Music for Running Tempo

by Craig Rusbult, Ph.D.

with end-of-page links to pages by other authors

        During the summer of 2008, after many years of running "lazy and sloppy" I finally turned my attention to running efficiently so I could run faster and further with more enjoyment and less risk of injury.  And I wondered "why did it take so long for me to finally learn about this and begin doing it?"  One key to running efficiently is running at a faster tempo (higher rpm) than most people typically run, because this helps you run more smoothly.  By experimenting, I've discovered tempos that are useful for running different distances (200 m, 400 m, mile, ...) at various paces (slow and easy, moderately fast and faster, personal record) and I've put them on my iPod Shuffle to use while running.  I've found that tempo-music provides motivation to run in a disciplined way, when I run with "one step for every beat of music" which ensures that I'm running at the tempo I want.  And it's fun.

        Optimal Tempo:  Usually, if you want to run faster you should run at a higher tempo.  But there is a limit to this principle;  if you move past the optimal tempo for a particular running speed, a faster tempo will cause you to run slower, and it might even cause injury if your body-and-technique can't cope with the high tempo.   Of course, moderation in running speed (and its associated tempo) is necessary if you also want to run further.  Like most things in life, you want to aim for a "just right" balance, not too slow or too fast.  And I think most people will find that a range of tempos — on a plateau where increasing or decreasing the tempo a little bit won't matter much — will allow efficient running at each running speed.
        Increasing Tempo:  I've discovered that by running at a cadence-tempo a little higher than initially feels comfortable, after awhile it becomes more comfortable, as I adjust my running style — typically it becomes smoother and more efficient, with less "braking" due to overstriding — and as the muscles required for the higher tempo become stronger and more accustomed to working more quickly.  But sometime I'll check this personal experience with those who are more experienced and more expert, to see what they say about it.
 
        Measuring Tempo:  At home (not while running) get a stopwatch and press "on" at the first beat of a measure, then press "off" at the first beat of another measure.  For example, to get the time for 4 measures, click the watch on at the 1st measure, and off at the 5th measure.  Usually I do 8 measures or (for more accuracy) 16 measures.  To measure the time for 8 measures, with 4-count music, you click the watch on at "1" while counting "1...2...3...4...5...6...7...8...9" and click the watch off at "9".  You now have the number-of-seconds for 32 beats of music (8x4) so to find beats/minute (= beats per minute = bpm) here is the conversion:
(32 beats / #-of-seconds) (60 seconds / minute)  =  1920 / #-of-seconds  =      beats/minute
so divide 1920 by the time-on-your-stopwatch, and that's the music tempo in beats per minute.
        You can adjust this accordingly if you want to count for 4 measures (to get bpm, divide 960 by the stopwatch-time), or for 16 measures, or 24, 32,...
        You also can run at twice the music tempo;  if a slow song is 86 bpm you can run at 172 steps-per-minute, 172 spm.
        And you may enjoy running with a waltz, so the 1-count changes (you step on it with your left-foot, then right-foot, left-foot, right foot,...) which may help improve your symmetry.  With 3-count music the bpm formula for 8 measures (click the stopwatch on at "1" and off when you count "9") must be adjusted by a factor of 3/4, to get "1440 / #-of-seconds" = bpm.

        Adjusting Tempo:  Changing the tempo of digital music is easy, using the free program Audacity.  First, do "Measuring Tempo" as described above, to find the current tempo, then choose a desired new tempo, and find the percent-change needed to produce it.  You can calculate this yourself or let Audacity do it for you, as explained below.  Audacity has several ways to change tempo and/or pitch, and these are accurately named:  Change Tempo changes only the tempo, Change Pitch changes only the pitch, and Change Speed changes both tempo and speed to produce an effect like in the old "Chipmunks" records.  Usually I choose Change Tempo.
        Here is how:  Open a music file (mp3 or aiff/wav) in Audacity;  in the Edit menu, move your mouse over Select and click All,  in the Effect menu choose Change Tempo (or Change Speed) and enter the percent change you want, or let Audacity calculate it for you (*) and click OK;  then in the File menu, click Export as AIFF or (if you have the proper plug-in program) Export as MP3.   /   * If the song currently is 173 bpm (you must know this, using the process in Measuring Tempo, because Audacity won't find the tempo for you) and you want it to be 179 bpm, enter these numbers into the BPM boxes, and the "Percent Change" box above will be 3.468 percent which is the tempo increase, and the boxes below tell you how this will change the song length.  Or type 173 and 170 into the boxes, to find that -1.734 % is what you need for this slowdown.  If you want, check these numbers by doing the math yourself.
        Or you can have real-time adjustments done for you, by using a tempo-finding program such as Cadence (iPhone or iPod on Mac, and soon for Windows) or Tangerine (Mac).    {note: These links were made in 2008, so things probably have changed since then, and better programs might be available.}

       Using Tempos:  By choosing some songs I like, that have a fairly consistent tempo throughout the song (in some songs the tempo changes, which can mess up your running), and making new files with adjusted tempos, I have music with a range of tempos (... 167, 170,... 214, 220,...) and I put them onto my clip-on iPod Shuffle in two orders, both increasing and decreasing.  Originally I sequenced them with steadily increasing tempo, but later I found — especially during semi-sprints like 200 m or 400 m, but also in longer runs — that my ideal running tempo steadily decreased as I got tired toward the end of a run, so I found that putting them in reverse order made it easier to decrease the tempo, such as 195 bpm at the beginning of a 400 m, then shifting to slightly lower tempos later in the run by pushing the "next song" button.  A similar strategy might be useful for longer runs, from 5 k to marathon and beyond, so you can adjust the music tempo in response to the running tempo you want, based on physiological changes (in your fuel supply, how fresh legs your legs feel, and so on) and your pacing strategy for running at a certain speed during each part of the run.   /   There is more about tempo-and-speed in the links-appendix below.
        I've also tried using music tempos while bicycling (it's more difficult to keep a steady pace than while running), rowing on a machine from Concept 2 (tempo works well for this,* with rowing speed depending on both tempo and how hard you "push with your legs and pull with your upper body" during the power part of a stroke), and "elliptical running" on a machine (similar to running tempo, with increased "resistance" analogous to running on different angles of uphill inclines).    But rowing tempos are much lower, typically around 25 strokes-per-minute (rowing) instead of 170 steps-per-minute (moderate running) so it's not as easy to synchronize;  I've tried songs at around 200 bpm, but probably will find/make a new set of songs with tempos in a range around 100 bpm (maybe 90-110?) to use for rowing, so I can use 4 music-beats per rowing-stroke.

        Is it allowed?  If you are running an official race, check the rules to see if listening to music is allowed.  Some races allow it, but many don't.   /   In my opinion, banning music is unwise, but I don't make the rules.  For the restrictive limitations of Iron Man, here are discussions: 1  2  3 .

My Personal Fitness Goals — Continual and Occasional including recent PRs for mile, 400m, and 200m.


LINKS-APPENDIX

I.O.U. — There will be more here later, including a separate links-page, maybe in late-2012.  Here are some interesting pages I've found, and I'm sure they're just the tip of an iceberg of information that is fascinating and useful:

The Science of Running with Music is a brief summary of ideas from Costas Kargeorghis, and also Music in Sport and Excercise - Theory and Practice.  The website of "run2rhythm" has much more information, if you want to explore it.  For example, Benefits of run2rhythm Running Music & How to Train with run2rhythm Running Music and more.
• Tempo-and-Speed:  As explained above, "you can adjust the music tempo in response to the running tempo you want, based on physiological changes... and your pacing strategy..."  The tempos listed by run2rhythm are slower than I typically use.  I find it difficult running smoothly to any tempo under 170 bpm;  for typical running I use 173 bpm, and for faster running (like 800 m, 400 m, 200 m, or 100 m) the optimal tempo increases;  for 400 m, around 190 bpm (sometimes higher, sometimes lower), and for 200 m, anywhere from 210-240 bpm, depending on running speed & style, and (as explained above) this can change during a run, when I become fatigued toward the end of an interval.  But this is data from a small sample (n = 1, just me) so try it yourself to see what works best for you.  But having a wide range of tempos will let you experiment more thoroughly, to see how your body responds to different tempos.

Running to the Right Beat by Dan Peterson, says: "... According to Kargeorghis, there are four factors that contribute to a song's motivational qualities: rhythm response, musicality, cultural impact and association.  The first two are known as 'internal' factors as they relate to the music's structure while the second two are 'external' factors that reflect how we interpret the music.  Rhythm response is tied to the beats per minute (bpm) of the song and how well it matches either the cadence [this is what I do] or [in a factor I had not considered] the heartbeat of the runner.  A song's structure such as its melody and harmony contribute to its musicality.  The external factors consider our musical background and the preferences we have for a certain genre of music and what we have learned to associate with certain songs and artists. ..."

• And here are some ideas about running speed (but not associated running tempo) and interactions between running fast and running far:
Optimum running speed is stride toward understanding human body form: "...The energetic demands of running change at different speeds.  What that means is that there is an optimal speed that will get you there the cheapest, metabolically speaking. ... While holding great interest for athletes and trainers, the mechanics of running may also hold clues to the evolution of the modern human body form: tall and long-limbed with broad chests and defined waists. ... Human walking is also known to have an optimally efficient speed, so the new findings may help researchers determine the relative importance of the different gaits in driving human evolution. ..." (summarizing the scientific work of Karen Steudel and Cara Wall-Scheffler)
Are You the Perfect Runner? by Karen Little, has information about running pace in Part 6: