The Science Behind Good Running Music

woman sprinting

Catherine O’Brien

What makes a good running song?

A couple weeks ago I discussed research that supported the incorporation of music into physical exercise. A quick refresher: the research shows that working out with music, as opposed to without music, produces preservation of key brain areas involved in cognitive processing.

Now, if you prefer to work out sans tunes, don’t fret. Both the exercise and the exercise + music group showed preserved brain volume, confirming what we already know – exercise is good for your brain health. The key difference was in the right superior frontal gyrus where volume preservation was observed only for the music + exercise group. Additionally, those who exercised with music had better scores on visuospatial testing compared to those who did not listen to music.

Related Article: The Power Of Music During Exercise

Given this research, I started thinking about other effects that music may have. Can music improve performance? If so, what characteristics of music are most effective in doing so? For many people, music is a key part of the exercise experience. I know for me, a good playlist can increase my excitement and motivation to workout.  I love finding new music and curating playlists each week. In my experience, a good playlist can make a big difference in my level of enjoyment throughout my run. Is there any science behind this? You bet there is.

The Study:

Research done by Ramji and colleagues investigated specific components of music, rhythm, and how they relate to running performance and enjoyment.

The researchers were interested in two specific components of music –

  1. Music information

  2. Synchronicity

In this experiment, music information referred to the complexity of the song. For example, the original version of each song which had all the original instrumental elements, was considered to have the maximum amount of information. They manipulated the songs to remove some of this “information” and created two simpler versions of the song (versions 2 and 3).

Song synchronicity was manipulated such that the speed of the selected songs was adjusted to either match the runner’s pace (synchronous) or conflict with the runner’s pace such that it was impossible for the runner to run to the beat (asynchronous). They hypothesized that greater music information would improve running performance and that music that was synchronous with the runners pace would also improve performance.

The Participants

Participants were healthy individuals who indicated running at least 5km per week but were not elite athletes or members of an organized sport team.

The researchers selected the songs for the experiment based on a pilot study that measured the motivational qualities of 10 songs. This pilot study utilized the Brunel Music Rating Index (BMRI-II) which played music while recording participants’ ratings of the music.

Based on this study, two songs were selected for use in the present study based on their similar and high BMRI scores. One of the songs was close to a running tempo and the other was not at all at running tempo. This was desired as one song was intended to be synchronous with running and the other was intended to be asynchronous with running. Although the first song, “Stop the rock”, was considered to be close to running tempo, during the actual experiment the speed of the song would be altered to match the participants’ exact pace. In this way, Stop the Rock was the synchronous song and the other song, The Big Jump, was the asynchronous song.

Related Article: Trigger Motion: Running Terms For Those New To The Game

8 Different Conditions

mature woman runningParticipants experienced 8 different conditions. The outline of the conditions can be found below. The order in which the participants experienced each of the conditions was randomized and counterbalanced.

*Version 4 is most complex and gets progressively less complex as it goes down. White noise is considered to be the least complex

First, participants attended a habituation session in order to familiarize themselves with the task, complete Positive and Negative Affect Scale (PANAS) pre testing, and gauge running tempo in test trials. The PANAS is a commonly used psychological scale that measures affective response and mood in a given situation. Negative emotions included fear, sadness, guilt, hostility, shyness and fatigue. Positive emotions included joviality, self-assurance, attentiveness, serenity and surprise. Participants completed two running trials and an individualized running tempo was established based on the average tempo.

The actual testing was completed over four sessions at a 30-meter outdoor track. Participants experienced 2 conditions in each session with 20-minute rest period in between. After the participants warmed up, they started the mp3 player which delivered instructions on how to start and stop the recording. There was a short countdown to the running trial. Each running trial was 10-minutes long. After each of the 8 10- minute sessions, participants indicated his or her perceived level of exertion on the Borg scale. “Pre- and post-test questionnaires were completed before and after each trial” p.988

Related Article: Why Music Motivates A Workout

The Findings:

Male participants ran significantly greater distances than female participants. Analyses revealed a significant relationship between level of music information and distance completed. That is, the more complex versions of the songs were positively correlated with greater running distance.  This effect was more prominent in the synchronous condition than in the asynchronous condition. There was no effect of synchronicity on performance, however.

The Takeaway:

So what do these findings tell us? First, the results indicate that the level of complexity in a song could be a significant factor in improving running performance. If you are gearing up for a long run, it may be better to leave the acoustic tracks off the playlist and stick with the full complexity versions of your songs. For an added benefit, pick songs that are synchronous with your pace or desired pace. There are many websites that offer playlists specifically curated with min/mile pace in mind.

Future Research:

The present study used distance as the primary measure of performance. While stamina and distance are certainly an important part of running performance, I think future research should explore other ways of measuring running performance such as speed. It would be interesting to see if the same results would hold true for improving speed performance.

Related Article: Think Positive Thoughts For A Better Workout

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Ramji, R., Aasa, U., Paulin, J., and Madison, G. (2016). Musical information increases physical performance for synchronous but not asynchronous running. Psychology of Music, 44(5), 984-995.

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