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Running to music

Sport scientist Harjo de Poel explains how music can help runners
Harjo de Poel
Harjo de Poel

Distance runner Haile Gebrselassie likes to run to 'I'm a Scatman' by Scatman John - not the best tune for the job if you ask sport scientist Harjo de Poel. But it did help the Ethiopian set a new world record in the two-thousand metres indoor in 1998. De Poel explains why this was and how amateur runners too can benefit from music while they run.

Harjo de Poel once ran round the Paterswoldse Meer. It proved a real struggle. Ever since he has stuck to distances of 10 or 11 kilometres. As a sport scientist he likes to go into great technical detail about muscle mass, long and short legs, red and white muscle tissue… but what it all boils down to is that he just isn't a long-distance runner.

What is he then? A volleyball and basketball player, cyclist, scientist and lover of rhythm. While at secondary school in Borculo he drummed along to Nirvana and Pearl Jam, he wrote his Bachelor's thesis on running, and for his PhD thesis he researched how when you play an instrument your hands can play two different rhythms at the same time. This Associate Professor of Sport Sciences explains to Broerstraat 5 how music can help runners.

Red Hot Chili Peppers

'Humans have an innate tendency to synchronize. If we hear a song we tap along to it and the audience in a concert hall applauds synchronously. Even fireflies light up synchronously. The unconscious tendency to synchronize is called the “entrainment effect”', says De Poel. The reflex is difficult to suppress, as he knows all too well from his schoolboy drummer days. And try not to walk in time with the barrel organ on the Herestraat.

Runners can improve their performance if they synchronize with music, but not with any old tune. 'The rhythm of the music must be similar to your natural step frequency. Suppose your step frequency corresponds with 138 BPM or beats per minute. If you want to run faster, you should listen to tracks with a slightly higher BPM. “Near Higher Ground”, for example, by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, which has a rhythm of 140.78 BPM.'

Ethiopian runner Haile Gebrselassie shows that there are exceptions to the rule. When he set a new world record in the two-thousand meter indoor in Birmingham in 1998, 'I'm a Scatman' by Scatman John was blaring out of the speakers at his request. 'A monster of a tune', says De Poel. 'With a rhythm of about 130 BPM it's much slower than Gebrselassie's running tempo. His tempo is about 180-190 BPM, so he must have run about one-and-a-half times faster than the beat of the music, in what we call a syncopated rhythm.'


Songs can help us improve our performance in two ways. First, the music has a motivational element, which is often the sum of the rhythm and the lyrics: it's no surprise that many runners swear by 'Born to Run' by Bruce Springsteen. Associations with a track also play a role. De Poel discovered this when the track 'Lose Yourself' by rapper Eminem was mentioned surprisingly often in a student survey. '“Lose Yourself” is quite slow for a running tune, but it has a strong structure, stirring lyrics and the associations with Eminem's film 8 Mile seem to compensate for the low number of beats per minute.'

The second way that songs help improve our performance is that the rhythm helps us run faster. That rhythm is even more important than beat, lyrics and associations is something Melvyn Roerdink, a former roommate of De Poel at VU University Amsterdam, discovered. Roerdink and his colleagues got three groups of amateur runners to run on a treadmill. One group ran to music by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, David Guetta, DJ Tiësto, the Black Eyed Peas or The Prodigy, one group ran without music and the third group ran to the rhythm of a metronome. And what they discovered was that it was not the participants who listened to music who ran the longest - 'participants ran to exhaustion' - but those who ran only to the rhythm of the metronome! De Poel believes this is because the metronome provides a perfect cadence, 'more perfect' than the rhythm of the music. 'Even music with an apparently regular beat, like DJ Tiësto's trance, is imperfect, quite simply because it is made by human hands. At a club we like to dance to imperfect “human” music, but we run more efficiently to the supremely tight rhythm of a metronome.'

However, people with no sense of rhythm do not benefit from running to music, and De Poel believes that music mainly has an effect on beginners. He knows professional runners who prefer to run without music. 'Frank Blikslager - he won the Plantsoenloop in the Noorderplantsoen in November - once said that he prefers to concentrate on his own footsteps. So he synchronizes with himself. For my part, I always focus on my breathing. My breathing and footsteps provide a rhythm. I don't need a third rhythm from my iPod.'


The entrainment effect - our natural tendency to synchronize - can help us improve our running performance in other ways too. There are indications that running with someone else improves our performance. Runners on a treadmill who watched videos of another runner aligned their pace to the other runner's rhythm. Their oxygen consumption was lower than that of runners who ran without the videos: so runners who synchronize their pace with others use their energy more efficiently and may even run faster. That the opposite can also be true is something De Poel noticed when he sometimes ran with a friend who is considerably smaller and has a higher step frequency. 'We didn't run in sync and that rattled me, as if I was dancing with a girl with no sense of rhythm.' Runners who do synchronize with each other's beat may have an extra advantage. Recent research suggests that if runners move in perfect sync they produce more endorphins than they would do if they ran alone. Endorphins - if you don't like running you can get them from sex or chocolate - have an analgesic effect and make you feel happy. The synchronization with others has led scientists to term this phenomenon rowers' high.

Great song

Back to the music. If you look at it logically it's not just rhythm, lyrics and associations that influence your running performance, but also how much you like the song. De Poel: 'You must have an affinity with the genre. Even if the rhythm of his songs perfectly suited my natural running pace, I wouldn't want to run to David Guetta, whereas I can keep going for a good while to The Prodigy and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.'

This may explain why Gebrselassie could set a world record to a song that in terms of rhythm didn't match his natural running pace: perhaps he simply thinks 'I'm a Scatman' is a great son.

Harjo de Poel

Harjo de Poel (Emmen, 1975) graduated in Sport Sciences in Groningen in 2001. He completed his PhD research at VU University Amsterdam in 2007 and returned to Groningen in 2008. He is now Associate Professor in Sport Sciences at the Centre for Movement Sciences at the University Medical Center Groningen (UMCG).

Text: Hinke Hamer

Source: Broerstraat 5, the alumni magazine of the University of Groningen

Last modified:19 March 2020 10.04 a.m.