Is Workout Music Worth The Distraction?

by Henry Luehrman
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Is Workout Music Worth The Distraction?

Thinking critically and working out don’t mix well. Maybe it’s because they’re so often at odds: one action requires focus, the other relaxation. Combined, they’re a draining slog. If you don’t believe me, try listening to an audiobook while running on a treadmill.

Lately, the same conceit of overcommitting our attention has got me thinking about music and how we use it during workouts.

Do we actually listen, or do we more often just… rely on it?

A cursory Google search will turn up dozens of studies arguing that music can improve both your endurance and performance, either by numbing you to pain or distracting you from it. I don’t disagree with this notion — it’s practically undeniable that the more you mentally remove yourself from the experience at hand, the longer you’ll be able to keep it up.

But is that what we want from exercise?

If you’re on board with my latest post, you’ll agree that part of making a healthy routine repeatable is keeping your motivation intrinsic — running because it makes you feel good, not simply because you want to be healthier.

Ask yourself: How does music factor into that philosophy?

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This isn’t a plea to outlaw playlists. It’s an attempt to change how we think about them. Too often I’ve found myself only partly experiencing music during my runs and more likely instead to develop subconscious associations between certain songs and physical exhaustion.

This summer is a chance to change that. Take that music you love, that album you’ve been waiting to explore — and save it for a time you can fully devote your attention. Separate your activities and pay attention to them, rather than imagining you are somewhere else. Listen to Tame Impala’s “Currents” (if you haven’t yet, do it now) without counting strides in your head.

Here’s an experiment to set this all in motion:

  1. Make a jump-starter playlist, with the focus on establishing your rhythm during a workout. I like hook-heavy, percussive songs for this (dubstep and trap are favorites, but do you).
  2. Go for a run or workout of your choice. Anything that keeps your breathing quick and regular.
  3. Don’t leave the task at hand as you find your tempo. Stay focused on where you are and what you’re doing. Tap into that electric feeling of dopamine slowly seeping in and activating your whole body. Feel your breath begin to double up as you hit the ceiling of a sustainable, comfortable rhythm.
  4. Let the music fade to the background. If it doesn’t happen naturally, try turning the volume down. When you find yourself thinking of other things, only occasionally checking in on what song is playing, do yourself a favor.
  5. Hit the stop button. Your playlist has done its job — you’re in the zone. Now just let that feeling run its course, and enjoy the hissing of summer lawns.

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  • Matthew Imbody

    Seriously? Without my music, and other things, to distract my, I probably wouldn’t excercize at all… I was so bored just trying to accomplish my time before I found the distraction of music… This is just like most things — one thing may work for some, but not for others. There’s no cookie-cutter solutions…

  • Tecopro

    Music is my motivation! Running to run is so boring. Music sets my pace and my mood.

  • Cinna Gee

    When I started running, I used a playlist of cut songs to time my sprint and walk intervals, but after a couple weeks I found it was really getting to be too much of a bother, particularly when my walk intervals dropped from 120 to 90 seconds. I still run with a playlist from time to time, but I’m finding I prefer to go without. Recently I discovered a lovely little hummingbird garden the local highschool put together (along with noticing in general how beautiful the path is with wild flora), and really the music just kills the thrill of a blast of wind coming off the river.

    Now if it were during some strength training, such as rowing, I’d probably feel a lot different. I do recall what it was like to workout without music when I was going to the gym a few years back, and I found that non-cardio was extremely tedious without that mental distraction. However, this could be purely personal preference. I do agree though that it’s important to find room for focus on the workout. It helps develop a better attitude toward the activities, which in the long run will help maintain healthy practices.

  • Brian

    I started regularly running about 9 months ago. For the first month, I tried finding or creating music playlists. What a hassle. Now I have 5-6 podcasts that I listen to. They keep me interested, I’ve kept up the routine, and I love running. And I learn things too. The one size fits all approach suggested by the author does not seem like the best idea. Do what you like. Like what you do.

  • Swingshift Worker

    For me, listening the music while doing mindless cardio on a bike or rower just helps pass the time.

  • Hannahmj

    I usually run on the treadmill so my main reason for listening to music is to drown out the horrendous songs they play at gyms. As a rock fan, turning my playlist off is not an option when it will invariably be replaced by the gym’s dance/pop sounds.

    • mysteryuz

      Exactly! If I don’t bring my own music the gym music would send me running and screaming out the door.

    • spikedirt

      It’s funny how things have changed at the gym. Even in the nineties my Golds Gym played loud rock music. Now at my gym what music there is is not that loud and and seems more of a pop/dance mix with some oldies thrown in. There are a lot more women at the gym now. Perhaps they are now the majority and are tired of hearing Enter Sandman

      • Sarah

        Blame it on the women. I can’t tell you how many guys my age (early to mid 20s) that have never heard many of the rock/metal songs that I love. They’re over listening to Drake and other crap, while I’ve got my Metallica, Volbeat, Five Finger Death Punch, Disturbed, etc playlist. Don’t get me wrong, I like some rap/dance/pop music thrown in the mix for fun. But honestly, I think people are losing taste for real music. They’d rather listen to a fully computerized song. Heck, who needs the singer anymore?

  • I have aides

    True, when I’m actually doing a set I’m not focused on the song, but whats that, 30 seconds tops? I’ve noticed listening to stuff for the first time doesn’t work so well though, the album will be over and I don’t remember if I like anything or not

    As for any form of cardio, its boring on its own. But, give me a live metal concert/mix for me to listen to and suddenly I’m a junkie mixing two drugs and getting super high and its awesome. You know that part where you’re 30-40 minutes in, that song or part of a song hits and you get the tinglies? 🙂

    The ONE time I had to go without, it was twice as hard mentally twice as hard physically. It was a mental hell.

    • Aieomi

      I’ve had to go without music quite a bit because of my forgetfulness (I always forget my ear buds). I eventually get in the zone but the first 20 minutes is a gruelling task!

      Plus when you REALLY don’t want to workout it makes the time fly by faster. I doubt I’ll ever purposefully give this experiment a try.

  • Gina

    The theory is great and maybe one day, yes. But I don’t know one person that works out with out music.
    When you first start working out, let’s be honest, it’s a chore. He have to push ourselves to do it, because we need to to be healthy or to reach our goals.
    But music… Music is a reward to our minds, our souls. There’s not one person in this world who does love music.
    I don’t know about any of you, but I am a working mom. Nearly every second of my life is busy with something to do, and sitting down to listen to a new album just isn’t an option.
    As humans most memories are paired with emotions. So when you do the same or similar activity from your memory, you feel those previous emotions regardless if that is how you were feeling before the activity or not. It’s call conditioning.
    When you see your best friend, you feel happy, excited, ready for fun. When you see your significant other, you feel (or should feel lol) love, wholeness.
    Bringing it back to the topic.
    If you are forcing yourself to work out, dreading it everytime. That is how you are going to feel every single time unless you develop new memories with different emotions, to give you a different out look.
    For example, many people have been saying that running is boring without music. And in my experience it totally is. But if you add music you get pumped and actually enjoy the run, creating a positive emotion filled memory of working out.
    They say it takes the average person 22 days to create a habit. So let’s say 22 days of pumped music filled running. By then, those positive emotions are engraved into your run.
    Of course as said by others there is no one way of doing things. Do what works for you! And if that is listening to music then do it.
    Your needs don’t fit mine and mine don’t fit yours.
    Anyways just some food for thought
    Gina

  • jon

    I’m sure someone exists that this is true for, just like I’m sure there are people who like flat coke, room temperature coffee, and warm beer, but exercise without music would have so much less motivation and be so much more draining for most of us.

    • Aieomi

      Ha! I love all three of those things. But I absolutely cannot workout at my optimum level from beginning to end without my music. It gets me in the zone.

    • Emmy Kay

      Same here. It frustrates me when people refer to music as a ‘crutch’. Music is my PASSION, of course I’m going to incorporate it into the things I do.

    • Nick

      I like flat coke ^^, don’t know why but I always have.

  • Cyn

    Ok so one thing, I actually like listening to audio books while working out. In fact some of my best miles times are when I’m listening to a book. Yes I switch it up and listen to music sometimes, but I can’t go without music or an audio. I am that person who would get distracted if I didn’t have something to listen to, but hey if you want to go without music then good for you I hope it works out.

    • Michelle Potter

      I listen to audio books, too! Didn’t know that was weird!

    • Stephanie Stewart

      I’m even weirder. I listen to sermons when I run. Lol.

  • max_clover

    Reading the comments here, one thing is clear: there are lots of different kinds of people in the world. There are also lots of different kinds of music. My workout playlist is almost entirely medium to up-tempo popular music with a good beat. Most of it is fairly familiar, though I do cycle some new stuff in regularly in order to avoid boredom. A bit of swing from the 30s and 40s, lots of top 40 and progressive rock from the 60s and 70s, Random bits of country, folk, jazz, and I don’t know what else.

    Mostly music I know well, so I can easily tune it out when I need to concentrate on something. But interesting and complex enough that there’s new stuff to notice during routine parts of the workout.

    Don’t know how that would work for anyone else, but it works for me.

  • Dharmish

    There’s no definitive answer I guess, it all depends on the person. For me when I’m lifting, the right music motivates me so I’d find it hard to go through my workout at the same level without music than with it.

  • Marsha Jackson

    Ummm…nice article but…I NEED my music to work out. It would be so boring and the people around me would be a distraction. A good rhythm gets me in the zone and keeps me focused on the task at hand.

  • Link Tr

    Music helps me motivated to work out even more. It help me distracted instead of staring at the treadmills timer. It helps me forget the time and keep me moving while working out… If I don’t have my music, I get bored, unmotivated… I would keep staring my treadmill time, asking myself am I done yet.

  • Running4mylife

    When I’m running and listening to my music suddenly my mind takes me to a different place. I’m not running on the elliptical anymore I’m running rough terrain in some fantastical realm chasing or being chased by the villain. Music makes my running my story.

    • That reminds me of the Zombies, Run! app that was so popular a while back, or more recently the Runtastic Story Run thing, both make for great distractions, particularly when in a boring or repetitive environment.

    • Emmy Kay

      Me too! I make up the craziest stories while running to music.

  • Andrew Y

    I don’t need music and rarely bother with it. I’ve been running for close to 30 years without it and going to the gym for probably 15 where I may use it on a spin bike but nowhere else. I can appreciate that others disagree, but it is just a distraction that I’ve found I don’t need.

    Now the argument may be that the music that they play in the gym is worse, but fortunately at our Y they don’t play anything that is too terrible.

  • Hotsam1

    I like listening to euphoric trance when I am on the treadmill and stair master; The energy I get is almost like I have a second heart!Also I don’t listen to that music at any other time except cardio so the aural intensity always stays fresh!! Sometimes a classic track that I really like will come on when I am going 10mph at the end of my run soaked in sweat and I will break into a stupid grin. I am pretty sure people around me think I am mental!!

  • Michelle Potter

    I actually DO listen to audio books — or podcasts, or an audio Bible — when I’m exercising. Didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to be able to do that. It’s actually my favorite part of the day, because I can focus on the audio without all the distractions of daily life.

  • “Thinking critically and working out don’t mix well. Maybe it’s because
    they’re so often at odds: one action requires focus, the other
    relaxation. Combined, they’re a draining slog. If you don’t believe me,
    try listening to an audiobook while running on a treadmill.”

    Cycling (and previously jogging) is one of the only times in which I’ve ever actually managed to focus on an audiobook, and truly, I often become so engrossed in the book that I end up going further and faster than simply distracting myself with music could ever help me achieve. Oftentimes I end up going on a 15+ mile (24+ km) ride solely to get in a few chapters of a good book, and in those instances, the exercise is an afterthought, a mere aid for my focus. Distraction isn’t necessarily a bad thing (so long as one is still aware of their surroundings and keeps safe), and in many cases distraction can help us make the most of our chosen physical activities.

  • mistermcee

    All my PB’s have been to audiobooks. I find them much more conducive to running than music.

  • Rebecka Thoms

    Maybe mostly everyone is referring to in the gym or on the treadmill, but as far as outside, there is a safety aspect to think about as well. I’ve been running for about 10 years now 40-60 mpw depending where I am in a training cycle, and never with music, except when I’ve been stuck on a treadmill for whatever reason. Outside on the roads it’s down right dangerous! I come up behind people almost daily with their earbuds in who don’t even know I’m there. I’ve had to go so far as tapping people on the shoulder to get them to scoot over (sometimes I run with the jogger and can’t just hop around them). Just yesterday I was running along and heard a little snarling snapping coming up behind me and sure enough, here comes a little dog trying to bite my ankles, no way I’d have heard him with earbuds. And my scariest ever encounter was a cougar, I didn’t hear him so much as see him creeping out off of the trail, but if I had been lost in music… Cars, people ( both friendly and not) dogs, animals, ambulances that need to turn where you are. And that’s not even touching on the beauty of just being outside and really taking it all in! So many reasons to be aware of your surroundings when outside! I think that if you try running/cardio/ working out without music you’ll find that it’s a really great time to get some mental work done. Planning, thinking, figuring out project designs or ideas.

    • RedHead0186

      Agreed, there is a safety aspect. I only ever run with one earbud in so I can still hear what’s going on around me, and I try to be extra mindful and look around more since I know my hearing is ‘distracted.’

    • Sarah

      Totally agree with not using earbuds. I do road cycling and just turn the speaker on my phone up to listen to music. I want to hear any vehicles coming up behind me.

  • “running because it makes you feel good, not simply because you want to be healthier.”

    Let’s be real. For most people running doesn’t “feel good”. What feels good is accomplishing a run. What feels good is challenging yourself and breaking through perceived barriers. What feels good is getting stronger, slimmer, faster.

    But most people I know don’t think to themselves, mid-run, “Gosh this feels good!”. Most people think “I’m tired”, “I’m sore”, “Just one more mile”.

    That’s why music is critical – it helps drown out those negative thoughts and feelings so that we can experience why we’re doing it in the first place: to achieve a goal and better ourselves.

    • Derek Quackenbush

      Totally agree. It’s not about the start of the run. It’s towards the end…when you are tired, sore, the wind that was behind you is now in your face forcing you to push harder…and then your power song comes on and you go faster. The end is in sight. It’s not about finishing…it’s about finishing strong. And when you’re resting at the end, you feel good…like you made progress!

    • Timothy Fish

      That’s why I’m more into cycling. It actually does feel good to have the wind in your face, to hear the singing of the tires, and even the pain in the legs is just a minor distraction.

    • griddark

      I could be wrong, but running feels good in a way that isn’t immediate, take me for example, I love to run, I don’t love to run everyday, but considering 1 year ago I couldn’t run, I couldn’t really walk more than 3k in a stretch without having the worst pain in my ankles. 30kg loss of weight, and while I still can’t run more than 4k in a stretch, I can run, and it feels great.

  • Jenny LM

    I create a playlist that I only listen to when I exercise. For me, it’s a motivational thing. The first time, I exercised for 84 min before I ever looked at the time. That would never have happened without my tunes!

  • Timothy Fish

    The only music I listen to when I’m working out is the birds singing and whatever music is coming from the cars in the street. It’s not that I see anything wrong with people listening to music, I just enough riding a bicycle so much that I don’t care to have something taking away from it. I also like to be able to hear any traffic that is around me and to hear people speak to me as a pass.

  • Paul Febre

    I’ve been looking for that jacket that dude is wearing for days. Which one is it please?

  • Keith Bell

    I listen to audiobooks on my runs. Audible allows it to be read at 1.25x to 1.5x without sounding like chipmunks so you don’t have to slog through what someone considered a good story telling pace. The story keeps you going and sometimes you just have to extend the run to find out what happens next.

  • Patrick Campbell

    I listen during the elliptical and when I do weights. It helps me concentrate. I also like to play my stuff using Subsonic. I also scrobble all via LASTFM.

  • RedHead0186

    In college when we had to do long erg (rowing) pieces indoors during the winter, we’d oftentimes play movies to get us through those pieces. You couldn’t do anything too funny, because laughing would mess up your breathing, but I certainly remember erging through the entirety of Saving Private Ryan once. It was a good distraction, as that gets really boring.

  • Joe Loomis

    I have been running for about 2 months. I road run and everything I read says you should only run with one ear piece in so you can hear traffic.

    I tired that but the little voice that says “you can’t do this” is so incredibly loud with out the other ear piece.

    I listen to music with two ear pieces in to make that voice shut the hell up. Music dis that for me. Do I pay attention to the music? Nope I have heard it thousands of times before it is only a means to an end.

  • MartiniGirlChar

    I’m a single ear bud biker. I love the cadence of club jams.

  • La Bandita

    Im thin in great shape and dont use music…ever.

    Not when I cheered or dance or ran division one. My work outs were and still are so focus I cant.

    The question should be are the people who always need music in better or worse shape long term then the people who dont need it?

    Like if you left your music home do you not work out that day?

    • Sarah

      Seeing as many athletes use music as motivation, your question about being in better or worse shape is answered. I prefer to workout, cycle, or run to music (if I’m by myself), but will absolutely do it without music if I need to…it’s rare that I can’t have it though. If I’m with a friend, I don’t listen to music (and find it rude when they want to plug in the headphones).
      I think it depends how seriously you take your health/fitness as opposed to whether you think you “need” music or not. If a phone or mp3 player is not something you can afford to have, then it’s something you learn to do without. People are pretty adaptable when we put our minds to it.

      • La Bandita

        The question is not answered. Im a former sprinter, so athlete. Athletes are super focus regardless – music, no music.

        Who uses mp3 players (not a question).

        The regular person off the couch to the gym is listening to music, watching tv and texting to distract themselves.

  • PJ

    After having been forced in ballet classes when I was a child, music plays an important part in my exercise. The beat, the rhythm keeps me on pace be it lifting weights or doing HIIT on the bike. My body wants to follow the beat and music can force those extra reps out of me when my mind is saying I can’t

    I turn on my weightlifting playlist and I feel the surge of energy I associate with lifting by the second song. The list is all Heavy metal/hard rock with a driving edge of anger and hate for situations [strangely those same songs lower my BP. I figure it is getting the anger and rage in me out.] There are a few like I hate my life by Theory of a Deadman which don’t fit the general profile for the beat or type but work.

    With HIIT, the speed of the songs matter. My list is set up that when I hit the high speed, the list keeps pace with me. In my rest period, the pace slows down.

    I’ve listened to others playlists of pop songs and wonder how in the devil they manage to work out to that music. it’s a distraction. It has no drive or no beat that would help them through part of their workout. The crap puts me to sleep.

    Maybe it isn’t so much ignoring your playlist but reevaluating if Jimmy Buffett’s Wonder why we ever go home should really be on your weight lifting play list vs something like Walk by Pantra. Or if For What It’s Worth by Buffalo Springfield really works as well as Bang on the Drum all day by Ted Rundgren or Footloose from the movie. The beats are very different and the right song can drive you when you don’t have the energy.

    If the song has you bouncing in your chair at the computer, it’s a fairly good candidate. The last thing you want while working out be it Cardio or Weights is a nice relaxing song. You fill up your weight list with those? They won’t carry you anywhere. We move to music to express ourselves. Why should it be any different with music and workouts.

  • SFSProf

    I don’t listen to anything while lifting. I have a number of “somatic irregularities” (e.g. scoliosis is the worst), and have to focus on form so much that music is too distracting.

    But when I run, I always listen to something. I will go in cycles. One thing I listen doesn’t fit the usual reason for listening while exercising. I listen to podcasts and lectures as a way to stay up in my field (I’m a teacher and writer).

    But other times I listen to drum and bugle corps music (DCI). If you don’t know corps music, it’s like a really great marching band taken up about 5 levels. Many corps will perform at 180 beats per minute, or 3 beats per second, and that really keeps the pace up. (If you’re curious, and I have no illusions most people would be – find on Youtube “Carolina Crown 2011 Closer” – a show that combined Rachmaninoff and Classic Rock, and it worked.)

  • Ron Arnold

    I commute back and forth to work on my bicycle. I used to listen to music while doing it, and while certain songs or passages helped keep me rolling – in the end, it wasn’t much help. Now – I no longer listen to music. I tend to pay more attention to my pace, my breathing and the sound of the woods and later the traffic during the ride. I find I’m better at it when the music is off.

  • JLF

    When I first got busy with my workout routine I set up a playlist with an ear for songs that kept up a certain pace to keep me moving. As my strength and endurance have improved, I’ve dumped several songs off the list for being too slow, and added more that have the faster beat. So, far from being just a workout distraction, my music is one of the measures of my progress.

  • Kim Go

    Off-topic, but it’s so random, the Hissing of Summer Lawns (the writer’s last statement) by Joni Mitchell is actually in my iTunes.

  • Emmy Kay

    I love music! I love doing silly dances to it, I love singing lyrics at inexplicable moments, and I love listening to that new album right the way through, so that I can truly appreciate it.

    But trying to listen to a whole album while sitting on my butt? Forget it. I just get restless. Similiarly, if I try jogging without music, I just get bored as hell, make up stories in my head and then forget that I intended to run at all.

    Music and exercise is the perfect marriage. The beat keeps your body going, and the physical exertion frees your mind to appreciate the music.

    Rock On!!!!

  • Boten Daddy

    I can’t listen to music at all when I run. It gets me distracted and agitates me.

  • Lawless Imagination

    for me, the music is a part of the feeling good. there are certain songs that come through my headphones that fill me with complete joy. i don’t associate the songs with exhaustion, i allow the vigor i receive from the song to fill my steps. there is something so surreal for me, when i listen to music on headphones. i don’t often do it outside of exercise and it basically makes me feel like i am in a video or a movie and the music is the soundtrack to this particular part of my story. i can exercise without music but it always just seems so much more enriched when i get to blast the tunes