Whoa, whoa, chill out. First, don’t be messin’ with my tunes. Second, don’t ever be messin’ with my tunes. Lots of ultrarunners plug into music while they’re training and while they’re out on a race course. My guess is that most of them are not overthinking the issue. They simply like to listen to music while running.
Are they looking for a competitive edge? In most cases, no. How many ultrarunners are out there seriously competing to begin with? The big motivator for running with music is the way it can turn very long stretches of effort into “flow,” that is, into a relaxed state where the music and the motion and the effort all seem to blend together. Time passes largely unnoticed. The running seems to get easier. Music takes your mind off the pain and fatigue of a hard slog. It makes you feel better and reduces your perceived effort.
Are ultrarunners micromanaging their playlists to make sure that the BPMs (beats per minute) of the songs they’re playing are matched to their stride rate and aligned with the contours of the course? Again, I doubt most runners are that anal about their playlists. I don’t consider BPMs in my selections at all. My big concern is that I have a very long playlist so songs never repeat and there is lots of variety in the musical styles and textures. I also like to be constantly surprised so I set the iPod to “shuffle.”
To keep from getting stuck with strictly dinosaur music, I merged my playlist with my college-aged daughter’s and believe me I never get bored. One minute Britney is purring about how she’s toxic, next I get seductive French pop from Amadou & Miriam, followed by a rap song describing precisely what some people are going to do with each other’s junk once they leave the club. Then I’ll shuffle on to one of my songs, an old Cole Porter classic telling me “It’s Too Darn Hot” followed by a ding-dong sound announcing Polish Language Lesson Number Ten, “Going to the Store,” which somehow snuck onto my list, followed by “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.”
I know musical tastes are highly individual but I can’t help but mention a few of my absolute favorites. You will not go wrong if you include The Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead, and Fleetwood Mac (dating myself here) in your repertoire. I’m also crazy about Nicki Minaj, Black Eyed Peas, and Sugarland (talk to my daughter), and don’t forget Johnny Cash. The artist at the very top of my list is Adele. There’s something about the beat of her music, her unique voice, and the pathos of the lyrics. Get very deep into a tough ultra and then listen to “Set the Rain on Fire,” “Rolling in the Deep,” “Turning Tables,” or “Someone Like You,” and you’ll be with me on this once you stop crying.
And while on the topic of getting totally wrapped up in the music, it’s important to mention the downside of running with music, which is: getting cut off from what’s going on around you. It goes without saying that if you’re running in an urban environment or anywhere with traffic, you need to be completely aware – both sights and sounds – of what’s moving on the road. On a bike trail or even on a remote trail where you might get mountain bikers, you should be very concerned about hearing what is going on around you.
You can keep the music at a low volume but that still opens up the possibility of misjudging how well you can hear above the music, and it would only take one mistake to really pay for getting it wrong. I like using just one ear bud. You can crank the volume pretty high and still have your other ear completely open to the outside world. Even on the safest, remotest, least traveled trail, I would be wary of not being able to hear anything over the music. You just can’t predict when something totally unexpected is going to happen.
Also be aware of others when you’re plugged into your music. Get rid of the ear buds at aid stations so you can be totally focused on what the volunteers are doing for you and saying to you. Make sure if another runner is trying to tell you something, you don’t just nod and move along. It could be important. Don’t pass up the opportunity to hear critical instructions from the race director just before the start of a race because you’re already listening to Taylor Swift chop up her old boyfriends. The same applies to instructions from volunteers at aid stations. You might miss the one critical piece of information that keeps you from going off course down the road.
If the race goes through the night, I get rid of my music as soon as the light fails. I just think that in the dark you need to be focused on what you’re doing, and you need to be able to hear precisely any noises that are out there. With the daylight gone, you will have fewer clues feeding into your senses about your unknown surroundings. You want as much information as possible to help you find your way safely.
If you’ve never tried running with music, you are really missing out. The playing devices have gotten so small and convenient, hold so much music, and produce such good sound that all the physical drawbacks to lugging along extra accessories have pretty much disappeared. And once you’ve experienced getting into a nice “flow” state and felt the miles slip by almost effortlessly while you seem to be somewhere else just having a good time listening to music, you will be kicking yourself for not trying it earlier.
I’ll mention one final music strategy that I’ve used to good advantage. Save your music for the toughest part of your run. Then when you’re at the bottom of the longest, hottest climb of the day, get out the iPod, set it to a song that features some hard rock guitar licks like “Stairway to Heaven” or “Light My Fire” and just see what happens. You won’t be disappointed. Rock on!