There are many divides in the running world: trail or road, sprinting or long distance, minimal shoes versus stability shoes, but one of the most notable discussions whether you should listen to music while running.
Some of us wouldn't dream of stepping out our front door without a carefully curated running playlist cued up, packed with inspirational tunes, high energy beats and the occasional guilty pleasure. Others can think of nothing worse, taking their runs as time for quiet contemplation, to take in the surroundings and lose themselves to the sound of their steady footfall.
- Essential reading: The best running headphones
Either is totally valid – the way you work out is thoroughly individual, and far be it from us to tell you to change the habits that work for you. But in case you ever wondered if music actually does make a difference to your running and exercise performance, we've sifted through the key sports science studies to find out exactly what it does – and doesn't – do for you.
Read on for some fascinating nerdy insights into the world of music in exercise, plus a few song recommendations for your running playlist (totally science-based, obviously).
Can music help you train for longer before exhaustion?
If you're looking to up your mileage and push your running further, there's no better way than good old fashioned progressive overload – following a training programme which steadily increases your distances and allows your muscles and cardiovascular system to adapt. But when it comes to running it never hurts to have a few marginal gains – so, can music give you that extra edge?
A study published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise Science saw participants undertake four treadmill runs at 90% of their maximum oxygen intake (ouch). Each run was accompanied by different music: rock, dance, inspirational (we're unclear as to exactly what this is but we're thinking potentially Chariots of Fire) and a control run without any music.
Another group undertook a hilly course with the same music conditions, and all participants had their rate of perceived exertion (RPE) and heart rate monitored. Sadly for anyone hoping the addition of the Rocky theme tune will power them to a new PB, there wasn't any proof that the music impacted the participants' heart rates or RPE, though 30% felt the music was a beneficial form of motivation or distraction. Not entirely bad news, but not the panacea some might hope for.
That said, there have been conflicting findings in other studies. One published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport found that elite triathletes running to their own choice of motivational music took 18.1% to reach exhaustion compared to a condition with no music at all. Their moods were more positive and their blood lactate concentrations lowest with the motivational tunes, while their RPE was highest when running with no music.
Additionally, findings in Frontiers in Psychology showed that runners in hot and humid conditions had a highly improved time to exhausted and RPE when listening to music – though don't let this distract you from the sensible options of staying hydrated, training in an air-conditioned gym or running at cooler times of day.
That said, if you're confined to the gym because of timing constraints or dodgy weather, we have even better news. Research studies published in Analysis of Behavioural Medicine and the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine both found that treadmills runners who listened to music and watched video at the same time had the lowest RPE. They also had the most positive experience irrespective of exercise intensity, compared to runners who just listened to music or nothing at all.
If that's not a reason to download that new Netflix series to your smartphone or become overly invested in subtitled Deal or No Deal repeats at the gym, we don't know what is.
Does music improve your physical performance factors?
While the above studies have shown music can decrease your RPE and motivate you to keep running longer, one pretty neat finding is that in one the runners' blood lactate levels were lower when listening to music. When your body converts glucose into energy to run, lactate is a leftover waste product – your body does its best to convert that into energy too.
If you run faster or longer, though, lactic acid begins to build up in your muscles and you aren't able to convert it, which leads to that grim feeling of your muscles beginning to seize up. That means that having lower lactate levels and being able to clear it well equals being able to run faster and for longer.
So, music lovers will be glad to hear that a study from the International Journal of Sports Medicine found that runners who listened to music on treadmill runs had better lactate clearance than those who didn't. These runners also had better blood flow, though their oxygen consumption was the same as runners who trained without music.
The thinking here is that it's possible music helped the runners relax and eased off muscle tension, making it easier for their blood to flow and lactate to clear - a pretty powerful psychobiological effect.
Can listening to music at different points in a run affect your performance?
There's nothing quite as irritating as your headphones breaking or phone dying halfway through a run, leaving you without a soundtrack and stuck listening to your jagged breath and feet clomping through the next few miles. But while it's a pain, not having music for the latter part of your run may actually not be all bad when it comes to your performance.
One study in the International Journal of Sports Medicine had runners listen to a selection of songs either for the first or last 1.5K of a 5K run. The group who had music at the start had improved performance and pace, whereas the group who had it at the end didn't.
In case you're intrigued, the playlist the study used had bangers including Destination Calabria by Alex Gaudino and Dreams by Van Halen – update that Spotify playlist, stat.
Can music improve my mood as I exercise?
It's no secret that exercise is a massive mood booster, whether you get a runner's high or an endorphin rush from cycling, lifting or a gym class. But can music and exercise together make a real difference to your mood?
The Journal of Sports Science and Medicine published some research which found no major difference in the impact between different types of music on emotions before and during running, though both groups in their study reported an increase in 'good' emotions afterwards. It's possible that this may have just been a result of the running itself – the jury's still out on this one.
Can music improve my running cadence or speed?
Your running cadence, or how many steps you take per minute, can be a key indicator of whether you're overstriding – taking too big a step each time your foot hits the ground, which can put more impact than necessary through your joints and lead to injury.
180 steps per minute was at one time touted to be the 'magic' number, but more recently running pros have accepted that cadence is a more personal factor.
Either way, if you're looking to hit a particular cadence, either to avoid overstriding or to up your pace, music can guide you there. Sports Medicine Open published findings that when music tempo was increased or decreased by 1-3% (the maximum change that can't easily be perceived by a listener), runners did tend to adapt their cadence to match. Interestingly, women were more affected than men by the change in tempo.
Similarly, another study in Perceptual and Motor Skills found that when listening to their preferred music, women ran further than when listening to their non-preferred music, and appeared to be more effected by it than men in the study.
Does it matter what music I listen to when I run?
While music with over 120 beats per minute is typically recommended by sports scientists as the ideal pace to run to, several studies (including the ones above) have shown music might only boost your performance if it's to your taste. That goes for other workouts too – Perceptual and Motor Skills journal found that listening to your preferred music while doing high intensity cycling can up your exercise distance, but non-preferred music could result in suffering more discomfort.
Can music help boost my recovery after running?
If you tend to end your runs by flopping onto the sofa in front of the TV or staggering around Tesco trying to find your preferred post-workout snack, we'd suggest adding a solid soundtrack to that too.
The American Psychological Association suggests that listening to stimulative music – that's music with an upbeat tempo and loud volume - can aid post-workout recovery, helping your body clear lactate and making you able to get back on the road more quickly.
So, there are a whole bunch of compelling reasons why listening to music during or after your run might help boost your performance, but be careful – some organised races ban headphones, since they reduce your awareness of your surroundings and can pose a safety hazard.
British Athletics ban headphones worn on a single carriageway in races when the road isn't closed to traffic, but that aside aren't against the responsible wearing of headphones. Double check what is allowed at your next event, then get your playlist lined up, charge that device and get ready to feel your performance gains come through!