Can music make you a better runner? The science behind how music affects our brains

My essential workout equipment

I’ve always felt that music makes running easier, and if you’re like me, then you probably won’t head out for a run without your iPhone, some headphones and your favourite playlist.

Recently, I’ve grown curious to find out if music is actually helping me while I’m out running or whether it’s just something I do through habit.

After a quick Twitter search for keywords related to running and music, it’s clear to see that I’m not alone in believing music to be a key part of my exercise routines. So, now it’s time to find out: can music make you a better runner?

Time to experiment

Before delving into the research and science behind running and music, I first decided to experiment. I went out for a run with some music playing and Runkeeper tracking me all the way. There was nothing unusual about this run, I ran my normal short route, listened to a playlist of my favourite songs and my pace was good (I completed three miles in my usual time).

For my next run, I went without any music playing and took the same route as I did in my previous run. I felt like I was running at a good pace, then surprising, when I checked Runkeeper, I was actually running slower than usual. Running three miles seemed more of a struggle and when I’d completed the run my time was slower than normal too.

So, from my experiment results it seems music might have an affect on my running ability or are the results of my experiment simply a one off? I decided to delve deeper and find out.

Music on the mind

My first port of call was to see how music affects our brains in general and it turns our music affects us in many different ways as explained in the graphic below.


How music affects our brain during exercise

Though there have been a number of recent studies on the relationship between music and exercise, research on this subject dates back until at least 1911 when Leonard Ayres found that cyclists pedaled faster while music was playing than when it was silent.

Over 100 years later, in 2012, another piece of research showed that cyclists who listened to music required 7% less oxygen to do the same work as those who cycled in silence without music. So not only does music help us to push ourselves further and faster, it can also help us use our energy more efficiently.

Studies have also shown that when athletes work with music they often work harder for more sustained periods of time, as illustrated below.

Sustained activity music

A type of legal performance enhancing drug

Music changes people’s perception of their own effort throughout a workout. Simply put, music distracts us from pain and fatigue, elevates our mood and increases endurance.

Dr Costas Karageorghis of Brunel University in London, one of the world’s leading experts on the psychology of exercise music, wrote that one could think of music as “a type of legal performance-enhancing drug.”

During my quick experiment, I was able to run quicker in my first run (with my headphones in and music on), because my brain was distracted from the fatigue I was feeling. During my second run (without music) I had little else to focus on, thus the fatigue was getting to me quicker.


The image above shows our brain at rest vs our brain when reacting to music. You see a much wider region that is activated when music is playing.


Another way music increases endurance is by bringing out our emotions. We all have certain songs that remind us of special occasions, motivate us and make us awash with emotion.

Music competes for the brain’s conscious attention and helps us get lost in the moment – instead of our focus being on the miles we’re covering and the distance to go, we can instead escape to a place the music takes us. If we strongly identify with the song we’re listening to it can increase our motivation and focus too.

What’s the most popular workout music?
According to a study of college students the most popular types of music listened to during exercise are Hip Hop (27.7%), Rock (24%), Pop (20.3%), and Country (12.7%). Tweet this!

Music tempo and loudness

It’s clear that music does affect our running ability, but can different types of music have different affects on us? A study by Judy Edworthy and Hannah Waring at the University of Plymouth looked to answer that exact question.

Using the two variables, tempo and loudness they tested 30 physically active participants in five conditions (loud/fast, loud/slow, quiet/fast, quiet/slow, and no music) at a self-selected pace for 10min on a treadmill.

What they found was that loudness and tempo boosted the participants’ speeds and heart rates in a predictable manner. Louder and faster music resulted in the subjects selecting a faster treadmill pace than slower and quieter music.

Tip: While compiling your next running playlist it could be worth keeping in mind that there’s a ceiling effect on music at around 145 bpm – anything higher doesn’t seem to add much motivation. Apps like Songza can be great for helping you find the perfect running music.

The results are in

When I started the research and experiments for this post, I set out to answer the question: can music make you a better runner? And, it appears the answer is a resounding ‘yes.’

Music doesn’t make the strain exercise puts on our bodies any less severe, but it makes it more bearable. It gives us a way to escape from the signals of fatigue and helps us to become stronger, faster and even braver in the pursuit of the finish line.

At the highest levels, where athletes are finely tuned for performance and at the top of their game the affects of music are minimal, but for those of us who aren’t professional runners it can make a profound difference to our mentality and results.

What have you noticed about how music affects you while you exercise?

P.S. If you enjoyed this post you may also like The biggest secret to health, happiness and fitness and Why you should stop trying to get 8 hours sleep every night.

Image credits: Suites Culturelles, Tinnitus Management, Pace DJ

Community Manager at Addapp. I love sports, fitness and tracking. Outside of the office can often be found on a basketball court or football pitch.

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