Whether you prefer working out to your favourite playlist, podcast or prefer running to the ambient sounds of nature, what we listen to has a surprising effect on how we exercise.
It was when my headphones died in the middle of a run that I started to struggle. My mind had been replaying a Girls Aloud video (I’d been listening to a 00s pop playlist – don’t judge me) when I was suddenly transported back to the real world with my heavy breathing and stomping feet. I was now fully aware of my movement and how tiring it felt.
Turns out, there’s a scientific explanation behind that sudden, painful crash back to earth. A 2021 study by the University of Tennessee and the University of Tehran found that any distraction from our bodies – be it aural, mental or visual – made running feel easier and improved performance.
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The small study monitored 12 female amateur runners on a treadmill. In separate sessions, the group was asked to do a number of different things: first, they were told to focus on the muscles in their feet as they ran; then they had to count their steps, before then being asked to count backwards in threes. Finally, they were asked to run while watching a basketball video. The study found that the greater the distraction – the video, in this instance – the easier the run felt. When distracted, participants consumed less oxygen, had lower blood lactate and a lower rating of perceived exertion and fatigue compared to when they focused solely on their bodies.
It seems we often seek distraction during exercise, with headphones considered as essential as our water bottles during workouts. But what should we listen to? Do different sounds affect exercise in different ways?
What’s the best soundtrack for endurance?
Music is often a go-to for endurance activity such as running, cycling or even swimming (hooray for waterproof headphones). It helps us ‘zone out’, distracting us from the monotony of a repetitive activity. Music is a big mood booster, so when coupled with the endorphin high of running you get a double whammy of happy. For me, running and music is escapism: running to my 80s pop or indie sleaze playlists (Kylie is just as welcome as The Libertines on my runs) puts an extra spring in my step.
However, varied tempos can mess with your pace and you could be missing a brain-boosting trick. A Finnish study in 2016 found that sustained aerobic exercise, such as running, actually created new brain cells, priming our brains for learning. So is a run or swim the perfect opportunity to be intellectually stimulated by a podcast or audiobook?
“If you need something other than ambient noise and your long run is meant to be easy, an alternative may be to opt for a podcast or audiobook,” Performance Physique running coach Arj Thiruchelvam tells Stylist. “They have a dissociative effect by providing an incentive to start exercising in the first place – great for busy people who want to multitask by learning as they improve their fitness.” But Thiruchelvam points out that there are many studies that favour music over talk if you want to make exercise feel easier.
What’s the best soundtrack for power?
Research backs the theory that music can aid power-based activities such as weight training and HIIT (now’s the time to add my love of Public Enemy to some lunges and burpees). A 2012 study of men performing bench presses and squat jumps concluded that self-selected music had a positive effect on ‘acute power performance’ with take-off speed, force produced and the rate of perceived exertion all greater with music. Similarly, research by the Memorial University of Newfoundland found that high-tempo music (around 130+ bpm) enhanced enjoyment and performance, and encouraged participants to give 10% extra effort.
Firas Iskandarani, master trainer at GymBox, explains: “Listening to music while doing power-based activity will often produce an adrenaline rush and gives you the boost and motivation you need in order to keep going. Our lifting class, Reppin’, is fuelled by pumping up the tempo rather than going heavy and slow. We find that this allows people to switch off from the discomfort of the exercise and focus more on the music.”
What’s the best soundtrack for relaxation?
It’s no coincidence that many yoga classes are soundtracked to ambient beats mixed with ocean waves and rainforest wildlife. A 2021 study by experts at North American national parks found exposure to natural sounds improved mood and cognitive ability, while heart rate, blood pressure and pain decreased. The sound of water had the greatest positive effect, while birdsong was best for relieving stress. Right now, birdsong is abundant in urban parks and gardens just as much as in the countryside, so tuning in to nature – birdsong, rainfall, the wind in the leaves – could supercharge a stress-reducing walk or run.
But for deep relaxation, should you embrace complete silence? “In yoga, music can create the right environment,” yoga instructor Eloise Skinner tells Stylist. “But more traditional practices, such as Iyengar yoga, advocate for silence because it’s designed to help the student turn inward and find stillness of mind. With music playing, students can easily lose focus, turning their attention externally.”
Putting music, podcasts and nature to the (run) test
In a short (and wholly unscientific) test, I trialled different listening choices on my regular run. Here’s how I got on.
Run 1: Podcast
Let’s work those new braincells! I felt I should swap my usual choice of comedians (not today, Kathryn Ryan) for something a bit more educational – a podcast with Dr Hannah Fry exploring the science of colours. It’s interesting but the first few minutes of the run drag and I’m frequently checking how long I have left. It’s not as all-consuming as music so I’m too aware of how stiff my legs feel. But I keep the podcast running for my cool down walk, and throughout the afternoon find myself remembering fascinating facts. A nice change.
Run 2: Music
My usual choice but it’s rarely matched to my pace. Professor Costas Karageorghis, a leading researcher of music in sport, suggests a bpm of 120 for a jog, rising to 145+ bpm for flat-out effort. A quick search for “running 120bpm” on Spotify gives me an eclectic playlist featuring Bruno Mars, Disclosure and Sia. Not my usual kind of playlist but I find it surprisingly enjoyable. Playing tracks with a consistent tempo really helps me maintain momentum and the time flies by. Result!
Run 3: Nature
I’m lucky to have woodland on my doorstep in suburban London. I spend the run headphone-free, concentrating fully on the sound of the birds and the snap of twigs underfoot. The birdsong really is beautiful but time creeps along and I’m drawn back to how the run feels (bit of a slog). However, the natural soundtrack matches perfectly to my ‘forest bathing’ post-run walk – a habit I’ll always keep.
The verdict: music is the motivator
Music, for me, will always be my top choice. It’s the best way to block out tiredness, motivate me and take my mind to a different place.
But maybe sometimes, we just need to give our ears a rest. “When it comes to exercise it’s all about listening to your body and mind,” says Anisha Joshi, osteopath and clinic director at Osteo Allies Clinics. “If you’re consistently listening to intense music and pushing yourself in workouts or if you are listening to podcasts and zoning out, it can be easy to get out of touch with your body. Make sure you are paying attention to what you are doing and how it feels.”
For more running tips, visit the Strong Women Training Club.