‘Running With The Rage (against the machine)’ A Column By Mark Tucker

“It has to start somewhere, it has to start sometime
what better place than here, what better time than now?”

(Rage Against The Machine)

These are the type of song lyrics I loved listening to in the days leading up to a race: motivational, strong, positive and loud. Not so much right before a race – when adrenaline was already high and anymore risked pushing me over the optimal bell curve edge – but in the days, weeks and months leading up to a race, when anything that could combine to both entertain and motivate was greatly appreciated.


“Now I got no patience, so sick of complacence!” (Rage Against The Machine)

I never raced or trained with headphones on, music pumping, but research suggests maybe I should have. Studies have shown that music can significantly boost endurance and performance in distance runners. Dr. Coastas Karageoghis (in his book: Inside Sport Psychology, written with Peter Terry) claims that as much as fifteen percent can be added to your running performance if you listen to music while running. However, it comes with a caveat: if you mostly ‘associate’ when you run, so focus on your body and how you are feeling, then you are unlikely to experience much benefit. The good news is that if you mostly ‘disassociate’ when you run, so think of other things outside of your body, then you will most likely experience a significant improvement to performance. This basically means that elite runners are unlikely to get much benefit – notorious for being associative – but happily, the majority of non-elite runners will most likely receive a boost from the music/running combo.

In two studies from the noughties that focused on music tempo and exercise performance, it was found that music in general improved performance, but the tempo of music was only significant in one of the studies.

In a 2005 British study, a group of untrained men and women were divided into three groups – no music; low beats per minute music; high beats per minute music – and were told to ride on stationary bikes (with no further instruction). While there was no significant difference found between the music groups, the non music group performed significantly poorer than both groups who listened to music. Interestingly, their perceived level of effort was also reported to be higher than both music groups.

Then we have a 2009 study that showed that music tempo does have an affect on exercise performance. In a study by researchers at Liverpool John Moores University in England, twelve subjects all listened to music while they cycled on a stationary bike. However, unbeknownst to them, the music was manipulated so that some of them listened to slower tempo music and others listened to faster tempo music. It was found that the participants who listened to faster tempo music performed significantly better than the slower tempo music participants.

Being relative small sample sizes – eighteen participants in the 2005 study and only twelve participants in the aforementioned 2009 study – the evidence is still inconclusive. Like most things in life, you will need to experiment for yourself to see what works best.

Personally, I’m weary of training with headphones on, especially if crossing roads: I like to be aware of my surroundings, and to enjoy everything the outdoor experience offers. But I can definitely see benefits in listening to music while trying to find an extra effort when tired, or to keep on running strongly, past half way, in a solo long run.

Chariots of Fire
Chariots of Fire

I’ve also enjoyed the times when music has blared out of the loud speakers on a start line of a road race, the classic ‘Chariots of Fire’ giving me goose bumps just before race start. It’s also a huge bonus when music is played during the race: live bands on course giving you a momentary lift as you pass (The City-Bay in Adelaide comes to mind). But it probably goes without saying that for any running event music can be a valuable addition, enhancing the atmosphere for participants and observers alike. Especially if this is played just before race start:

Ya got to know
Ya got to know
That when I say go, go, go
Amp up and amplify

(Rage Against The Machine)

Followed by the starter firing his starting gun or, if more casual, just saying ‘go’. Then you know what you have to do. Power off that start-line: Amp up and amplify!


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