If you've ever doubted the power of a good workout song, you'll want to hear this story: Ethiopian runner Haile Gebrselassie broke both the 2,000-meter and 10,000-meter world records as techno-pop hit "Scatman" by Scatman John played in the background.
He was onto something, as a growing body of evidence shows. Music can help runners work harder and last longer, according to the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences.
So what makes a good running song? Several things, according to Costas Karageorghis, professor of sport and exercise psychology at Brunel University in London and author of Applying Music in Exercise and Sport. Here are four tips for putting together the ultimate running playlist.
1. Go for Go-Get-’Em Lyrics
"Lyrics can have an empowering effect," Karageorghis says, suggesting runners pick songs with positive affirmations. Professor Andy Lane, a sports psychologist at the University of Wolverhampton and a marathon runner himself, agrees. He singles out Queen's "We Are the Champions," Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down," and Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" as examples.
Songs emphasizing body movement, running or otherwise, can also be motivational. Think Melissa Etheridge's "I Run for Life," House of Pain's "Jump Around," or Ciara's "One, Two Step."
Lane also recommends choosing music you personally connect with. "We Are the Champions" could be perfect for a 50-year-old who recalls the thrill of seeing Freddie Mercury sing it live to an arm-waving crowd at Wembley Stadium. But an 18-year-old who's never even heard of it might be better off with Kanye West's "Champion."
Lyrics can connect you to powerful memories, Lane says, and having those memories in mind when doing something requiring strength or endurance can be quite helpful.
2. Think Fast But Not Too Fast
A 2015 study of 16 recreational runners published in Sports Medicine — Open found that a song's tempo influences running speed. Unsurprisingly, participants ran slower to slow music and faster to fast music — but only up to a point.
That's to be expected, Karageorghis says. "Music reduces perceptions of exertion only at low-to-moderate intensities of running," he says. Your playlist can distract you from the feeling of fatigue when your run, but at high running speeds, the feeling becomes so intense it overcomes the musical buffer.
Karageorghis says the ideal tempo is at least 120 beats per minute (BPM). When music is used asynchronously (as background without alignment to running stride), the optimal range is 120 to 145 BPM. When used synchronously (each running step timed to the beat), that range increases to 150 to 180 BPM.
How do you figure out a song's BPM? Various websites, such as SongBPM.com, can calculate it for you. Just enter the song title and artist (say, "Running Free" by Iron Maiden) to get the BPM (in this case, 171).
3. Pick the Right Kind of Sounds
Another factor is timbre, the specific quality of a sound. It's what differentiates a note played on a piano from the same note on a saxophone. "For running, the sounds need to be bright and energizing to match the high levels of exertion that are required," Karageorghis says. Think synthesizers and electric guitars or the harmonica in Pitbull and Ke$ha's "Timber."
Drums may also work. An April 2013 study in Frontiers in Psychology examined the effect of timbre and rhythm on 60 people's movements. Its findings suggest that high levels of percussion make people move faster.
4. Sync Your Songs to Your Workout
"Get music that syncs to the activity," Lane says. If you're running a marathon, you don't want a playlist that opens with 180-BPM rap. Pacing yourself is key, so start with something relaxing and work up to Eminem's "Till I Collapse."
By contrast, if you're dragging your feet out the door for a 6 a.m. run, you may need a high-tempo pick-me-up immediately. For those who struggle with motivation, Lane suggests creating a fresh playlist the night before. The prospect of trying it out will make getting out of bed in the morning easier.
The Perfect Soundtrack for Staying on Track
You can understand now why "Scatman" served Gebrselassie well. Its lyrics are peppy and encouraging ("As a matter of fact, don't let nothin' hold you back / If the Scatman can do it, brother, so can you"). Its tempo (136 BPM) is within the ideal parameters, and its timbre mixes zippy synth with pulsing percussion. The fact that it was a favorite song of his didn't hurt either.
You may not be setting world records, but you could probably benefit from well-selected running music too. To that end, check out the following playlist. It's based on the principles just discussed and features several songs mentioned. Feel free to use it, build from it or ignore it — whatever syncs with your activity goal.
- "Indestructible" by Robyn (120 bpm)
- "Glamazon" by RuPaul (123 bpm)
- "Hold My Girl (Martin Jensen Remix)" by George Ezra (124 bpm)
- "Feel Invincible" by Skillet (126 bpm)
- "Gasoline and Matches" by LeAnn Rimes, Jeff Beck and Rob Thomas (126 bpm)
- "Would You Ever" by Skrillex and Poo Bear (126 bpm)
- "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" by Pat Benatar (127 bpm)
- "Run the World (Girls)" by Beyoncé (127 bpm)
- "Acapella" by Kelis (128 bpm)
- "Jump" by Van Halen (130 bpm)
- "Timber" by Pitbull, featuring Ke$ha (130 bpm)
- "This Is How We Roll" by Florida Georgia Line, featuring Luke Bryan (132 bpm)
- "Scatman (ski-ba-bop-ba-dop-bop)" by Scatman John (136 bpm)
- "1901" by Phoenix (144 bpm)
- "Sabotage" by Beastie Boys (168 bpm)
- "Tightrope" by Janelle Monáe, featuring Big Boi (168 bpm)
- "Runnin' Down a Dream" by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (170 bpm)
- "Running Free" by Iron Maiden (171 bpm)
- "Till I Collapse" by Eminem (171 bpm)
- "Rompe" by Daddy Yankee (176 bpm)