Andrew Cowan (Get Set to Go Sports Coordinator): “Listening to a personalised playlist while I’m training and competing improves my mental and physical performance and helps to keep me motivated when the going gets tough!”

Last year I took part in my first ever Great North Run. Everyone has to start somewhere so after suffering a serious back injury nearly 10 years ago I thought my long distance running days were over after a lifetime of enjoying a variety of sports. I also developed significant mental health issues during this time which still affect me occasionally to this day.

In my current role as the Sports Coordinator at Tyneside and Northumberland Mind for the national Sport England funded ‘Get Set to Go’ project, our aim is to support adults in Tyneside suffering from mental health issues to engage in physical activity to improve their lifestyle and health. To lead by example, I decided I needed a significant physical and mental challenge to overcome personally and show the participants what can be achieved with a positive mental attitude and a bit of will power.

I am now due to run my second Great North Run in less than a week and wanted to share with others who will be running it or even those who would like to start a couch to 5K training programme; listening to music has been an integral part of my training regime and can do wonders for your motivation.

From my personal performance point of view, I know I really enjoy listening to music but I also know others don’t so it’s really a personal preference whether you do or not but hopefully I can tell you about some of the benefits to make your own mind up.

After all, plenty of studies have shown that music increases concentration, lowers perception of effort, provides ongoing stimulus and generally leaves you feeling more positive. Put on a pair of headphones, the thinking goes, and running feels easier and more enjoyable, so you get better at it.

The only bad thing researchers seem to be able to say about running with music is that you might damage your hearing if you turn it up too loud. There is also a personal safety aspect to consider as a lone runner if you cannot hear vehicles or people approaching but the solution to this seems fairly obvious.

I have collected some top tips below to hopefully inspire you so here is the science part!

Why listen to music when you are training?

You might choose to listen to music in your training just because it’s the only opportunity in your day when you can listen to music of your choice. Alternatively, you may view it as your chance to switch off from all the sounds around you – particularly if you’re running in a noisy urban area or working out in a busy gym.

Of course, if running outside, it pays to still be aware of your surroundings. Try running but keeping the volume low in the busy areas, or alternatively take one earphone out so you can still hear what's going on around you.

We all know that certain inspirational songs can help to motivate you while training, for me it’s the Rocky movie soundtrack! From hard-core trance to full-on rock anthems, everyone has their own motivational music which helps give them an extra push just when they need it.

The benefits of music to running performance

There’s now almost universal agreement that if you play music with a quick tempo, then you’ll run harder when you’re training. Evidence from a study which was presented at the annual meeting of the American Association of Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation in Kansas backs this up.
In the study in 2003, healthy volunteers were given music to listen to while they pedalled on gym bikes. The findings showed that the pedalling rate of the cyclists increased as the music tempo increased.

If that evidence isn't enough to convince you, then this fact might: the great Ethiopian, Haile Gebreselassie, is said to have set an indoor world record for the 2,000m in 1998 by synchronizing his stride rate to what he was listening to!

Why do we choose certain types of music to train to?

Music downloads make it much easier to make personalised playlists which match our individual running requirements. Many of us choose tracks because we associate them with a memorable moment, or simply just because we love the music.

Tempo is also frequently a key factor in what music we choose - and much depends on the intensity of the exercise we’re doing. For example, when heading off on a long run or cycle, you don’t want the music to be too fast-paced at the start because this might make you go off too fast, causing you to burn out too soon. Your choice of music should instead match the pace at which you want to go at the various stages.

Somebody doing a quick cardiovascular session, of say 20 minutes on a treadmill, may want to go hard at it for the full session, and so they may want something with a fast tempo for the duration – whereas people doing a steady-paced activity such as lifting weights will want music with an equally steady tempo.

Music and your training goals

Music seems to provide a lift when people need it. Fast-paced music can instantly raise the heart rate and give you an energy boost just when you’re starting to flag. It can also help sustain your rhythm, when you can literally step in time with the music.

Whatever your training goals are, listening to music will almost certainly help rather than hinder your performance. What you listen to should be your choice as music that works for some may not work for you. If you've never tried training to music, why not give it a go and see how it impacts on your performance?

As a note of caution, don't get too reliant on running with music to see you through in a race, since many races are actively banning the use of iPods or equivalent on safety grounds.

Running to the beat

Intuitively your body will try to keep in time with the song playing in your ears. Sports psychologists argues that running to music can keep you on track: 'Matching beats per minute (BPM) to our heart rate when running, or doing any type of strenuous exercise, helps us to stay on beat.'

As you keep in step with the music, your stride will be more rhythmic and in turn more efficient. You can get the most out of this motion and focus specifically on the beats of a song, enabling you to up the tempo or keep a steady pace for a slow run.

Why do beats per minute matter?

In choosing your running playlist based on the BPM of your songs, you can tailor you speed and the tempo of your training. For example, if you're heading out for a slower run, pick a slow track with around 100BPM. If you want to push yourself a bit more, go for a speedier one with 125BPM or above.
Here is a step-by-step guide that will help you to be a little more precise.

Distraction tactics

After a certain amount of time on the road, naturally the fatigue hits, making running at a consistent pace and with good form harder. Although feeling tired is clearly natural, much of this fatigue can still lie within your brain. So one way to see the effects of music on your running performance is to save your favourite songs for these particularly hard points. In the last third of your run try putting on your most motivational playlist and see how it carries you through.


Running with music is great, but be aware of your surroundings by keeping the volume to a level where you’re aware of what’s going on around you. Keep an eye out for road-traffic, pedestrians, animals and cyclists. It’s also good to mix it up and spend some time running without music, so when you do plug the tunes in it has more impact.

Finally, listening to music to run with and choosing the appropriate BPM to run to can have the following benefits:

• puts bounce in your step
• helps simulate speeds required to achieve run/race goals. I.E if your aim is to complete a 10km run in 50 minutes, selecting music with 166 BPM will simulate the pace required
• will help you avoid injuries and illness so frequently common among runners due to “over-use” and “over-training”
• helps the breathing pattern become more relaxed with more efficient oxygen intake
• helps the muscles to relax during a long run resulting in better blood flow and less muscle fatigue
• improves the ability to use fat as a fuel source
• will improve the muscle’s ability to store glycogen
• helps you find the mind and body mix that puts you ‘in the zone’
• makes you feel good

I hope these tips have been useful and good luck with your personal exercise goals!

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