Running Tunes: Does listening to music while running help with performance and pace?

Nothing like a little drum and bass with a tempo of 180 bpm to pump up your pace and match a high turnover during that last ½ mile repeat you’re doing on the treadmill.

On the flip side, a little bit of Om radio can lull you into a state of walking mediation along the beach.

Music can transport us to another time, and place and have a huge effect on our brain and consequently, our mood.

The hippocampus and the frontal cortex, the two large areas in the brain associated with memory, take in a great deal of information every minute but retrieving it is not always easy.

Music helps because it provides a rhythm and rhyme and sometimes alliteration, which helps to unlock that information with cues and it is the structure of the song that helps us to remember it, as well as the melody and the images the words provoke[1].

A soothing lullaby can calm a baby to sleep while an alarm clock set with a heavy metal ring tone blasts us out of a deep slumber, perhaps prematurely in some instances, but it does the job nonetheless.

So it goes without saying that it could easily affect how we perform in sport.

But is that a good thing or a bad thing?   Does zoning out to the tracks blasting in through our Beats (add link to amazon?) during each and every run have a down side?


            Before you cringe at the idea of hitting the road without your tunes, there are a few things to consider when determining whether to plug in or go without.

  • Purpose.  

What are you hoping to get out of this particular run? Getting ready for a marathon and hitting the track for a hard set of 1200 meter repeats?   Nix the tunes. There are so many things you need to pay attention to, like cadence, heart rate, pace and how your body is moving, music piping into your ears can be quite a distraction and if your goal is performance, it would behoove you to go without.

“Elite athletes,” claims Dr Costas Karageorghis, an expert on the effects of music on exercise, at Brunel University, “are usually ‘associators’, which means they tend to focus inwardly when they are running.” Most other runners, he says, are “dissociators” (or are somewhere between the two). This means they look for stimulus and distraction from what is going on around them[2].

I can chime in here from my own experience and share that back when I first began running, I had my tunes on all the time and as I learned to become a fast runner, the music grew to become such a distraction from my ability to heed what my body was telling me that I’d sooner have a gnat flying around my ear than listen to anything while I run!

On the other hand, if an easy run along the bluffs as the sun sets after a tough day at work is your remedy to distress, and you find you do so more easily with some chilled out soundscapes as your theme, go for it.

  • Safety.

Not only worth considering obvious safety factors such as if you’re running alone at night in a sketchy area is the risk you could potentially put your self at if you’re distracted and not paying attention to where you’re stepping. How many times have you almost bumped into a wall while you were texting…and walking, let alone running? While it might not seem as apparent as texting while you’re running, listening to mucis occupies some of your brain space and therefore could distract you and be the cause of rolling an ankle… or worse.

According to research from the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, serious injuries to pedestrians listening to headphones have increased by 300% in the last six years. What’s worse, 70% of the people in these accidents were killed. That’s a number that’s hard to ignore. Not only do we have a greater chance of getting into an accident while running–or walking or biking–if we’re listening to our iPods, chances are we won’t survive if that happens[3].

  • Accountability / partners.

If you’ve developed your love of running by being lucky enough to have access to a group, don’t be so rude as to show up for the group run with ear buds in place. For many, having that group of comrades with whom to sweat on a regular basis is precisely what keeps them showing up. If you’re not feeling uber conversational on one occasion when your group is meeting for their regular run, it’s easy enough to just do your own thing and be thoughtful while you run, rather than send out a passive aggressive that others should stay away from you as demonstrated by the headset blocking out all outside noise.

If you’re new to running and have found it next to impossible to endure the mere thought of running without music, take a look at what it is about running that you find so unappealing.

If you’re physically uncomfortable, get a gait analysis, make sure you’ve got the shoes that work best for your individual needs and that you’re varying your training surfaces.

If you’re running low on energy all the time, check in and make sure you’ve begun to implement a fat-burning, real Paleo approach.

Don’t take the easy way out and chalk it up to the fact that you don’t think ‘you’re built to run’.

If you’re human, you are.

It might just take a little practice!


[1] Jenkins, Tiffany. “Why Does Music Evoke Memories.” BBC Culture. BBC, 21 Oct. 2014

[2] Finn, Adharanand. “Does Music Help You Run Faster.” The Guardian. The Guardian, 22 Apr. 2012

[3] Dunham, Deborah. “IPod Free While Running.” Blisstree. Blisstree, 25 July 2011.