Not so long ago, if you wanted musical accompaniment on your runs, you'd have needed to carry a hefty CD Discman. Your soundtrack would most likely have skipped and scratched its way to mile three before you turned it off in frustration, leaving you with a useless and unwieldy appliance to carry around the rest of your route. But not any more...
Today's digital audio players (DAPs, aka MP3 players) make training with music simple and have opened up the benefits to more of us than ever. You can pick up a basic MP3 player on the high street for less than a pair of trainers and, as more and more households have a PC or Mac, most of us are technologically aware enough to download tunes (or have offspring who can give us a quick tutorial). Filling up an MP3 player no longer feels like a daunting task.
Since the Walkman burst onto the market in the early 1980s, technology has developed, from the Discman to the MiniDisc, MiniDisc to DAP devices. Each device was smaller, lighter and with a larger capacity than the last. Today's devices are so tiny and light that they can be clipped to your sleeve or incorporated into a pair of sunglasses, and it's now remarkably easy to create a highly personalised soundtrack to accompany us on training sessions to harness the benefits of music. But can training to music really improve your speed and endurance?
Is it all in the mind or are there any proven physical improvements to be had from training to music? The experience of top-distance runner Haile Gebreselasie of Ethiopia would suggest the latter.
He famously set an indoor world record for the 2,000m in February 1998 while listening to one-hit wonder Scatman John's 'Scatman (Ski-Ba-Bop-Ba-Dop-Bop)'. Gebreselasie matched his footfall to the tempo of the song and used the repetitive beat to his advantage.
Music seems to benefit two different sorts of training sessions: the hard efforts, such as tempo runs and turbo training; and long, steady runs. For hard efforts, loud, upbeat music with a fast tempo can get you psyched up and ready to attack the session. It can also help keep you going to the very end, when you might otherwise be tempted to back off the pace. On longer, steadier sessions, which carry a potential boredom factor, steadier, gentler music can provide a regular rhythm to carry you through the miles calmly.
Your personal selection of tunes can keep you motivated and pick you up when you start to flag, distracting you from feelings of pain and fatigue. It can also promote a sense of happiness and enthusiasm that may otherwise have been lacking.
The science of running and music
According to Dan Bishop of Brunel University's School of Sport and Education, there are two main sources of emotional response in humans to music: extrinsic and intrinsic forces.
Extrinsic forces are the powerful and very individual emotional responses to a particular piece of music; music that we might associate with a loved one or a particular memory or period of our lives. The music creates a psychological response in us and conjures up powerful mental images. There's also an autonomic, or physiological, response in which factors like heart rate and blood pressure change, echoing the symptoms of warming up. In this way, listening to music can prepare the body for training or racing.
Intrinsic forces are less individual and are based on the facts of the music: its tempo, pitch, harmony and melody. The acoustic properties of a tune can affect our mood state: we may associate a faster tempo with a happier mood.
It's these intrinsic emotional forces that lead a piece of music to make a training session seem easier and lessen our perceived effort. Intrinsic forces alter the intensity of our emotional response to music, whereas extrinsic forces affect the content of our responses.
Bishop, who is completing a PhD in the neuro-psychology of emotional responses to music, also says that music can help by distracting the brain from other stimuli, such as fatigue or lactate, which are competing for your attention. So turn up the volume and the music will drown out all the other factors trying to make their presence felt - for a while at least.
In a recent study, Bishop asked participants to listen to music and then perform activities inside an MRI brain scanner, as their reaction times were measured. The experiment showed that while listening to music which subjects perceived as highly arousing (loud, fast music), there was an enhanced emotional response and an increase in the brain activity involved in visual perception and movement. In short, while listening to stimulating music, people feel more alert.
Remixes and new releases
Variety is the spice of life, however, and we can become habituated to any stimuli, including music, so a medley of songs might be better than repeating a few tracks over and over again. Keeping your playlists fresh and new prevents your brain becoming accustomed to them. Services like Spotify can help you find new music to suit your tastes without spending hours sifting through music online.
What about manipulating music to your advantage? Some of Bishop's research suggests that changing the volume or speeding up a track can improve motor-neurone pathways, making them respond more quickly. This has potential for triathlon performances, because studies show that you can actually recruit more muscle fibres by listening to the right music.
The pathways from our brain to our muscles are more likely to fire after listening to music that we consider highly arousing. Although more research is needed to show exactly how these mechanisms work, listening to music with a fast tempo is arguably indicative of a more highly aroused state, and we are evolutionarily primed to become more aroused as a response.
Our motor cortex responds by increasing the excitability of the pathways. This in turn means that the brain is more likely to send signals to a greater number of muscle fibres than it would do if we hadn't just listened to fast music.
In muscles, the force of contraction is, in part, determined by the number of fibres recruited in the tissue. So listening to music played at a loud volume, with a quick tempo, may increase this recruitment.
Websites and downloads
There is evidence to suggest that creating your own personalised playlist for training sessions works well. You can pick songs that resonate with you and can predict the effect they'll have on your session, placing certain songs to coincide with hills or tough patches.
However, the internet can offer a wealth of resources if you want to change your tracklist more regularly. The Podrunner is the most popular dedicated podcast for training to music. Updated every week, it's free to download and offers a series of dance music mixes sorted by your own heart rate.
Over 3 million runners download the hour-long, weekly podcasts to their MP3 players, using the seamless mix of new, fixed tempo music to keep them running at a steady pace. You can choose from 130bpm to 180bpm.
If you want to arrange your own playlist by heart rate but prefer to use your own music, you might like to try the MixMeister BPM Analyzer, which is free to download and use. It works out the bpm of any song you have on your computer, allowing you to compile your own sets of songs by tempo. The software will save the bpm information in the song's ID3 tag (a metadata container for MP3 files) and then allow you to export the information in order to create your own playlists.
The sports giants Nike have teamed up with the technology whizz-kids at Apple to offer a range of new services to people who exercise with music. According to Apple, 50% of iPod Nano owners use the device while exercising. The Nike+ iPod Sports Kit connects your running shoes and your iPod via a sensor in the insole, to track the statistics of training sessions. You'll see your pace, time and distance on-screen and hear audio cues through the headphones. Back at home, you can synchronise your iPod to your computer and upload the information to the Nike+ website to track your progress.
In true web 2.0 style, you can even share and compare your results with others in the Nike+ community. The Nike+ site (see below, right) features a list of top 10 'powersongs' (as voted by Nike+ users), and selected Nike-sponsored athletes also share their own favourite training tracks.
Through its partnership with Apple, Nike+ users can download other athletes' playlists (including Paula Radcliffe's and Lance Armstrong's) and download Nike+ playlists that are tailored to different sessions.
Dangers of running with music
Of course, there's a time and a place for wearing earphones on the run. It's not safe to run with music in traffic or in unlit areas, and you should always bear in mind that music can block out background noise and distract you. It's your call, but we'd urge you to use caution and only listen to music when you're sure you can cope with the extra stimulus.
There are also those who feel that listening to music while training outdoors dilutes the experience. It seems a shame not be able to hear the sounds of birds, the breeze or even your own breathing and footfall. If you agree, then listening to music while running probably isn't for you.
The number of people running with music seem to be growing faster than ever, and the increasing amount of new devices and online resources support their desire to train to their own soundtrack. While there will always be those who see running outdoors as a time to escape the sounds of the modern world, there is evidence to suggest that music has real psychological and physical benefits for running and turbo sessions. Add an MP3 to your kitbag and see where the music takes you.
Nicola Joyce is a freelance writer and triathlete. She swam solo across the English Channel in '04 courtesy of Apple
Soundtracks of the stars
World and National Triathlon Champion Tim Don is a fan of listening to music while training but leaves the MP3 player at home when he travels to races. He prefers to keep both ears free for race announcements.
"I listen to music on long runs or shorter tempo runs," he says. "I like steady, uptempo tracks rather than fast dance music. I'm not trying to make myself go faster – I'm trying to relax into a rhythm and stay in tune with my body. My MP3 player has stuff like Oasis, Gorillaz and Razorlight on it. I also listen to songs that have personal significance to me, like 'Lose Yourself' by Eminem, to gee me up before a hard effort."
Ironman finisher and Hawaii qualifier Monique Hollinshead listens to music to help combat the boredom that can occur after having run the same training routes for years on end. She programs set songs to come on at certain points of her runs. She warms up to her favourite folk or punk male voices to keep a steady pace before the heavy metal (Green Day and Rammstein) kicks in when she needs to pick the pace up. Personal favourites are at the end of the compilation as a treat for working her way through a particularly long session.