Music evokes emotion. It sets a mood; it can psych you up or make you feel at peace. It can help you tap into your drive and inspire you to push when you’re tempted to ease up. We intuitively understand the psychological impact music can have on a run, but there’s a simple, more fundamental aspect that many runners overlook: cadence.
Coaches tell runners increasing cadence increases efficiency; it’s not long reaching strides that get you speed, but more efficient turnover. ChiRunning and the Pose Method both suggest running with a metronome to improve cadence. But why run to the boring click of a metronome when music has a metronome built in?
Elementally, music is melodic, it’s harmonic, and—most importantly for running—it’s rhythmic. Within the DNA of a well-chosen song is a timing cue that will tell your body when to stride and help it stay on—or push—the pace.
It’s a simple premise: find songs with a rhythm of 180 (or 90) beats per minute (BPM), then work on syncing your strides to the beat. Studies of elite marathoners suggest 180 strides per minute is the optimal cadence for distance runners (Jack Daniels, Ph.D., “Daniels’ Running Formula”, Human Kinetics, 2005, 1998). In the quest to become a better runner, improving cadence is the “low-hanging fruit” of running efficiency. All you need is the right music at the right tempo.
As a musician, I realize I listen to music with different ears. I may be a more active listener than the average person. When I started running, the metered relationship between running and music was immediately evident. Within weeks of beginning running, I knew my running cadence in BPM (165, at the time), and sought out songs that synced with this cadence. Frankly, I assumed everyone did this, and was shocked when I discovered how little people appreciated this marriage between the music in their ears and the rhythm of their stride.
The first step is finding music that falls in step with your natural running gate. Have you ever found the rhythm of the music matching your cadence during a run? Whether it’s the crisp sound of the hi-hat matching the left-right-left-right of your feet, or maybe the realization that you’re stepping with your right foot with the crack of every snare. That’s when the music’s tempo matches your stride.
The value of this is that, for the duration of the song, you know your running cadence will stay consistent. (Sure, drummers are human, and there is some variance in the tempo, but most modern music is recorded with what’s called a “click track”, which helps the musicians stay on tempo.) Consistent cadence lends itself to consistent pace; later in a run, when fatigue sets in, your cadence will begin to slow. Maintaining a consistent cadence tempo goes a long way in helping you maintain a consistent pace.
The effects of music on cadence goes beyond mere tempo; a song’s time signature and feel can have a huge impact on what it feels like when you’re running. Think of an AC/DC song: usually a straight 4/4 mid-tempo rock beat. Video:
The drummer plays one-two-three-four one-two-three-four over and over again throughout the course of the song. One-two-three-four one-two-three-four—kick-hi-hat-snare-hi-hat kick-hi-hat-snare-hi-hat one-two-three-four one-two-three-four. As you run, you begin to notice your right foot always lands on the kick drum, on the snare. You’ve found a good tempo, but the feel of the beat is somehow too solid, too grounded. It’s all driving into the ground; there’s no lift.
Compare the feel of the AC/DC song to Stone Temple Pilots “Interstate Love Song”: Video. There’s a looser, swing feel that lends itself to a more fluid-feeling cadence, even if it’s at a somewhat similar tempo. It just feels better to run to.
Another example of a song people have loved running to is Eminiem “Lose Yourself” Video:
The rhythm of the drums is very similar to the AC/DC beat, but the repeating guitar chord sound adds tension and movement, pushing the feel of the song forward. The genius of this song is the chorus, emphasizing the up beat (“You better lose yourself in the music, the moment you own it, you better never let it go…”).
Musical history is full of “working” music—music that serves a specific purpose, usually tied to movement. While much of it can be associated with dance (think: waltz, techno, swing), there are plenty of examples of running, walking and marching music. Think of the snare patterns played in a marching band (“rrrrrrRAT-tat-tat-TAT rrrrrrRAT-tat-tat-TAT”) Video:
that syncs with the left-right-left-right strides of those marching. We’ve all seen scenes in movies where a platoon of soldiers are running in time to the sargeant’s rhyming chant. Video:
More exotic are the clave patterns found in African and Latin rhythms, that were also for marching/running/dancing purposes. Listening to a West African drum piece (video) you feel the cyclical movement of the clave pattern—the sense of forward motion that eventually found its way into bebop jazz.
Understanding the underlying elements of music—why it feels good to run to—can really help you in song selection. It informs your choices, and helps you streamline your playlist. And when you’ve got a solid playlist, you’ve got a solid workout.
John Frenette’s company, Hella Sound, creates music specifically designed for running. Check out their new interval workouts they’ve created in partnership with Coach Jeff Kline of PRS Fit at www.hellasound.com. Connect with John on DailyMile and follow him on Twitter @HellaSound.