Should You Listen to Music While Running? Here’s What Science Says…

music
Photo by Haley Read

Do you listen to music while running or exercising? There are pros and cons to turning up the audio when you’re working out. Many former loyal music listeners have since gone sans tunes and will never turn back. Then there’s the scientific research that lauds the usefulness of audio, especially music, for maintaining a good tempo and/or for motivation to get out there. Don’t sweat whichever you choose, but know it’s not a “one or the other” decision.

The Naturals

Courtney Dredden Carte, blogger at EatPrayRunDC, says she formerly relied on music for her runs: “I used to spend hours carefully curating my running playlists…I made sure that my phone was always charged so that music would be ready to go.”

Similarly, journalist Matt Kurton wrote in The Guardian about how he used to run with Radiohead and podcasts while training for the London Marathon. But since, he’s changed his tune. He now doesn’t listen to anything at all, claiming his runs are better listening to his surroundings.

“I no longer spend half of each run swearing at the headphones that have just fallen out of my ears. In fact, the longer I have run without music, the more music has started to seem like a barrier to running, rather than an enhancement. I take much more notice of what’s going on around me and of the way my body is working.”

As a professional ultra runner, I find myself more in the natural camp, even on five- or six-hour runs. My reasoning is the same as the others: I prefer being present in my surroundings instead of looking inward to my created audio environment. Yet, I’m aware that there’s more to the picture than just how I feel: There’s science behind running enhancement with music.

The Science in Favor of Music

As much as running with naked ears may appeal to our emotions, we cannot ignore the ample studies on the effects of music while running. Studies have shown that music increases concentration, lowers perception of effort, and provides ongoing stimulus. This leads many study participants to believe that running is easier and therefore more enjoyable with tunes.

An expert on the subject, Brunel University Professor Costas Karageorghis states that performance can increase up to 15% with music. He calls it legal doping. His research from brain MRI studies shows that when upbeat loud music is played to athletes, there is an increase in activity in the ascending reticular activating system, which leads to faster, longer efforts with less perceived effort.

An important nuance to this is the type of music played. Slow-paced depressing songs could crimp your pace. Playing up-tempo, fast-paced motivating music that you resonate with positively is key.

It’s clear that music helps people run more and faster, and it could be the difference between someone exercising and not exercising at all.

The Bottom Line

So being a naturalist myself, I usually don’t recommend running with music to friends who ask for running advice. But, then again, I think about the times when I have no motivation to get out the door. Those long boring road runs that are purely fitness-building slogs. What do I do? Listen to podcasts. Tim Ferriss, Rich Roll, Diane Rehm, Modern Love—you name it. I crave any type of distraction to make the time pass by. So. I take it back, I’m not a naturalist. I’m a go-by-feel listener. And I suggest you try it, too!

Do you run or exercise with music or without? Are there particular times when you find it useful? Share below.