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How Much Does Music Help Your Workouts?
The right song and beat can push you to run stronger—and to enjoy your workout more.
Fun fact: Before I started writing about fitness, I was a music journalist. I went on tour with the Warped Tour, I wrote for Rolling Stone when I lived in Australia, I interned for MTV News in college, I helped pull together SELF’s music issues (I even got Cobra Starship and Paramore in there), and I wrote Ariana Grande’s first-ever cover story for Seventeen. Now, I’m more likely to wake up at 4 a.m. for a long run than stay out until 4 a.m. for a late-night concert/afterparty, and I’m fine with that.
But music is a huge part of fitness for me, to the point where if I forget my headphones for a workout, I might as well have forgotten my sneakers—what’s the point? (I also love that music and fitness are becoming more and more intertwined: Steve Aoki is the “Chief Music Officer” of Orangetheory Fitness; Megan Thee Stallion partnered with Nike to share her fitness journey and dropped new workouts in the NTC app; pro middle-distance runner Nia Atkins released a single last year…)
I know not everyone is into running with headphones. That’s OK! But for those who do like to plug in on a run (or in the gym), music can be an incredibly powerful motivator, with significant physiological and psychological benefits.
Pump Yourself Up Pre-Workout
You know how baseball players have walk-up songs to hype up the crowd? It’s probably hyping them up, too. Listening to your favorite music for a few minutes before a strength training session can boost your power and endurance, according to a 2021 study published in the journal Perceptual and Motor Skills.
That can start before you take your first step: Playing pump-up tunes as you lace up may get you psyched for what’s ahead, according to research published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. One explanation is that listening to music has been shown to increase your brain’s levels of dopamine, a mood-boosting chemical, according to a study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience. Other research shows that music in general can reduce stress. These positive effects can all motivate you to move.
Just thinking about the songs you’re going to run to is enough to get you excited. Whenever I find a new jam (usually via Reels these days), I can’t wait for my next workout. It’s kind of like how the anticipation of vacation is almost as good as the real thing: When people were told to create a motivating workout playlist, they enjoyed the workout significantly more than those who made a playlist they didn’t know they would have to work out to, a 2012 study in the Pamukkale Journal of Sport Sciences found.
Make Your Workouts Suck Less In the Moment
I meticulously curate my marathon playlists because I know the right song at the right moment can help me find my second wind. And the research backs me up: Running to upbeat music improved performance when people felt mentally fatigued in a 2021 study published in the Journal of Human Sport and Exercise, and reduced the perceived effort involved, according to a 2020 study published in Frontiers in Psychology. That applies to shorter efforts, too. Runners who listened to music while doing sprint intervals improved their peak and mean power were higher over the course of the exercise session, a 2015 study from the Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise determined, and they also enjoyed their workout more with music than they did without it, according to a 2016 study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences. (Remember that when you need to gut out some tough intervals.)
You know it when you hear it, but an “upbeat” song generally has a tempo between 120 and 140 beats per minute, or BPM. The BPM of the music you listen to will likely influence your cadence (the number of steps per minute you take as you run). A faster tempo will naturally encourage you to pick up the pace; a slower beat can help you move more leisurely. Matching your music’s tempo to your training could be a simple way to run stronger. In a 2013 study published in the journal PLOS One, runners performed better when a prominent, consistent beat of motivational music matched their cadence than they did when they ran without music. It’s a form of auditory motor synchronization, similar to how a metronome helps a musician keep the beat. It sounds obvious, but that beat is actually lighting up a specific area of your brain that controls voluntary movements, according to older research from the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience—so to get the performance benefit, you need to find songs with beats per minute (BPM) that sync with your running pace.
As much as I love a song with a good beat, I’ve found that lyrics are equally important (it’s incredible to me how many songs mention running). Turns out, people who listened to music with lyrics while running on a treadmill had a lower rate of perceived exhaustion than those without music, a 2015 study out of the University of Tehran in Iran found. I’m a big fan of matching a song’s message to my effort, and there are a few ways to do that: I like kicking off a race playlist with a nod to the course (i.e. Fall Out Boy’s “Chicago Is So Two Years Ago” at the start of the Chicago Marathon or “Down to the Bottom” for a downhill half marathon), placing a strategic song (like Woodkid’s “Run Boy Run”) when I know it’s time to start hitting the gas pedal, or ending my playlist with all-time favorite running song (Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” duh).
The Post-Workout Payoff
The benefits of working out to music last long after you take out your headphones. Not only did high-BPM music improve endurance and help runners maintain a steady pace, it also led to quicker recovery post-run, according to a 2019 study from the Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada.
Listening to slower music post-exercise was shown to lower blood pressure and pulse rate more quickly than listening to fast or no music does, a 2013 study from the Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology reported, while another small study published in 2013 in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research determined that listening to music during a post-run recovery walk caused the participants’ blood lactate levels to drop more rapidly than not listening to music, plus the participants walked a greater number of steps and reported that recovery felt less demanding.
In the same way uptempo music hypes you up, switching over to a more soothing playlist post-workout can bring down your heart rate quickly and avoid a cortisol spike, smoothing the way for more rapid, effective gains, according to researchers at Brunel University.
Plus, people reported enjoying a workout more afterward when they listened to music, a 2019 study published in the journal Psychology of Sport & Exercise found. Whether that’s because it’s distracting from the monotony of steady-state cardio or the pain of pushing yourself to the limit in a speed workout or race, who cares?
I wanted to like this shoe based on the aesthetics alone—look at that chunky midsole! that breathable upper!—but NOBULL’s Runner+ did me dirty on my very first run. It’s got all the right pieces: a midsole made with 100% PEBAX foam, a flexible nylon plate, and a one-piece upper made from engineered mesh. But they just didn’t work together for me; I didn’t feel any of the springiness or bounce I’d expect from that underfoot combo. I did like the porous upper, which felt super light and breathable, until it started rubbing at the heel and gave me a blister before mile two. Robbe from Believe in the Run had a much better ride in these, so if you’re into the brand and want another opinion, check out his review.
Depression and Anxiety Linked to Underfueling
If you’ve ever dealt with the Female and Male Athlete Triad (AKA RED-S, exemplified by a deficit in energy, menstrual dysfunction in women and reduced testosterone in men, and poor bone health), then you probably know there are mental health effects, too. But can those physical symptoms be scientifically linked to psychological symptoms? Yes, according to a study published last month in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine. After surveying 1,000-plus athletes via social media (most of which were women), the study authors found a strong correlation between moderate to severe depression and anxiety and the symptoms of RED-S in female athletes. Remember: If something feels…not right, physically or mentally, the best thing you can do is talk to someone ASAP.
Ultimate Direction Comfort Belt
I’ve been testing running belts, and so far a standout has been the Ultimate Direction Comfort Belt. It’s a slip-on style, which I’m generally wary about (because standardized sizing is hard, guys), but I love how flush this one sits to the body; it’s super lightweight and doesn't seem to trap heat at all, despite the wider band. I stuffed four gels, a phone, and a 17-ounce water flask in the four pockets for last weekend’s 18-mile long run—and it was surprisingly comfortable! I did have to tug it down to my hips a few times (it should sit more on the waist) towards the end of the run, but I think that’s par for the course with any belt over longer distances.
“Inside the Wellness-to-Fascism Pipeline,” The Guardian
There’s so much BS on the internet when it comes to wellness—everyone’s looking for hacks, quick fixes, shortcuts, and more and more people are happy to give their followers what they want regardless of whether it’s backed by science or not. This piece on the radicalization of wellness was really interesting (and touched on some points brought up in The Gospel of Wellness, which I read recently)—it seems to be the result of mistrust of the mainstream, the gender data gap, and the prevalence of conspiracy theories. The link between far-right or conspiracy sites and supplements or fitness products is definitely concerning. So much of the wellness world requires readers, consumers, etc. to do their due diligence when it comes to vetting information, especially when what some “experts” are peddling is downright toxic.