A Musicologist Explains How to Hack Your Playlist and Make Your Workouts More Effective

Photo: Stocksy / Kate Daigneault
Picture this nightmare of a situation: you’ve mustered up all your remaining energy after a long day of work to pack your running shoes, sports bra and towel, only to realize once you got to the gym that you forgot your headphones. You now have a tough decision to make: go back home to get your AirPods, or tough out a workout that’s sure to feel a lot more monotonous and challenging?

If going back home to retrieve your headphones so you actually survive this workout sounds like more, well, your jam, you’re not alone. “There have been scores of research papers and controlled studies demonstrating that music enhances athletic performance significantly,” says Eric Stensvaag, curator and writer at Feed.fm, a program that works with musicologists to curate motivating playlists for every situation.“Music can also create an increased commitment to exercise, resulting in people working out more frequently and for prolonged periods.”

Specifically, a study from the journal Ergonomics found that participants who boosted the tempo and volume of their music while on the treadmill ran faster than those who didn’t. Bonus: The study also found their quickened pace maintained their perceived effort, which increased their endurance.

Turns out your best training session yet doesn’t involve hiring a personal trainer. Here’s how to create the perfect playlist so you breeze through your next workout.

Consider your workout type

The music you bring to a sprinting sesh on the treadmill is going to differ drastically from a playlist you use to stretch it out on the mat. According to Stensvaag, your workout type should guide your music choice to a greater degree than your mood since “the music will theoretically help to adapt your mood to what's needed for the workout, whether that's a more energetic mood for cardio or weight training, or a more relaxed mood for something like yoga,” he says.

Strive for consistency

To create a sense of “flow,” or to get out of your own head and feel immersed in your activity, Stensvaag says to strive for consistency in each song so that none of your selections are distracting. The last thing you want is to go from one different genre to the next, pausing to acclimate to the change in beat and musical ambiance. Create, for example, a separate playlist for genres like hip-hop, rap, and R&B; another for punk, pop punk, and rock; and another for pop, techno, and electronic dance.

Pick the right beat

To trigger the desired flow state, “songs definitely need to deliver an appropriate tempo—beats per minute or BPM—and intensity of music for the workout," says Stensvaag.

Okay, now we’re getting technical. But don’t feel the need to get bogged down by BPM’s.“[It’s] an instance where going with [your] gut is usually as effective if not more so,” says Stensvaag. “Our curators use BPM to evaluate song selection, but we find the more subjective criteria of intensity is even more important.” To evaluate a song's intensity, use your best judgment on how fast a song feels, how hard-hitting the music is, and how aggressive the lyrics are, he recommends. That should give you a good idea about when and where that particular song would complement—or enhance—your routine.

Break up your playlist

The same way you break up your workout into three parts—the warm-up, workout, and cool down—so too should you break up your playlist. Aim for something upbeat for your warm-up to motivate you to get started, something fast bordering on aggressive to guide your pace and intensity for the main workout, and something soothing for your cool down. “If you're able to vary the playlist in this way but want a shortcut, we've found that the type of music suited to warm up and cool down is similar enough that it can be used interchangeably,” says Stensvaag. If you don’t have the luxury of creating separate playlists for the warm up and cool down segments of your workouts, he says that simply playing the music at a lower volume during those sections is effective. Turning it off completely during your cool down should also do the trick, he says.

Be gentle on yourself

Look, the goal is definitely to give it your best given that you went out of your way to retrieve your headphones from your bedroom, and made it back to the gym with only an hour to spare before closing. (Right? Right??) But there’s really no need to force an unnecessarily challenging intensity to match the tempo of your music, since this can make you prone to injury. “It's probably best to only sync your workout with the beat if this feels natural and helpful for your performance,” says Stensvaag. “Otherwise, let the intensity of the song guide you towards pushing more or less, and listen to your body.” In a spin class that hinges on matching your cadence to the beat, a good instructor will suggest you modify your bike's resistance and/or your repetitions per minute to suit your physical needs or limitations.

Don’t overthink it

Above all else, you should love the music, and no one can decide what that sounds like but you. “Songs that you know and love should form the backbone of your playlist,” says Stensvaag, “but to prevent things from getting stale, it's good to include some new or unfamiliar tracks.” He says his fellow curators at Feed.fm aim for 75 percent familiar songs, and 25 percent songs new to discover. And there’s scientific proof that your favorite music puts you in the mood: a study from the journal Nature Neuroscience found that listening to your favorite music, or even anticipating it, lights up the reward system in the brain and releases the feel-good hormone dopamine, which can thus motivate you to workout and boost your self-esteem. It’s truly the equivalent of lighting scented candles and dimming the lights so get you in the mood for sex—if that’s your thing!

Keep in mind that your favorite song might not lend itself well to your workout, and that’s okay. “It's been shown that pop music has been slowing over the past several years,” says Stensvaag. “Much of what's popular right now lacks the right intensity for workouts. And there are examples where artists tend to specialize in making great music that may backfire in a workout context, like Billie Eilish, Lana Del Rey, and The Weeknd.” Hey, at least you always have your cool down to listen to your favorite slower tracks.

The only warm-up runners need:

Overall, music is a serious mood boosterso much so it can make you feel 13 distinct emotions. It's also great for work productivity, which might help convincing your boss into expensing some fancy new headphones...

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