Si­lence is mu­sic to Sam’s ears

Runner's World (UK) - - In This Issue - BY SAM MUR­PHY Sam Mur­phy tweets @ SamMur­phyRuns

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.

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