Bryan Burnett, Great Run's official Head of Music and PA announcer at many Great Run events, takes a look at the effect of music on runners.
IF MUSIC could actually make you run faster then I’m sure that by now Calvin Harris would be on WADA’s list of banned substances.
However, there is growing evidence that the right music for you can play a big part in making sure you are ready to race at your best.
Numerous studies have shown that, in controlled experiments, participants listening to music were able to out-run those who ran in silence. It also worked in other sports.
A 2003 study on cyclists, for example, found that those who listened to 142 beats per minute (bpm) music – tunes like things like The Cave by Mumford and Sons and Locked Out of Heaven by Bruno Mars – cycled faster for longer.
The psychology of music is fascinating. When Professor Andy Lane, a sports psychologist from the University of Wolverhampton, looked into the effects of music, he found it helps to regulate positive and negative emotions in runners.
And extensive research by Dr Costas Karageorghis, a sport psychologist at Brunel University, has shown performance benefits of up to 15% for some.
“As well as enhancing performance, music lowers the perception of effort”, Karageorghis says. “It dulls or masks some of the pain associated with training. We know from scanning the brain that when athletes are played loud upbeat music there is an increase in activity in the ascending reticular activating system.”
Misha Botting, a former dancer with the Bolshoi Ballet, is now a sports psychologist at the Sport Scotland Institute of Sport. From experience working with elite athletes and cyclists, Botting is convinced music plays a vital part in race preparation.
“Music has extraordinary potential of redirecting the mind and lifting the mood. The holy grail of sports psychology is selfregulation and music can be a good starting point in helping athletes achieve that.”
One of the ways it can help is by reducing your perception of fatigue. “Instead of thinking about your competitors or the consequences, it’s better to focus on the music and allow it to distract you from things beyond your control,” says Botting.
Dame Kelly Holmes is someone who made use of the pre-race music tactic. In Athens she listened to Alicia Keys singing If I Ain’t Got You before the 800m heats and applied the lyrics to the gold medal she craved.
She also claims that listening to Prince helped get her through the pain of this year’s London Marathon. “At nine miles I had Purple Rain on, I was loving it,” Holmes said.
“He kept me in control. When he came on I was like ‘smile, relax’ and that’s what I did.”
Usain Bolt is rarely spotted without headphones prior to a race and Mo Farah takes a similar approach, describing in his autobiography how he listens to tunes before every race.
“Depending on my mood, it’ll be some Tupac or maybe Dizzee Rascal,” Farah wrote. “If I want something a bit more chilled, I’ll put on some Somali music. The older stuff from the 1970s and 1980s has a really good beat to it.”
As head of music for the Great Run series, it’s my job to put together a playlist of tunes that might get 30,000 different runners in the mood to run. The playlists, should you be interested in using them, are published on Spotify and Apple Music, but with so many different types of runner taking part it’s hard to find a playlist that will suit everyone. And there is no such thing as a perfect song to listen to before competition.
“Runners have to be very selective in what works for them,” Botting says. “For 100 people one track could work but for you it could be a complete waste. Runners have to think through what works for them.”
Leave headphones at home
While it’s a great training tool, I would never advocate using it during a race. I always find it odd that you’d pay to take part in a big mass-participation event and then spent the entire race blocking out all the excitement with your headphones. Most experts agree that in a race you really need to be listening to your body and not to Justin Timberlake.
Besides, new rules regarding the wearing of headphones in road races was introduced into the 2016-2018 edition of the UKA Rules of Competition: “The wearing of headphones, or similar devices, (other than those medically prescribed), is not permitted in races on any single carriageway road that is not wholly closed to traffic. This restriction does not apply to races held on dual carriageways provided that there are clear, structured separations between the separate carriageways. Competition Providers of races held entirely on roads closed to traffic may apply this condition where appropriate to local circumstances.”
Race directors may also apply the condition to any race where they consider the wearing of headphones to be a hazard. It has certainly caused controversy, most recently in the Beverely 10km in May where 48 participants were disqualified for wearing headphones. Race organiser and Beverley AC president Andy Tate defended the move. “If runners are wearing headphones then they can’t hear the race marshals giving them instructions and directions,” Tate said.
”We’ve always tried to advise people before the race and warn them that we will disqualify them if they’re seen wearing them.”