’ll take that last one back. In fact, evidence shows that music can help improve both exercise performance and recovery.

In the 1980s, aerobic dance classes combining music and exercise became increasingly popular, and in the 1990s a Scottish study of 34 physiotherapy students (30 female) who undertook lunchtime aerobic dance classes twice-weekly for six weeks showed that “the use of pop music at 95 decibels appears to reduce significantly the perception of effort”.

Astonishingly, the authors didn’t mention that “the use of pop music at 95 decibels” will, over time, reduce one’s ability to hear. Nevertheless, they warned that while music could help those who wished to exercise strenuously, it could be harmful “in that perception [of effort] will also be reduced in more ‘at risk’ subjects, eg pregnant women or cardiac patients”.

Today it’s common to see people listening to music while doing all sorts of exercise, but does it help in all circumstances? An American study of university students found that although heart rate and ratings of perceived exertion during treadmill and open-air running were not influenced by music, about 30 per cent of participants found that music helped them at the start of a run.

But the authors made an important additional observation: “The effects of music are more prominent when the physical load is moderate or low.” This could explain why elite runners are seldom seen training while “plugged in”, and it is borne out by Ireland’s three-time Olympian and European Cross-Country gold medallist Fionnuala McCormack.

“At the moment I never listen to music while training and I don’t own an iPod or an iPhone,” she says. “I used to listen to my iPod a few years ago when I was running but it got waterlogged on one very rainy run and that was the end of that …but even then I often just listened to football matches or sports podcasts.

“I do like music, however, and I love it when music is playing at and during races. I don’t have a particular favourite musical genre, unless 80s and 90s sing-a-long pop is a genre.”

A British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (Bases) “expert statement on the use of music in exercise” (www.bases.org.uk/music-in-exercise ) explains that the main factors influencing our response to music in exercise settings are rhythm, melody and harmony; that males generally prefer bass frequencies compared to females; and that extroverts respond more favourably to lively music than introverts. Also, using synchronous music – when you exercise in time to the beat – confers benefits during repetitive endurance activity. For example, the Bases authors cite a study which showed that when motivational synchronous music was used during treadmill walking, it increased the time to voluntary exhaustion by 15 per cent compared to control conditions.

And the title of an article published last year in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise sums up a study by Canadian researchers. In “Music enhances performance and perceived enjoyment of sprint interval exercise” it describes how 20 moderately active adults in their early 20s completed sessions of sprint interval exercise on stationary bicycles under two conditions: music and no music. The researchers concluded: “Listening to music during intense interval exercise may be an effective strategy for facilitating participation in, and adherence to, this form of training.”

It also seems that listening to music can aid recovery from exercise. For example, in a 2012 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 20 young active men performed strenuous six-minute runs at peak oxygen consumption speed, and spent a recovery period either with or without motivational music.

The results suggested that “listening to motivational music during … recovery from intense exercise leads to increased activity, faster lactate clearance, and reduced rate of perceived exertion and therefore may be used by athletes in their effort to enhance recovery”. And last year a Brazilian study published in the same journal investigated the effect of self-selected motivating and relaxing music on 15 well-trained long-distance runners before, during and after undertaking 5km runs on an outdoor running track. The researchers concluded that music not only had a positive effect on those areas of the brain associated with inducing emotional or memory responses, but also that music was able to “… improve performance, and accelerate recovery during 5km of running”.

But while it’s clear that music can have a positive role to play in exercise performance and recovery, there are safety considerations to bear in mind. The studies of the relationship between music and performance were undertaken in necessarily controlled conditions, not on the darkened streets of, say, a dynamic urban environment. The Bases expert statement advises that music should be “used in ways where safety is not compromised (eg exercisers should not use music when running or cycling on the roads)”. In my experience, this advice is ignored by many.

And if winter sports are your thing, it’s worth highlighting the findings of a study by Canadian researchers on the relationship between snowboarders’ use of music in an outdoor terrain park and their chances of getting injured. Reporting in 2015 to the British Journal of Sports Medicine, they said that snowboarders listening to music “had significantly higher odds of presenting to the emergency department versus the [onsite, first-aid dispensing] ski patrol … compared with those not listening to music”.

My admittedly old-school view is that if you’re training in a safe environment, focused on improving your performance, there just may be a role for music; but if you’re running to keep fit and enjoy the outdoors, listening to music may be a dangerous distraction.

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