The Perfect Playlist: How Your iPod Can Help You Run Faster and Harder

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Sometimes you need an extra push to hit the pavement or treadmill — or to make it through that last grueling mile of training — and the key may simply be loading right songs on your iPod, according to Dr. Costas Karageorghis, author of Inside Sport Psychology and a leading expert on the psychophysical and ergogenic effects of music at Brunel University, in London.

Music has specific motivational qualities that can make you work harder and faster, even when you feel spent. “Music has the propensity to elevate positive aspects of mood such as vigor and excitement, and reduces negative aspects such as tension and fatigue,” says Karageorghis, who has created custom workout soundtracks for several U.S. athletes competing in the London Olympics. “It reduces perceived effort, and training to a musical beat can enhance endurance.”

Whether you’re a casual runner or training for a distance event (if the latter, first check out our tips on training from last week), the right playlist can optimize your performance. Here are Karageorghis’ guidelines for putting together a runner’s mix that will get you across the finish line:

(MORE: It’s Not Too Late to Start: Tips for Training for a Distance Run)

Select tracks with energizing beats
Synchronizing your strides with an upbeat song can subconsciously increase your effort during a workout. In a 2009 study, Karageorghis and his colleagues found that matching training with music significantly boosted exercise efficiency and endurance. For the study, the researchers compared 30 participants working out on a treadmill — some listened to high-energy rock and pop tunes and some did not. Compared with those who worked out in silence, those who synchronized their pace to the songs’ tempo improved their endurance by 15%.

Jamming to rhythmic songs also lowers your perceived effort, making you think you’re not working as hard as you really are. Upbeat music increases activity in a part of the brain called the ascending reticular activating system, which “psyches” you up when you’re running.

“The optimal tempo range is 120 to 140 beats per minute,” says Karageorghis. “Our research shows this yields the best psychological outcomes.”

By looking up the beats per minute (bpm) of your go-to songs, you can also find the tempo that matches the heart rate you want to achieve during your workout. For example, if you want your heart rate to get to 130 bpm, choose a song whose tempo progressively increases to that beat, Karageorghis says.

(MORE: 50 Olympic Athletes to Watch)

Stick with what you know
A song’s cultural impact is a key factor in what makes it motivational. “There’s a strong relationship between exposure to a song and you liking it,” says Karageorghis. We tend to favor songs the more often we hear them, so pick a song that’s already in your music library.

Adding songs you associate with moments of perseverance, either from movies or your personal life, can also give you an extra edge. The “Chariots of Fire [theme song] has been used extensively at the London Olympic games,” says Karageorghis. “We’ve made an association with this song and characters doing heroic feats. When you hear it, it conjures images and thoughts of overcoming adversity and striving towards a goal. So you’re conditioned to feel stimulated, inspired and motivated.”

One of TIME’s own staffers, photo editor Liz Ronk, who is training for a half-marathon in October, says this strategy has already worked for her: “Sometimes I hear songs that are played at races that I would normally never listen to, and I’ll download them specifically for my runs just because the song will remind me of that energy.”

Don’t forget to hit shuffle
If you’ve had your playlist on repeat for the last two weeks, you may be desensitized to the songs’ motivational qualities. “This is why radio stations promote songs by playing them repeatedly, but then play it less and less, so listeners don’t develop a negative response to it,” says Karageorghis. “Change your playlist at least every couple of weeks so you don’t listen to the same track over and over.”

(MORE: 5 Common Mistakes You’re Making at the Gym)

Try digitally altering your music to boost motivation
To create playlists for professional athletes, including Great Britain‘s track and field captain, Dai Greene, Karageorghis films them working out at different intensities in order to identify tracks from their music libraries that fit their workouts. Then he tweaks the music to get them working ven harder. “Often I digitally adjust tracks to give a little push of one or two beats per minute,” says Karageorghis. “Differences in tempo of up to four beats per minute are indiscernible to non-musicians. You can easily manipulate your favorite tracks slightly. It’s a particularly good ploy if you want to give yourself a little jolt or get out of a training slump.”

Be choosy about lyrics
“Lyrics can be extremely important, particularly if they carry meaning for the athlete,” says Karageorghis. “You will notice a lot of athletes like your own Michael Phelps use music as an integral part of their pre-event routine. He’s famed for his rap-centric playlist. In Beijing, he listened to the song “I’m Me” by Lil’ Wayne which has strong affirming lyrics as well as being acoustically stimulative.”

Find songs with inspiring lyrics that convey what you want to achieve, like “Pump It” by Black Eyed Peas or “Lose Yourself” by Eminem.

(MORE: Do Sports Products Really Enhance Your Workout? Maybe Not)

If you’re still unsure where to start, below are sample playlists from Karageorghis and from our three TIME staffers who are training for half-marathons in October (stay tuned for ongoing updates about the training this summer):

Dr. Costas Karageorghis:

  • “Eye Of The Tiger” (109 BPM), Surivior
  • “Don’t Stop Me Now” (154 BPM), Queen
  • “Beat It” (139 BPM), Michael Jackson
  • “I Like To Move It” (123 BPM), Reel 2 Real feat. The Mad Stuntman
  • “Push It” (130 BPM), Salt-N-Pepa

Bryan Walsh, TIME International Senior Editor and Healthland contributor:

  • “Available,” The National
  • “Don’t Save Us From the Flames,” M83
  • “Ready to Start,” Arcade Fire
  • “Dog Days Are Over,” Florence+the Machine
  • “All of the Lights,” Kanye West

Liz Ronk, LIFE.com Photo Editor:

  • “40 Day Dream,” Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros
  • “Celebration Day,” Led Zeppelin
  • “Paper Planes ” M.I.A.
  • “No Regrets,” Aesop Rock
  • “I Can’t Turn You Loose,” Otis Redding

Liz Grover, TIME Imaging Desk:

  • “Is Anybody Out There?” K’NAAN feat. Nelly Furtado
  • “Lights,” Ellie Goulding
  • “Wide Awake,” Katy Perry
  • “Domino,” Jesse J
  • “Payphone,” Maroon 5

Don’t forget to protect your ears when you’re jamming on your workout. “Use music judiciously and don’t use it too loudly,” says Karageorghis. “High-intensity exercises coupled with high-intensity music above about 85 decibels can cause temporary hearing loss,” he warns. Stay alert and stay safe.

20 comments
kids songs
kids songs

we need to do it for good health...........

samisumo
samisumo

I am a little embarrassed to admit I have the theme from Flashdance ("What a Feeling") on auto repeat along with LL Cool J's "Don't Call it a Comeback." That's all I need even for distance running.

kumaran
kumaran

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HR Pufnstuf
HR Pufnstuf

Dang. I don't "do" Apple. I guess I'm just S.O.L. with my Droid. 

xarophti
xarophti

I don't do Apple, either. I do my workout with a years-old mp3 player. Your Droid should work fine. Or if you don't want to risk that working out, pick up a cheap, no name mp3 player. You don't need to store 16 GB of music for a workout...

Dill Weed
Dill Weed

PUH-LEEZE

You only need one album to kick tail in the gym.

Metallica Kill'em All - the one with Am I Evil?

BTW

Yes, I f'n am.

Fatesrider
Fatesrider

-chuckles-

Mankind and running. 

News flash for people who don't know jack about anatomy: Mankind is NOT made for running.   We've evolved for walking long distance and sprinting for comparatively short periods.

How many "runner injuries" are there?  Twenty?  Fifty? Too many to count?  It's because constant, long-distance running (or jogging, if you will) is not an activity mankind ever did while he was evolving.  And our upright postures take a pounding when we jog.  The up and down action of a jog - the jarring actions of foot on ground - stress the skeletal system including ligaments, and severely overstress the muscular system.   It taxes the digestive system and the cardiovascular system unnaturally.

EVERYONE can sprint (a much less jarring gait) or at least walk.  That's how we evolved: Sprinting to catch game or avoid becoming something's dinner.  The rest of the time, we walked.  There was no point or reason to run long distances (hard to do on uneven ground and even ground doesn't usully last that long out in the wild.   Our bodies have evolved to favor a smooth gait and not the punishing kind of thing long-distance running does to it.

Given this under-reported fact about our anatomy, this article basically amounts to advice on how to best destroy your body to music.

Good luck with that.

Alex Cornell
Alex Cornell

thank-you fatesrider. Unlike most ignorant folks out there, I adjust my lifestyle in accordance with the unsubstantiated claims of anonymous commenters at the bottom of human interest stories on the internet. Thanks for educating me about what's best for "mankind." 

xarophti
xarophti

The latest theories are just the opposite.  They are that early man would would often wound prey and would spend hours running/jogging after it until the wound finally caused the prey to stop so the killing stroke could be delivered. Just as the African Bushmen do today.

Laura Del Camp
Laura Del Camp

1) You don't need to be so condescending. 

2) Try reading Christopher McDougall's "Born to Run" for some perspective

brooklin352
brooklin352

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Miss Behave
Miss Behave

I also love Chemical Brothers' Galvanize. It's got the right beat and great lyrics to make you push harder. 

Dale Aceron
Dale Aceron

I've been pacing my runs with a metronome app at 166-171 bpm (5-4 mins/km) and it sure keeps me on track.

Raymond Chuang
Raymond Chuang

Actually, if you're doing a morning walk (which doesn't need to have something to inspire a good running pace), a better solution is to listen to podcasts. That's why I listen to the TWiT Network technology podcasts--long and informative, so it allows me to pass the time when doing morning walks.

careyg
careyg

The power of the beat has been clear to me for so long that I used to play cassette tapes on a variable speed (analog) tape recorder so I could adjust the dial to just the right beat for my feet as I ran. But since everything has gone digital, I find there's no iphone app that will let me do the same thing (one called something like the slow-downer makes you hand-load in every song.) All I want is to be able to adjust my beat speed the same way I do my volume, easily, as I run. Anybody? I promise to spread word to all my friends if you can help me!!

Stormy Neal Mongiello
Stormy Neal Mongiello

I found a service called Rock My Run that lets you download pre mixed playlist based on BPM, they have themes (4th of July, Country, 80's, explicit, not explicit, Pop etc) and different duration30, 60, Min etc,..) I hate trying to put together play lists so not only do I use them for Exercise I used it for work when I have a lot of computer time ahead of me.... 

Collider
Collider

Lame choice of music for a workout TIME..  How about some Damp;B, Psych Trance, Big Beat and Happy Hardcore? Personally I think the best workout music is the one that puts you in a trance. This is what I listen to for a workout, for the past 16 years:

Mampi Swift - Trippin (Dillinja Remix) /watch?v=xd2srfie8Go

Corrupt Souls - Dropzone /watch?v=jhSRNuOKKz0

Infected Mushroom - Frog Machine /watch?v=y7S8Rt-5wSc

Utah Saints - Believe in Me /watch?v=Gn3fc0S5zQ8

Scooter - Devil Drums /watch?v=isoK1AmTAek

The Prodigy - Take me to the Hospital /watch?v=nYyF-62G0UY

Enjoy!

Okay last one, since it's the Olympics and Coppola is such a talented athlete..

Chemical Brothers - Elektrobank /watch?v=mZrAlA31RUs

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Rochelleekd

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