Dr Brea Kunstler – Physiotherapist and behavioural scientist, Performance Medicine
I feel like there are two types of runners: those who run to music and those who don’t.
Some enjoy listening to their favourite tunes or a podcast and change what they listen to depending on the run (e.g. fast, upbeat music for sprint training compared to podcasts for easy runs).
Some refuse to listen to anything and instead appreciate being disconnected from the world for a short period of time or prefer to run and chat with friends.
However, some might do both and what they choose depends on their mood. Although I am not one of these people!
I always listen to something when I’m running. Either music or podcasts, I’m happy as long as I have something to help distract me from the pain of a steep hill or sprint interval, or keep me entertained during an easy run. I used to use headphones connected via a wire to my phone (I feel so old!) but now I use bone conducting bluetooth headphones, which prevents me from getting caught on fences and allows me to hear more of what’s happening around me (which is especially important during those early morning or late night runs).
But does music have an effect on our running performance? Or is it simply something that can make a run more enjoyable or even educational?
There are some studies that have examined this question. It appears that running with your preferred music (i.e. whatever music you feel like running to) can improve your speed, and subsequently your distance, if you’re a young male doing a 6-min self-paced run test. The first few minutes of a cycling time trial can also benefit from listening to music. A recent narrative review also found that listening to preferred music, either during the warm up or the main effort, can improve exercise performance. Listening to preferred music doesn’t just improve endurance performance, but also strength performance during resistance training, and reduces perceived exertion and enhances enjoyment.
But this leaves me wondering if the tempo, volume and other features of the preferred music further impact performance. For example, if my preferred music is relaxed and calming on my fast run day, will this reduce my interval performance by relaxing me a bit too much? Or will I still put in a strong performance?
Two reviews have emphasised the importance of athletes listening to preferred music. As long as the music is preferred then exercise performance should still be improved, particularly for women3,4. One review suggested that fast-tempo music was more beneficial for endurance activities4. Given it is important that your brain engages with the music to achieve good performance3, I reckon we should just choose whatever music we enjoy at the time because that might prevent our brain disengaging with it and therefore allow the music to exert it’s potential effect.
Before we think that listening to music is what we need to do to run our next PB, it must be acknowledged that a lot of these studies have been completed using small sample sizes and with highly trained athletes (usually males). Also, many of the studies assessed the effects of listening to music over short exercise bouts. We must consider how generalisable these findings are, especially to under-trained or non-elite recreational athletes and those running long distances.
I don’t think there’s enough evidence to conclusively say that you should listen to music if you want to increase your performance, especially without consideration for other factors like exercise duration, intensity, fitness, nutrition, overall health, weather, incline/decline, strength and power output.
So, should you listen to music to enhance your performance? If you enjoy listening to music then yes, do that because you enjoy it. But just make sure whatever you are listening to is something you really enjoy and can engage with. But if you prefer to not listen to music and just enjoy the sounds of silence, then do that.
At the end of the day, as long as you’re getting out there and enjoying your exercise while also challenging yourself at times, then you should see improvements in your performance regardless of what’s in your ears.
Need some help achieving your running goals? Book a telehealth appointment with Performance Medicine’s exercise and run coach, Dr Brea Kunstler, to see how she can help you achieve your goals. She can provide a referral to a trusted shoe provider who will give you 10% off the RRP of your new shoes.