Canadian Running

The Sci­ence of Run­ning

By Alex Hutchin­son Mu­sic and In­juries; Lung Power

- Health · Running · Lifestyle · Music · Athletics · Sports · United States of America · Italy · Bruce Springsteen · Drake · Brunel University · United Kingdom · Wisconsin · University of Wisconsin–Madison · Toronto · University of Sassari · Sassari · Frontiers Research Foundation

Mu­sic and in­juries

Peo­ple have strong opin­ions about run­ning with head­phones. Some run­ners wouldn’t dream of leav­ing the house with­out them; oth­ers feel they create a safety haz­ard, be­cause you’re less aware of your en­vi­ron­ment. Back in 2007, the gov­ern­ing body for run­ning in the United States banned head­phones in races, both for safety rea­sons and to pre­vent run­ners from get­ting a com­pet­i­tive edge. Af­ter wide­spread push­back, the rule was re­laxed for non-elite run­ners the fol­low­ing year.

A re­cent study pub­lished in the Euro­pean Jour­nal of Ap­plied Phys­i­ol­ogy of­fers a new twist on the de­bate: un­der cer­tain cir­cum­stances, re­searchers from the Univer­sity of Sas­sari in Italy ar­gue, run­ning with mu­sic might in­crease your risk of in­jury. If you can’t hear your foot­steps prop­erly, they sug­gest, you lose the abil­ity to make mi­nor ad­just­ments to en­sure that you’re land­ing softly.

To test this idea, the re­searchers asked 50 vol­un­teers to per­form a se­ries of two-minute runs on a force-sens­ing tread­mill. Each run­ner tested three dif­fer­ent mu­sic con­di­tions (no mu­sic, mu­sic at a mod­er­ate vol­ume of 80 deci­bels and mu­sic at a loud vol­ume of 85 deci­bels) at three dif­fer­ent speeds ( 7:30 per kilo­me­tre, 6:00 per kilo­me­tre and 5:00 per kilo­me­tre), for a to­tal of nine tri­als, com­pleted in ran­dom order. The tune was Bruce Spring­steen’s “We Take Care of Our Own,” cho­sen for its “typ­i­cal rock-based time sig­na­ture, tex­ture and verse-cho­rus form, re­sem­bling char­ac­ter­is­tics of playlists com­monly em­ployed by run­ners for mo­ti­va­tional pur­poses.”

Sure enough, t he vert ical “col­li­sion force” wit h each foot land­ing, which some re­searchers be­lieve is linked to your chances of get­ting in­jured, was higher with mu­sic – but only with loud mu­sic, mainly at the slow and medium paces, and only for men. The ef­fect of vol­ume is easy to un­der­stand: 80 deci­bels wasn’t loud enough to drown out the sound of foot­steps, whereas 85 deci­bels, which is the up­per rec­om­mended limit for pro­longed safe lis­ten­ing, was more im­mer­sive.

The ef­fects of speed and gen­der are trick­ier to ex­plain. One the­ory is that the fastest speed re­quired more phys­i­cal ef­fort and men­tal at­ten­tion. As a re­sult, the pres­ence or ab­sence of mu­sic made less dif­fer­ence, be­cause the run­ners were mainly fo­cused on avoid­ing get­ting thrown off the back of the tread­mill rather than lis­ten­ing to ei­ther their foot­steps or the mu­sic. This could also ex­plain why no ef­fect (on aver­age) was seen among women: since women typ­i­cally self-select slower paces than men, all three paces may have been too hard for mu­sic to have much of an ef­fect.

But there are al­ter­na­tive ex­pla­na­tions, as other re­searchers noted in fol­lowup com­ments pub­lished in the jour­nal. One the­ory is that the dif­fer­ences aren’t about the noise it­self but about the psy­cho­log­i­cal re­sponse to the mu­sic. Ear­lier stud­ies, for ex­am­ple, have found that men be­come worse driv­ers when “hard rock mu­sic” is play­ing, but women’s driv­ing per­for­mance is un­af­fected. Per­haps the men were rock­ing out to the Spring­steen tune while the women, on aver­age, just weren’t that into it.

Th­ese un­clear and some­what con­tra­dic­tory re­sults are ac­tu­ally fairly typ­i­cal for stud­ies of mu­sic and run­ning. Mu­sic, af­ter all, is a pretty broad cat­e­gory that peo­ple have vastly dif­fer­ent re­sponses to. Costas Kara­georghis, an ex­er­cise psy­chol­o­gist at Brunel Univer­sity in Bri­tain, has iden­ti­fied four key fac­tors that inf lu­ence a lis­tener’s re­sponse to a given track: rhythm, mu­si­cal­ity, cul­tural im­pact and ex­ter­nal as­so­ci­a­tions. (Here’s an ex­am­ple of what’s meant by ex­ter­nal

as­so­ci­a­tions: even a song with a beat, tune, and lyrics that seem mo­ti­va­tional might have the op­po­site ef­fect if it hap­pens to be the tune that was play­ing in the back­ground when your part­ner broke up with you.)

There are some gen­eral trends, though. Mu­sic tends to boost en­joy­ment of ex­er­cise, par­tic­u­larly at rel­a­tively mod­est paces, likely be­cause it dis­tracts your at­ten­tion from feel­ings of dis­com­fort. At faster paces, which take more fo­cus to sus­tain, that dis­trac­tion can back­fire. And the new re­sults now sug­gest that the dis­trac­tion of mu­sic might also con­trib­ute to slop­pier run­ning form at faster paces. That doesn’t mean you need to aban­don your head­phones. But it adds one more rea­son to en­sure that your tunes aren’t so loud that they com­pletely block out the sounds of the en­vi­ron­ment – in­clud­ing your foot­steps.

Lung power

The ba­sic rule of train­ing is some­thing called the said prin­ci­ple, which stands for Spe­cific Adap­ta­tion to Im­posed De­mands. Run­ning doesn’t give you big mus­cles or teach you to play the pi­ano; it gives you springier ten­dons, cal­loused feet and a strong, f lex­i­ble, big­ger-thannor­mal heart, all of which help you han­dle the spe­cific de­mands of cov­er­ing ground at a rapid pace on two feet. The stronger heart, in par­tic­u­lar, is one of a whole chain of adap­ta­tions that en­able you to ferry oxy­gen from the air to your mus­cles as quickly as pos­si­ble.

But there’s one no­table ex­cep­tion to this rule: no mat­ter how hard you train, how hard you pant and how deeply you go into oxy­gen debt, noth­ing re­ally hap­pens to your lungs. For decades, phys­i­ol­o­gists have con­sid­ered the lungs as “over­built,” mean­ing that they have all the oxy­gen-pump­ing ca­pac­ity they need plus ex­tra to spare, even dur­ing the hard­est ex­er­cise. But that view is now be­ing chal­lenged. In a re­cent is­sue of the Jour­nal of Ap­plied Phys­i­ol­ogy, Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin re­searcher Jerome Dempsey and two col­leagues ar­gue that there are cer­tain sit­u­a­tions in which the res­pi­ra­tory sys­tem reaches its lim­its – in­clud­ing in highly trained en­durance ath­letes, es­pe­cially if they’re fe­male, older or vis­it­ing high al­ti­tudes.

In prac­tice, there’s not much you can do about the size of your lungs, but it may be pos­si­ble to train the mus­cles that inf late and def late them. Dempsey points out that res­pi­ra­tory mus­cles like the di­aphragm do get fa­tigued dur­ing hard ex­er­cise, and they also com­pete for oxy­gen with other mus­cles like the ones in your legs. Train­ing your res­pi­ra­tory mus­cles, which typ­i­cally in­volves breath­ing heav­ily through a spe­cially de­signed ka­zoo-like de­vice for a few min­utes each day, might help ward off fa­tigue for a lit­tle longer. While re­sults of this ap­proach un­der or­di­nary con­di­tions have been mixed, a 2019 re­view in Fron­tiers in Phys­i­ol­ogy found that it kept oxy­gen lev­els higher and im­proved per­for­mance dur­ing ex­er­cise at high al­ti­tudes.

Alex Hutchin­son is a Toronto jour­nal­ist spe­cial­iz­ing in the sci­ence of run­ning and other en­durance sports.

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