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You Can Listen To Music When Running If It Brings You Joy

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I have written hundreds of articles and I think I have directly mentioned listening to music during runs just once, back in 2017. Full of naive obliviousness, music was listed as one of three ways to reduce perceived exertion, along with caffeine and group runs. Little did I know … I was running into a buzzsaw of negative feedback.

Apparently some people have very strong feelings on this subject. So at the outset, I think it’s important to address some of the most common criticisms.

The big one that I heard over and over is that music could have a number of unintended consequences. Perhaps it will lead to dancing. We all know that dancing is blasphemous in this town. As a result, dancing and music should be banned entirely.

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Wait, that’s actually the plot of the 1984 movie Footloose.

The big criticism that I heard over and over is that music could have a number of unintended consequences. Perhaps it will lead to dancing. We all know that dancing is blasphemous in this town. As a result, dancing and music should be banned entirely.

The actual criticisms of listening to music while running are fully valid. I just felt the punk-rock need to completely lose anyone that was giving me the benefit of the doubt. This article is not designed to convince you one way or the other. The main takeaway is much simpler: Whatever you enjoy is amazing and supported, whether that’s running to music all the time or never, as long as you’re kind and caring to others along the way.

Anything that brings you joy or meaning or purpose and doesn’t cause harm to others or yourself is generally good. Everyone is remarkably different, and those differences can be celebrated.

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Studies on music and running

Prepare yourselves for a smorgasbord of scientific studies. A 2018 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning research had 17 runners complete a 1.5-mile time trial, once without music and once with motivational music. The runners with music had reduced perceived exertion and averaged 10 seconds faster with music, though the faster times were not statistically significant.

Going back to 1997, a review of the research to that point in the Journal of Sport Behavior found that music can reduce perceived exertion, and that “appropriately selected music can enhance enjoyment levels and adherence to physical activity.” In that article, I’m guessing “appropriately selected” means typing L-I-Z-Z-O into Spotify.

The Journal of Sport Behavior found that music can reduce perceived exertion, and that “appropriately selected music can enhance enjoyment levels and adherence to physical activity.” In that article, I’m guessing “appropriately selected” means typing L-I-Z-Z-O into Spotify.

Between those two studies, findings have been all over the place, likely at least partially attributable to study design and music choice. There is no consensus, but the general conclusion is that music may reduce perceived exertion for some athletes, could improve performance for some athletes  and could make some athletes drop it like it’s hot (S. Dogg et al., 2004).

Some examples: A 2006 study in Ergonomics found that music enhanced performance, but did not find significant differences in perceived exertion. A 2011 study in the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine found that music could improve mood and performance, varying based on music choice. Maybe effects are amplified by syncing the beat to cadence (2013 study in PLoS One), maybe by listening to music at the start of hard runs rather than at the end (2015 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research), maybe it depends on sex (2015 study in Perceptual and Motor Skills), maybe it depends on self-selected music choice (basically every study). At this point, the article might as well be sponsored by Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe.”

There is a strong countercurrent in the literature and no consensus. For example, a 2009 study in the Journal Of Exercise Physiology found that fast music may decrease cardiovascular efficiency. Perhaps the music made it hot in there, and the subjects didn’t take off all their clothes. A 2010 study on cyclists found no change in performance or perceived exertion from music. Interestingly, that study actually found a reduction in performance when participants listened to non-preferred music. I am guessing that those researchers made the unethical decision to use a Maroon 5 playlist. A 2013 study on cyclists found no performance changes at all.

There is even an entire book on Applying Music In Exercise and Sport that presents all the evidence. At least I’m guessing it does that. At 264 pages, I need to read reviews before buying unless it’s written by Jia Tolentino, Shea Serrano or features a child wizard.

The overarching conclusion is that music probably helps mood, perceived exertion, performance and exercise adherence for some athletes. For other athletes, it probably does nothing. Looking at the data, there are sometimes participants that perform worse even in studies that find music is usually helpful. There’s no universal answer because our backgrounds and goals vary so wildly.

What is the mechanism for music’s effect on athletes?

There is an immense body of research on music and mood that I won’t get into here. Basically, music mirrors and distorts and multiplies and divides mood, so pay attention to what you feel. Your answer will vary based on music type, activity and personality.

To summarize the complexity into a glaze, dissociative strategies like auditory stimuli may essentially provide a distraction at low- to moderate- intensities. At higher intensities, when performance requires more attention to the task at hand, any benefit may vanish (or reverse course entirely).

A possible explanation for how music affects the brain during exercise was outlined in this 2017 study in the Journal of Sport and Health Science. To summarize the complexity into a glaze, dissociative strategies like auditory stimuli may essentially provide a distraction at low- to moderate- intensities. At higher intensities, when performance requires more attention to the task at hand, any benefit may vanish (or reverse course entirely). That mirrors much of the research, but there are studies that show sweet tunes helping hard time trials, and others that show no benefit at all at any intensity.

Dissociative strategies could have longer-term impacts on training that are not beneficial. Or maybe they would help some athletes be more consistent, supporting improvement over time. We just don’t know because there is no universal answer. There are other psychological models that apply to the research too, but this article is getting long enough as is.

You probably already have an idea whether music helps you or not. Do you hear the start of “Bossy” by Kelis and feel motivated and excited to run? The Kelis Test (or Bon Jovi Test if you’re from New Jersey) likely makes some people want to run, and others want to run to the woods to escape any more auditory stimulation. Both answers are amazing. And different people can have different feelings on different runs (or within a single run). The words of the day are “different” and “maybe” and “crunk.”

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The million-dollar music question

The bigger question is whether it’s socially and morally permissible to run with music. Most ethical frameworks would say it’s probably OK unless it harms others or yourself, either directly or indirectly. Here’s how music could be undeniably bad.

You may be jamming out to the Space Jam theme song, oblivious to your surroundings, when you don’t hear another runner overtaking you, causing them to startle you or startle themselves or run off a cliff. Or the obliviousness causes you to run into another trail user. Or a car. Maybe your music is audible to others, taking them out of their experiences. Maybe you get eaten by a mountain lion that you could have otherwise fought off with your bare hands. Maybe that mountain lion needs to listen to music and calm down. Or maybe you could fight off the lion while listening to “Eye of the Tiger.” Epic!

If those bad outcomes were unavoidable, it would make music use while running bad. Being unattentive, being a jerk and not putting others first can be bad in many contexts.

The key is to practice responsible music use. Make sure you are aware of your surroundings. Be kind. Be caring. Be present and loving to those around you, and consider listening to music only after that standard is satisfied. Applying that standard, on some trails, music may never be a good idea.

You can listen to music if you enjoy it

I have seen some athletes describe their most transcendent life experiences happening with a soundtrack on a run. Other athletes attribute running music-free with their ability to stay present and find peace. Whatever you do, as long as you are being kind and caring and not imposing your worldview on others, you are right. Based on the research, it makes sense that people have different perspectives because people all respond to music differently.

First, athletes who listen to music often but do not listen to music on race day may feel demotivation. Most races do not allow music, so make sure you closely adhere to those requirements. I recommend athletes not listen to music while racing and to consider not listening to music for every run (especially hard workouts), but I understand that there are exceptions.

A few possible concerns, even from someone that has no problem with music if an athlete enjoys it. First, athletes who listen to music often but do not listen to music on race day may feel demotivation. Most races do not allow music, so make sure you closely adhere to those requirements. I recommend athletes not listen to music while racing and to consider not listening to music for every run (especially hard workouts), but I understand that there are exceptions.

Second, music could throw off perceived exertion, a key metric to understand training intensity. That downside implicitly acknowledges that music may work to make running feel easier, and like all things that work to alter perceived exertion (caffeine, running with friends), it needs to be calibrated carefully.

Third, music may act as a stress for some athletes. Running can be a wondrous opportunity to escape the noise, to turn on, tune in and drop out of the worries. How does music affect your mindfulness? For some, it brings them closer to the experience, making it easier to fully engage in the moment. For others, it cuts their spiritual growth off at the root before it has a chance to blossom.

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And maybe that’s the best place to end it. Does music make your spirit blossom? If it does, great. It’s OK to embrace that feeling. You are allowed to do things that lift your soul up. Just, please … don’t be a jerk.

David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. His book, The Happy Runner, is about moving toward unconditional self-acceptance in a running life, and it’s available now on Amazon.