From the Archives: I am my own Walkman

[First published August 26th, 2010]


Self-appointed guardians of the purity of running (like me) might cringe at the thought, but for a large number of recreational joggers, iPods and MP3 players constitute essential running equipment, as important, if not more so, than their stylish Reeboks and Mizunos.

As a rule, I think it’s safe to say that serious runners are less likely to motivate themselves during a run with their favorite playlists. This generalization makes it somewhat easy to dismiss runners with music players as a different breed; who cares what’s playing through their earbuds? There are exceptions, however. Many years ago, I ran a few times with Alex Tilson, an ultra runner who in 2002 set an American Record 2:51:48 for 50K. I remember him hammering out 20-mile tempo runs on a 400m track, headphones on his head providing the soundtrack to his personal descent through successive circles of Hell — er, I mean his training.

Obviously, he was no lightweight. So maybe it is worth asking how music affects running performance and our motivation/willingness to keep going in the face of mounting fatigue. A recent article in The New York Times discusses recent research into these questions.

Does Music Make You Exercise Harder?

In the study, published last year by a team of British researchers, volunteers performed moderate exercise on a stationary bicycle while listening to unspecified contemporary music. The researchers varied the tempo of the music — the same music — and measured the work output and subjective sensations of the volunteers. What they found was that the cyclists were more likely to work harder and enjoy the experience more when the music was played faster. The fast music seemed to be linked to their motivation level in a fairly direct way, and that enabled them to work harder and longer.

Even if real, this effect might be limited to moderate exercise. The article also cites a 2004 study that showed that when participants ran at 90% of V02 Max, music was no benefit physiologically. In this study, about a third of the runners liked the music, but it didn’t help them to do more.

It almost makes me want to try the experiment on myself, but I find myself hesitant because — well, I’ve always thought that music was a crutch for people who didn’t like running and were trying to convince themselves they were doing something else. I LIKE running. When I’m plodding along, I LIKE to pay attention to how I feel, even when I feel less than stellar. The stream of thoughts in my head usually serves as all the motivation I need to keep pushing through the daily run.

Which raises an interesting possibility. Maybe runners have developed an alternate “channel” that they can tune to that serves the same purpose as motivational music, a kind of “workout radio” that serves up a steady stream of observations, memories, and self talk that keeps the interest level high. Included are fantasies about running in the Olympics, surging to drop a pack of rivals, out-kicking Bekele, that sort of thing…

Music is all right I guess, but I think I’ll stick with what’s already playing in my head.

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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1 Response to From the Archives: I am my own Walkman

  1. mick jagger says:

    I can’t speak to this as an expert as I haven’t run with music playing all that much but as a runner and musician I’ve noticed that when I have run with music the tempo of the music is very important. I find the tempo inevitably has an effect on my cadence and to an exten, my effort. On a few runs, a tempo that is slightly too fast threatened to wreck my tempo runs.

    This also reminds me that sometimes I’ll start hearing music and occasionally ‘singing’ while running and here again the tempo is closely correlated with stride frequency.

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