Running to a Rhythm: How Music Helps Runners of All Abilities

Whether it's new runners or elite marathoners, many find music an essential part of running.

Not everyone runs with music, but those who do say it puts a spring in their step.

Sylvester Stallone unwittingly sparked a musical obsession—what athlete wasn’t pumped after watching his training run during the original “Rocky” movie? The clarion call of “Gonna Fly Now” still gives everyone a thrilling rush of adrenaline. Today, Rocky Balboa isn’t the only athlete with a favorite theme song—runners are tapping into the latest apps, headphones and players in search of the perfect run-music experience with the best playlist.

Music and running is an ongoing debate—does it add to or take away from training? And is it safe? Randy Accetta, director of coaching education for the Roadrunners Club of America, isn’t the biggest cheerleader for listening to music while running but still acknowledges its importance.

“Generally speaking, I tell runners to not run with headphones,” Accetta says. “Mostly because the sound blocks a crucial sense—hearing—that recognizes danger, whether it’s dogs or cars. However, I also realize that, for a substantial number of runners, music really does get them going when they’re out there.”

For runners who prefer to jam while logging the miles, Accetta suggests a musical compromise for safety: “If you’re going to be running outdoors, use one earbud. That way, you can hear your favorite tunes as well as being tuned into what is going on around you.”

RELATED: 3 Tips to Run Safe With Headphones

Accetta also suggests syncing a song’s beat to the desired speed of your workout. “Program your iPod to sync up with your run. When you start, begin slowly. Start with, say, some folk music,” he says. “When you know you’re really going to be cruising, pick your favorite up-tempo stuff: dance music, Queen, whatever. And as you are finishing up, stretching, walking home, pick some good chill-out music—whatever helps with the relaxation you want to achieve. Listen to your body’s rhythms—they will help you decide [the songs].”

Karen Quigley, a licensed family therapist, triathlete and life coach in Tucson, Ariz., has done some research on the link between music and running and how, together, they can benefit a runner’s well-being.

“I find that my clients vary in terms of their sensibility,” Quigley says. “I try to identify in them the sort of blocks and barriers they may have when exercising and running, which are often synonymous with the problems they deal with in life.”

For her more auditory clients, Quigley also suggests syncing songs with workouts, recognizing that beats-per-minute can motivate runners either to speed up or slow down when necessary.

“If I should identify a client as being more auditory, I’ve been known to suggest to people who run with an iPod that they program it with music for certain parts of the run,” she says. “They usually know when and where they have found themselves running out of steam or losing interest or focus. So we work on that.”

For real musicians and eager amateurs, Accetta has an interesting alternative to merely listening to music while running: He suggests composing tunes to keep the brain fresh as you run.

“If music is your thing, you can always think about wearing a Dictaphone when you’re running,” he says. “Whatever you see, whatever groove your shoes make, try coming up with tunes that inspire you when you run, and hum them. This can serve so many functions—it can keep your mind full of music, but it’s also an active, not passive, way of using (music).”

Elite American runner Ryan Vail, the top U.S. finisher in the 2013 New York City Marathon and 2014 London Marathon, finds music to be a major motivating factor during his training. He prefers his tunes to be thunderous ones—beating through both ears.

“Since I do most of my mileage on my own—as much as 150 miles a week—I listen to music most of the time when I’m training,” he says. “I started listening to music in high school—I had one of those Discmans with the skip control. The music in the running scenes of ‘Rocky’ probably had something to do with it too.”

RELATED: How to Match Your Music to Your Stride

Vail, who owns a 2:10:57 marathon PR, is unambivalent about running with music when he’s training—like most runners, his song choice depends on what kind of run he’s planning that day.

“I obviously need to know in advance what kind of run it’s going to be,” he says. “If I need to really burn it up, I’ll listen to some hard rock. AC/DC is a particular favorite. It really gets me ready for a race and very jacked up. If I want to just jog and go at an easy pace and enjoy the scenery, I’ll pick something mellow like The Doors. But there’s no question about it—music definitely controls my mood when I’m running.”

If he’s running with others, Vail ditches his music and enjoys the company of his fellow runners. “If I’m going out by myself for 60 or 90 minutes, I always have something on that will motivate me,” he says.

But music isn’t just for those top-tier runners logging 150 miles a week—many age-groupers turn to their headphones for added motivation as well. Artie Fisk of New Paltz, N.Y., runs up to 5 miles four to five times a week.

“I need music to have something to focus on other than just running, which I love, but, to be honest, is sometimes drudgery. There’s something about tempo that keeps me going until I’m done,” he says.

Fisk pretty much sticks with his favorites—he has them all picked out ahead of time, including artists like Tom Petty and Chris Isaak. “The tempos just feel right for me,” he says.

Karen Quigley addresses the parallels between running and life—and how music can often be the missing link between getting out of a funk and getting out the door.

“Running is sort of metaphorical for life,” she says. “If you find you’re blocked in a certain area, having trouble there, it’s best to find ways to help you get out of those old habits. If music should be the motivating force that does it for you, that’s great. Whatever gets you going and frees you up—I’m all for it.”

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