Does music really help distance runners?

runnin-benMany  runners won’t hit the road without their headphones on, with a specially-chosen playlist for running.  For them, it’s an essential part of their gear.  That said, others dismiss running music as a “crutch” that shouldn’t be used.  “Enjoy the scenery,” they say.  “Be part of the community” instead of isolating yourself behind noise-cancelling earbuds.

Being a full-fledged member of the earbud tribe (I have a playlist full of songs that have only one thing in common – a BPM between 88 and 94, to match my midsole running cadence of around 180), I wanted to have actual facts on my side the next time I get into this conversation.  So I started looking around at studies on the topic.

It didn’t take long to scope out the studies.  Turns out, there have been several studies focusing on the effects of using music to accompany aerobic workouts.

In a 2012 study by researchers at Sheffield Hallam University in the U.K., participants who cycled in time to music required 7 percent less oxygen to do the same work as cyclists who did the same without background music.  The study suggests that people naturally use music as a metronome for their movements, whether it be pedaling or running.  The tempo helps them maintain a steady pace, reducing false steps and increasing efficiency.

Surprisingly, I also came across a study that suggests that relaxing music can aid the recovery process.  I have to admit, I was a bit skeptical on this one – the concept that music could actually have a physical effect on our bodies and hasten the healing process.

The study focused on young female athletes who had just completed intense exercise sessions.  Results suggested that listening to soothing music after a tough workout actually had a physiological effect.  “Relaxing music can narrow attention, divert the mind from exercise-induced fatigue, affect arousal, and reduce blood lactate level of athletes.”  This study was published in the International Journal of Sport Studies 2.9 (2012): 432-435.

In a 2008 study, Iranian researchers showed a significant different in RPE (rate of perceived exertion) in groups of subjects doing aerobic training.  One of the groups was comprised of trained athletes, while the other was comprised of non-athletes.  Surprisingly, the findings were applicable to both groups.  “Regardless of their fitness level, music had an effect on the time leading to exhaustion for both of the groups,” the study found.  While the improvement was noticeable, the effect was attributable to psychological factors.

In short, exercising with music (preferably up-tempo music, according to the study) is about motivation, and the findings apply to everyone, regardless of their level of fitness.

So, there you have it.  While more study is probably needed to conclusively say that listening to music during and after a long run actually affects your performance and your recovery, there seems to be enough evidence to at least give credence to the claims.

And, above all, I have a couple of arguments to hang my hat on in the next argument over headphones!

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