Running playlists: How music can inspire you during your run
July 1, 2022|By K. Aleisha Fetters
The ideal running playlists have an upbeat tempo of more than 120 beats per minute, motivating lyrics, and, most importantly, songs you love. Here's how to create yours.
When it comes to my running playlist, the bigger and faster the beat, the better. Give me some boom-chick-boom-chick — something I can pound my feet, my arms, my "I've got this" attitude to. Think: The Chainsmokers, Regard, Juice WRLD.
My husband hates my music and is convinced I listen to it out of a masochistic desire to train myself to push through adversity. Bob Seger's "Against the Wind" is his ultimate running song. I get that the lyrics are motivating. But the beat gives me confidence in my napping ability, not my running ability.
The one artist we can agree on is Eminem. His songs have the confidence-building, "grab the moment" lyrics he loves, and the beats I crave.
Poll any two runners about their perfect running playlist, and you'll probably get a similar story. But no matter how dissimilar runners' musical preferences, there's no dispute the right running playlist (for you) can move you to new heights.
What makes the best running playlist?
Experts have long recommended running playlists based on tempo, or beats per minute. The reason comes down to running cadence — how often your feet hit the ground when running.
Most running coaches recommend for the best, fastest form, everyday athletes take between 150 and 180 steps per minute, that's 75 to 90 per leg. While this is more of a generality than a rule — your ideal running cadence depends on factors like your height and leg length — it's why, if you search for "running playlists," the songs you'll get will have mostly 150 or more beats per minute.
The idea's that, when running, you unconsciously time your foot strikes with the beat of the music you're listening to. It's believed that running with an ideal cadence automatically improves how your feet hit the ground, your efficiency, the impact throughout your joints, and your risk for running injury.
But the benefits of fast-paced music may extend beyond foot strikes. In a Psychology of Sport and Exercise study, researchers had runners sprint under three different conditions: while listening to "motivational" music with more than 120 beats per minute, while listening to a podcast, and without anything to listen to.
When people sprinted to upbeat music, their heart rates and speeds were higher than when they listened to a podcast or nothing. Plus, runners said they enjoyed those sprints the most. While researchers note that this was during sprints rather than long, slow runs, it gives some credence to my beat-heavy running playlists.
Some of us pay more attention to (or even understand) song lyrics than others. But hearing motivational messages of strength and perseverance can improve your self-efficacy — or, put another way, your confidence that you can crush the challenge in front of you.
Researchers explain that a feeling of self-efficacy is central to a person's motivation, and most importantly, motivation over the long term. Bob Seger, Eminem, I see what you're doing.
Even if a song's beats and lyrics are on point, if you don't like the sound of an artist or a particular song, it's going to fall flat — and so will your running motivation. In my opinion, really loving a song is going to be the biggest difference-maker in determining your ideal running playlist. For a song to move you, it has to move you.
Running to music isn't right for everyone or every situation
While running to music can increase motivation and, by improving cadence, increase speed and reduce your chance of overuse injuries, wearing headphones during your runs does carry some risk. The most important is the potential for collisions when exercising outdoors, especially if you're on the road or crossing traffic. If all you can hear is your music, you lower your awareness of nearby runners, bikes, and vehicles.
Ideally, when running, you should always be able to hear what is going on around you. When running in the city or around others, limiting music, playing through only one earbud, or keeping your volume low can help minimize any safety risks.
The other potential downside is far less obvious: Did you know not all races allow you to wear earbuds or listen to audio? Now, that doesn't mean you can't listen to music during your training, but if you really rely on music during runs, it's possible that on race day, your 5K, 10K, or marathon will feel a lot harder.
For that reason, some competitive runners do some or all of their runs without music, helping them prepare for what they'll experience on race day.
How to create your running playlists
If the perfect playlist comes down to beats, lyrics, and preference, that's where you need to start in crafting yours. The easiest way is to start with preference. What music are you really digging right now? Take a look at or listen to your recently played or "liked" songs.
As you go through them, think through beats and lyrics. If a song has a fast beat, one that makes you really want to nod, tap your foot, or dance around, flag it. If its lyrics make you feel like you could do anything, flag it. Add these songs to their own running playlist. If you're working from an app like Spotify, you can add these to a new playlist without leaving the song or queue.
Now give your new playlist a listen. How do the songs feel? If you change your mind on one, go ahead and delete it. Think through the order as well. Maybe you want pump-up lyrics right at the start. Maybe you want a slightly slower tempo for warming up or cooling down.
Take your playlist for a test run and adjust things from there. Let your playlist evolve over time as you hear or love new songs.
Create multiple playlists for different running speeds or distances, too. For instance, if you run a 30-minute 5K, create a 30-minute-long 5K playlist, choreographing each phase of your run to the music that will best move you in the moment.
Our writer's advice is intended for informational or general educational purposes only. We always encourage you to speak with your physician or healthcare provider before making any adjustments to your running, nutrition, or fitness routines.
I'm a quirky (aka nerdy) strength coach with a passion for science and sweat. I love to help people meet their body goals, but it's their mental and emotional gains that make me do a happy dance. My flirtation with running includes two half marathons and, someday, I will run 26.2.