What music should you be pumping through your headphones when you work out? This isn't just about taste. The right music can improve your form, optimise your heart rate and lower your risk of injury. Listen up.
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Determine the Target Tempo
Legendary distance running coach Jack Daniels analysed the stride of many elite runners, and he found that they almost all took 180 steps per minute (or 90 steps with each leg). Since this revelation, 180 has become the bullseye pace. To hit this number, runners usually need to take more steps -- most people have a bouncy stride, which wastes energy and strains joints through excessive impact.
You don't need to run with a metronome to measure the 180 beats per minute (BPM) tempo. The right songs do the counting for you. Now, you won't find a lot of allegrissimo songs set to 180 beats per minute. But you will find a gazillion songs in the ballpark of 90BPM range. Those can work just as well to keep you right near the 180BPM rate. (Really, any pace from 170 to 190 BPM will do.) Here's how to find the right types of tunes.
Analyse Your Music
If you have a sizeable digital music collection, download a program that analyses the BPM of your music. I had good results with Cadence Desktop Pro, which is available for Mac and Windows. It analysed my entire iTunes library and added the BPM to the metadata. Once it was done, I Just went to View > View Options and checked Beats Per Minute under "Show Columns" in iTunes. Super easy, and generally pretty accurate, though long intros can trip it up (as can audiobooks).
If you need music recommendations to build a playlist from scratch, sites like Running Music Mix helpfully list songs by BPM range.
Tap To Check
Once your music is sorted into a BPM-driven playlist, double-check for a consistent tempo. Listen to a song and use three fingers, one at a time, to tap along in time. Watch the seconds tick off in the music player. If the song is 180BPM, you should be tapping exactly three times per second. If it's 90BPM, tap in double-time, three times per second. When you're sure the music is in range, copy that playlist onto an MP3-playing device and put on your running shoes.
Of course, several optimal playlists emerged as a byproduct of this research. If you stream music, you're in luck.
The Hard Part Is Figured Out Already
This project produced two rather large Spotify playlists in the 170-190 and 85-95 BPM range. It took forever. You're welcome.
Click either of those links to open up your Spotify app to subscribe to the playlists. The hip-hop list contains 138 tracks for about nine hours of dope jams. The Rock and Other list is a random hodgepodge—it probably won't fully satisfy anybody's exquisite taste, but it's got 91 tracks for five hours of music. Grab the songs you like and add them to playlists of your own. If you've got Spotify Premium you can listen on your mobile device. (Note: We made every effort to make sure all of the songs were in the correct range, but it's possible that one or two off-tempo tracks snuck in there.)
For those that don't want to shell out for Spotify, go through some of these songs in the free desktop app, and find your favorites. If you've got them in your home collection, then great—put them in a playlist.
Running In Time
As you run, you have to actively try to step to the beat to set your pace in time with the music. It takes some getting used to, because it's a higher turnover rate than most runners naturally use. At first, it feels like you're taking tons of tiny steps. But it starts to feel more natural after a while. You'll find a rhythm in which a single footfall strikes on each beat of the 180BPM songs. At that same pace, your feet will strike at exactly double the rate of the 90BPM songs, so that each left foot strike (or right) is in time with the song's beat.
Do you have some favourite running songs in the 85-95 (or 170-190) BPM range? Let us know in the comments.