Workout Intensity: What’s in a Playlist?

Fri, 2 Sept. 2011 - 3:58 p.m. MT
Credit: ARA Staff - American Running Association

In 2009, a small 10-km time trial of 25-year-old, healthy male cyclists revealed that speeding up the tempo of the music they listened to by 10% increased cycling speed (distance/unit time) by 2.1%. Power and pedal cadence increased by 3.5% and 0.7%, respectively. Conversely, slowing the music program by 10% produced a speed decrease of 3.8%, with power decreasing by 9.8% and pedal cadence by 5.9%. Average heart rate changes were +0.1% (with the faster program) and -2.2% (with the slower program). These results are the averages after performing the 25-minute cycling regimen three different times. Work done, distance covered, and cadence were measured at the end of each music track, as were heart rate and subjective measures of exertion, thermal comfort, and whether the music was considered enjoyable by the subjects. 


For regular exercisers, none of this is surprising. Nor is the fact that across the board, subjects rated the faster-tempo music as more enjoyable. But most interestingly, perceived exertion among the cyclists increased with the faster music program. That is, healthy individuals performing submaximal exercise not only worked harder with faster music but also chose to do so and enjoyed the experience, even though they remained aware at the time of working harder.


The up-tempo music didn't mask the discomfort of the exercise. But it seemed to motivate the subjects to push themselves. As the researchers wrote, “When the music was played faster, the participants chose to accept, and even prefer, a greater degree of effort.” The findings complicate the very idea of “more effort”—if, on a run, you are working harder, know you are working harder, and yet find working harder strangely effortless, you are in a kind of optimal workout zone. We have honed in on this zone before, previously describing it as “run-ready” (see Brian Clarke’s excellent book 5K and 10K Training). Essentially, the right kind of music makes you more “up for” the workout.


If the rhythmic speed of your headphone music influences your athletic performance, perhaps there is a way to create an optimal playlist for a specific desired workout—all the while increasing enjoyment, even at harder levels of effort.


Moderate-to-intense cardiovascular exercise generally benefits from listening in the 120 to 140 beats per minute (BPM) range. That pace roughly corresponds to the average person’s heart rate during a routine workout, perhaps 20 minutes on an elliptical trainer. It also coincides with the range of most commercial dance music and many rock songs. For a stroll walker going at a pace of around 3 miles an hour, try a count of 115 to 118 BPM. A power walker going 4.5 mph might ramp to 139 BPM. Runners may exceed 150. 


How do you calculate the BPM of a song? Complicated “beatmapping” software notwithstanding, the tried-and-true method is counting. For each downbeat or hit of the bass drum, count one beat. There are four of these per measure of music (a.k.a. “bars”). Do this for 30 seconds, and multiply by 2.


Once you've calculated the BPM of an MP3 file, you can store it within the general info about the file (specifically, in the ID3 tag). For example, iTunes will let you enter the BPM in the info about the song. You can then sort your music in iTunes by BPM, choosing songs that fall within the 120 to 140 BPM range.


Listening to music can motivate you during a workout, but also serve as a distraction from fatigue. The resulting interactions between body, brain, and music are complex and intertwined. It’s not simply that music motivates you and you run faster. It may be that your body first responds to the beat, even before your mind joins in, and then your heart rate and breathing increase. The resulting biochemical reactions join with the music to exhilarate and motivate you to move even faster.


The ordering of tracks, then, provides an opportunity to ramp into a higher pace, or even force a cool-down, and various new technologies make this planning easier. On the tech site Life Hacker (, Adam Dachis writes, “When thinking about the order of the tracks in my exercise playlist, I'm reminded of Nike+. On the iPod, it lets you assign a high-tempo ‘power song’ to your run and start it when you're coming close to the finish. The idea is that it'll help motivate you to push through the remainder of your run and eke out a little extra speed.”


If you train on a rowing machine, at the blog Old Bloke on an Erg (, you’ll find a few hundred songs listed in order of the number of strokes per minute. You can simply pick your music to set your pace. Another option is to go to SoundCloud ( and download a DJ mix at the BPM you like. A useful application for Mac users is Tangerine, which automates playlists based on tempo. There are also preset BPM playlists available for workouts similar to the pre-programmed treadmill “bar graph” workouts. On most runs, of course, start slower, ramp up in the middle, and cool down at the end, but some runners find great nuance within this structure. You might try timing a certain song within a well-worn workout at the minute in your pace you know a tough hill is coming. The tweaking of the music itself holds the potential for needed distraction on fatigue-plagued outings. 


In the 12-man cyclist study, participants even exercised harder when they expected music to be introduced at a later stage of the workout. This illustrates the profound behavioral influences that music can introduce during self-paced exercise. And with all this new technology, there’s every which way to maximize your gym time while minimizing your perceived exertion. But for many runners, the quiet simplicity on the open trail, the time away from tech, as it were, is the real draw. For others, the sweet spot is somewhere in between. As one workout-playlist commenter online put it, “You mean people don't just put ‘Eye of the Tiger’ on repeat when they exercise?”


Scan J. Med. Sci. Sports, 2010, Vol. 20, No. 4, pp. 662-9, Epub Sep. 28, 2009,


Int. J. Sports Med., 2009, Vol. 30, No. 6, pp. 435-42, Epub Feb. 6, 2009,


Life Hacker, Aug. 2010, “How to Create the Ultimate Exercise Playlist,” by Adam Dachis,


New York Times, Aug. 25, 2010, “Phys Ed: Does Music Make You Exercise Harder?” by Gretchen Reynolds,


New York Times, Jan. 10, 2008, “They’re Playing My Song. Time to Work Out,”

by Steven Kurutz,


Old Bloke on an Erg, Feb. 11, 2010,



(RUNNING & FITNEWS® September / October 2010 • Volume 28, Number 5)

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