Runners, like other athletes, often listen to music to get into the zone. Feel a drive. Find a focus. Set a rhythm.
While listening to tunes may not be for all runners, it’s certainly popular. If music provides a boost for this serious group of athletes, then it’s worth examining why.
Bend distance runner Colton Gale guesses he dons his old iPod Shuffle and Yurbuds about 25 percent of the time.
Usually, it’s when he needs something extra to get out the door, he said.
“Some days are just tougher than others,” Gale said.
Gale, 38, listens to the music of his youth that he can’t find on the radio anymore. Music that’s fun to listen to and takes him back to happy times. Fall Out Boy is a favorite.
This is in line with research into beats per minute, which is key for runners, according to Mike Wehr, University of Oregon psychology professor. Often, music used for running and working out is the same used for dancing. Typically that’s 100 to 120 beats per minute, he said.
“That tends to be pretty high-energy music that engages your motor system,” said Wehr, who teaches a course on music and the human brain. “There’s a really deep connection between our auditory system and our motor system,” Wehr said. “And music, when it hits at the right beats per minute, it really tends to get people to want to move their bodies in time with the music.”
It’s an ancient connection, he said. The earliest music was likely drum circles, which were used to get people to dance. And music might even predate humans, Wehr said, with evidence indicating Neanderthals made musical instruments.
There are primarily two reasons athletes use music — motivation and emotional regulation.
Humans can’t really dance to music faster than about 160 beats per minute, Wehr said.
“What happens is they revert to half-time,” he said. “At a certain point, at like 160 BPM, it starts to get too fast for people to actually dance to it — so they start to switch and go to about half-tempo, go back down to 80.”
So Pharrell’s “Happy,” which clocks in around 160, is actually a terrible song to run to. “Jessica” by the Allman Brothers, on the other hand, hits — depending on the version — between 95 and 105 BPM — perfect for running.
Though music is incredibly diverse even within cultures, researchers have determined the best music to dance to is simple with repetitive rhythms. The popular notion that the best dance rhythms feature beats around a pulse close to the human heartbeat appear to be a coincidence.
“If you’re just listening to music to enjoy it, you might really get into the intricacies of the lyrics or complex rhythms,” Wehr said.
A lot of the running mixtapes start out calm and reflective and gradually become more amped up and higher and higher energy as they near the end. The concept is similar to how a DJ plans his list of music to entice people to the dance floor.
“I guess the idea there is as you get closer and closer to the end of your workout you need more of a boost from music to keep you going,” Wehr said.
The music athletes choose often relates to personal experiences. For example, it’s not unusual for the music of one’s teenage years to stick with a person. It’s a time of intense personal growth, and music is a common way for young people to bond and form us-and-them group associations.
“It’s something that starts when you break your dependence on your nuclear family and start forming peer groups and bonds with friends,” Wehr said. “Music is a really important part of that, and it might be why we establish such a preference for the music we identify with in that era.”
For Bend running coach and owner of the Bend Marathon, Max King, the wind in the trees and the crunch of his footsteps is enough for him.
“I never (listen to music). I just like listening to myself and nature and everything else around me, rather than focusing on some music,” he said. “I just kind of like to listen to what’s going on with my body.”
Despite this, he said he does enjoy listening to music. He just listens to it when he’s not running.
While Gale enjoys his running music, he’s also content to go without rhythmic beats pounding in his ears.
“I definitely want to be aware of my surroundings, especially out in the wilderness,” he said. “But also, I just enjoy the simplicity of running.” •