Silence is music to Sam’s ears
Back when I started running, the only option for a musical soundtrack would have been to carry my cutting-edge ( but not-so-pocket-sized) CD Walkman with me. Even then I’d have been restricted to just one album (which would have been Soul II Soul’s Club Classics: Volume One). Such is the march of technology that, 25 years on, I can now carry the offerings of hundreds of artists on my smartphone for barely the weight of one CD – and listen to them through wireless headphones. But I don’t. In fact, despite the 16 marathons, couple of ultras and thousands of training runs I’ve clocked up, I have never completed a run to music in my life. That changed last weekend.
The genie of the RW gear cupboard, Kerry Mccarthy, had given me a set of bone-conduction Bluetooth headphones to road-test some weeks before. With a long run planned and no running buddies available, it was the perfect opportunity to give them an airing (or should that be an ‘earing’?).
I scrolled through my music library and settled on LCD Soundsystem as suitably uptempo (research shows that a brisk 150-190bpm is the ideal tempo range for running), slipped my phone into my backpack and set off. Straight away, the juxtaposition seemed strange – the muddy trail underfoot and a backdrop of sheep grazing on rolling hills felt at odds with the urban beats, not to mention the competing rhythms of my feet and the music. I felt anything but ‘distracted’, one of the main motives cited by the 61 per cent of runners (in a recent RW poll) who opt to plug in when they step out.
And then, for some reason, midway through a tune the music switched to Alabama 3’s rousing Woke up this Morning. I decided to live with it, but barely a minute later it swapped again, this time to Arcade Fire. Great music, but not an obvious running accompaniment. The mid-track changes continued apace; each new artist would set me off on a new trajectory of thoughts and memories, but I never got very far before my ears would be assaulted with a new trigger. I tried moving my phone, but it made no difference.
Once Cat Power began crooning Sea of Love (78bpm) I had to draw a line under the experiment. I was surprised to note that my random medley had carried me more than nine miles – across fields, on to quiet lanes and then through town, along the beach and boardwalk. So consumed was I by what was going on in my ears that I’d stopped using what was between them and not really noticed anything. I’ve always argued that awareness, not distraction, is what you need when you’re engaging in a physically and mentally demanding activity such as running. But I know there are reams of evidence to the contrary.
Dr Costas Karageorghis is an expert in the field, and author of Applying Music in Exercise and Sport (Human Kinetics). He says music reduces your perception of effort by around 10 per cent. ‘An external stimulus such as music can actually block some of the internal stimuli trying to reach the brain – such as fatigue-related messages from muscles and organs,’ he says.
But just as one music fan’s Stairway to Heaven is another’s Highway to Hell, so do runners differ in their response to music. Karageorghis’s research has shown that ‘associators’ – runners who prefer to focus on internal cues such as breathing and heartbeat (as I do) – tend not to derive as much benefit from music as dissociators, who crave external distraction, such as conversation and crowd support. My experience bore this out. Which is why, in the end, I took off the headphones and ran the remaining miles listening to my favourite running track of all: the sound of silence.