02 May, 2012

The Most Mathematically Perfect Playlist for Running

May 2nd, 2012Top Story

The Most Mathematically Perfect Playlist for Running

By Brent Rose

The Most Mathematically Perfect Playlist for RunningLast week you learned about the best headphones for running, and now you're going to hear what you ought to pump through them. This isn't just about taste. The right music can improve your form, optimize your heart rate, and lower your risk of injury. Listen up.

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Determine the Target Tempo

Legendary distance running coach Jack Daniels analyzed the stride of many elite runners, and he found that they almost all took 180 steps per minute (or 90 steps with each leg). Since this revelation, 180 has become the bullseye pace. To hit this number, runners usually need to take more steps—most people have a bouncy stride, which wastes energy and strains joints through excessive impact.

You don't need to run with a metronome to measure the 180 beats per minute (BPM) tempo. The right songs do the counting for you. Now, you won't find a lot of allegrissimo songs set to 180 beats per minute. But you will find a gazillion songs in the ballpark of 90 BPM range. Those can work just as well to keep you right near the 180 BPM rate. (Really, any pace from 170 to 190 BPM will do.) Here's how to find the right types of tunes.

Analyze Your Music

If you have a sizable digital music collection, download a program that analyzes the BPM of your music. I had good results with Cadence Desktop Pro, which is available for OSX and Windows. It analyzed my entire iTunes library and added the BPM to the metadata. Once it was done, I Just went to View > View Options and checked Beats Per Minute under "Show Columns," in iTunes. Super easy, and generally pretty accurate, though long intros can trip it up (as can audiobooks).

Cadence will run you $7. There are free alternatives, like BPM Assistant for Mac or BPM Calculator for PC. You may get what you pay for.

If you need music recommendations to build a playlist from scratch, sites like Running Music Mix helpfully list songs by BPM range.

Tap To Check

Once your music is sorted into a BPM-driven playlist, double-check for a consistent tempo. Listen to a song and use three fingers to tap along in time. Watch the seconds tick off in the music player. If the song is 180 BPM, you should be tapping exactly three times per second. If it's 90 BPM, tap in double-time, three times per second. When you're sure the music is in range, copy that playlist onto an MP3-playing device and put on your running shoes.

Of course, several optimal playlists emerged as a byproduct of this research. If you stream music, you're in luck.

The Hard Part Is Figured Out Already

This project produced two rather large Spotify playlists in the 170-190 and 85-95 BPM range. It took forever. You're welcome.

170-190 Hip-Hop
170-190 Rock and Other

Click either of those links to open up your Spotify app to subscribe to the playlists. The hip-hop list contains 138 tracks for about nine hours of dope jams. The Rock and Other list is a random hodgepodge—it probably won't fully satisfy anybody's exquisite taste, but it's got 91 tracks for five hours of music. Grab the songs you like and add them to playlists of your own. If you've got Spotify Premium you can listen on your mobile device. (Note: We made every effort to make sure all of the songs were in the correct range, but it's possible that one or two off-tempo tracks snuck in there.)

For those that don't want to shell out for Spotify, go through some of these songs in the free desktop app, and find your favorites. If you've got them in your home collection, then great—put them in a playlist.

UPDATE: Some readers don't have access to Spotify and wanted to see the track list. There's no way to export them to a text file, but we screen-capped it for you and put the images in this gallery.

UPDATE 2: Some people are getting blank playlists when they click on the above links. These links may be better:
170-190 Hip-Hop
170-190 Rock and Other

Running In Time

As you run, you have to actively try to step to the beat to set your pace in time with the music. It takes some getting used to, because it's a higher turnover rate than most runners naturally use. At first, it feels like you're taking tons of tiny steps. But it starts to feel more natural after a while. You'll find a rhythm in which a single footfall strikes on each beat of the 180 BPM songs. At that same pace, your feet will strike at exactly double the rate of the 90 BPM songs, so that each left foot strike (or right) is in time with the song's beat.

Do you have some favorite running songs in the 85-95 (or 170-190) BPM range? Let us know in the comments, and check back next Wednesday for another Fitmodo.

Image credit: Shutterstock/Martin Novak

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