Why Is Bad Music So Good for Running?

I asked experts how listening to artists like Scatman John and Pitbull can enhance fitness performance.
April 13, 2020, 6:04pm
Running Man Listening to Scatman John
Photo via Getty & Shutterstock 

As sourdough-baking introverts will gently complain: many people are taking on new hobbies and habits to fill their time during stay-at-home orders, which are not meant to encourage a personal journey within, but curb the spread of COVID-19. As a way to attempt to stay healthy, and at the behest of a friend's challenge to log 30 miles in a month, I've started running again. It seemed like a good idea, and a way to add another activity between bad screen, good screen, cooking, and being unconscious.

When I exercise, I need to listen to something. And it's not always the same soundtrack. For something mindless, like an endurance workout on a rowing machine, I prefer an audiobook or podcast. For weightlifting, I have a 14 hour playlist of rap. But for running, neither of these options are sufficient. Instead, I find myself putting a current earworm, or other catchy music that by my own tastes, is not good. For example, I found the hook of the simple and poppy "Diva" by The Kid LAROI featuring Lil Tecca so catchy, I listened to it over a dozen times on a recent run. (After watching the music video, I realized both artists are teens who were born after 9/11, which is also unfathomable.)

In an attempt to explain my own shortcomings with science, I opened an inquiry into the matter. Anecdotally, I already knew I was not alone in this experience: years prior to this story, both of my sisters have expressed shame over their running playlists. And genetics could not explain it, either: I heard from a colleague who described his entire workout playlist as garbage (my words, not his) and would go to his grave without sharing any of the songs with me (his sentiment, not mine.)

Dr. Edith Van Dyck, a researcher at Ghent University in Belgium, with a PhD in musicology, has written about music's effect on running performance. She published a 2016 paper in the Annals of Sports Medicine and Research exploring the "ergogenic," or performancing-enhancing effect of music on running.

Van Dyck explained to VICE, "music preference can depend on your personality, mood, time of day, age, when you first heard the music," so it's difficult to broadly describe a certain song as an ideal running song for everyone. But there are some guidelines. There are studies in which people show a preference for melodies they've heard before, she said, and "fast tempo, binary rhythms, clear beats, a high volume," along with "catchy melodies" can boost performance and distract from the pain and fatigue of running. A landmark example of bad music comes from Haile Gebrselassie, the Ethiopian runner who broke the 10,000 meter record while "Scatman" pumped through the stadium, which Van Dyck references in the 2016 paper.

"On average, we can say that, in running, music mostly serves as 1) a motivator and 2) a distractor (distracting from the pain, fatigue, ...)." Van Dyck said in an email to VICE.

"Music you can easily synchronize with, is also beneficial to quite some people (it can help you to maintain a steady pace, which is beneficial, but it also has a sort of psychological effect of feeling as if you are supported by the music in a way," Van Dyck said.

As a caveat, Van Dyck noted how musical taste is obviously very subjective, and exercise music preferences are the same way: some people prefer slow music, or podcasts, or exercising without any audio assistance at all.

Dr. Jasmin C. Hutchinson, Ph.D and associate professor at Springfield College, in the Department of Exercise Science and Athletic Training, has also studied music's effect on running. She also wrote an article in the Journal of American Medical Athletic Association titled "Running with Music." She listened to the song "Diva" after I sent it to her.

"It's actually a pretty good song," Dr. Hutchinson said. "I don't think I'd listen to this on a day to day basis, but I can see it being really good for running."

I describe how the hook in "Diva" has been ringing in my head since I first heard it. When running, I anticipate it, like seeing an unnaturally sweet, fluffy donut heading towards me on a conveyor belt at a sushi restaurant that sells donuts for some reason. This is a psychological phenomenon called "segmentation," which Dr. Hutchinson explained.

"The brain likes to predict, and it feels good when it gets it right. So we look for rhythms and patterns. And so if you can predict a hook coming or a beat drop or something, and then it happens, it's self-rewarding for the brain," she said.

I described this song and my general running song taste as "fast food music," that I'd otherwise consider to be outside of my usual rotations. "Beat perception is a pretty low order brain function," Dr. Hutchinson said, and the brain's bandwidth is being used up by the act of running, possibly unable to process double entendres or themes self-actualization.

Hutchinson also supposes that music with "obnoxious" subject matter can encourage the listener to "puff their chest," which can be empowering in the context of exercise. In Hutchinson's case, this means sometimes listening to Eminem while she runs, specifically songs like "Till I Collapse," a song practically engineered for a weight room. Songs with a "strong repetitive tempo" are ideal for coordinating movement, and for examples, she said, "look up pretty much any track by Pitbull."

Though music selection is highly subjective, there are some objective criteria. Dr. Hutchinson recommends songs in the 130 beats per minute range, a tempo that syncs with a target stride rate when running. Incidentally, David Guetta songs are mostly 130 bpm, she said, and also feature different popular singers on the chorus, which play into the aspect of anticipating a catchy hook. It also lends credibility to my theory that bad music is good for running, depending on your feelings about David Guetta.

To further test my "bad music good running" theory, I followed in the footsteps of Haile Gebrselassie. Using the one mile loop that starts and ends at my apartment, I queued up "Scatman" and started running along with the skibby-dee-bee's. I shaved nearly fifteen seconds faster off my previous mile time, and ended my run with a newfound respect for the power of the late Scatman John. I'll never listen to that song again by my own volition, but more importantly, I now feel enabled, and scientifically justified to load my running playlist with bad music.