Music is a natural, safe, and effective booster of athletic performance—and there’s a science to creating the optimal running playlist.
Our previous article was all about how science recognizes music as an effective performance enhancer. Music inspires confidence, delays fatigue, and activates specific areas of the brain that are critical to athletic performance. Music also helps people get into a desirable “flow state” also known as “the zone.”
Self-selected music is the most effective. People get the most benefits out of the songs they actually like. However, not every track you fancy is going to give you the best outcome in certain situations. This is due to the subconscious psychophysical effects that music has on the brain. You want to match a certain tempo (and even lyrics) to specific tasks. Fortunately, researchers have some tips which can help you choose the right songs to achieve the desired outcome.
How to Make The Perfect Running Playlist According to Research
- Before your workout, listen to songs that match a good, low resting heart rate (50-70 bpm). This can help regulate your levels of cortisol (the stress hormone).
- During warmup, move up to songs with around 80 bpm. This is the time you will most likely start getting into the flow state, in which the analytical higher cognitive system is inhibited.
- For a low-intensity start, cue up some songs with around 100 bpm.
- Your mid-intensity songs should sync up to a sweet spot of around 120-130 bpm which is great for jogging. For even better results, find tracks that possess prominent percussive and rhythmical features.
- At high-intensity, allow songs to hit a max of 140-150 bpm. Raising the tempo can actually increase your stride rate without you even realizing it. However, the researcher Costas Karageorghis cites a ceiling effect and says, “Anything over 140 beats per minute won’t make you go any faster.”
- Reverse this process as you wrap up your run, cool down, and eventually go back to rest.
- Post-task music should relax, soothe, be played with warm instruments, and have a simple rhythm with repetitive tonal patterns with limited pitch levels.
- Pick songs that you genuinely like. They don’t need to have lyrics, but if they do, you may want to opt for inspiring and affirming messages to promote motivational imagery and self-talk.
- You can try synchronous running by figuring out what your stride rate is. Count your steps for a minute while running comfortably. Do this every minute for several minutes, then calculate the average. You can then match your stride rate to bpm, for example, if you take 150 steps per minute you may want to listen to songs with 150 bpm.
- Don’t listen to music every single time you work out or run. Use it intermittently to prevent desensitization.
- Avoid classical music, salsa, or progressive rock—which speeds up and slows down throughout a song or features syncopated beats that are hard to follow in stride.
- Read more about crafting an optimal workout playlist in this comprehensive report for the International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology.
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