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Can Your Playlist Make You a Better Runner?

By Lily Mercer, MS, DPT

Spring is upon us. Many runners are stepping it up and increasing their mileage in order to embrace the long-awaited warm weather and to prepare for upcoming summer races.

This is good news.

The bad news is that over 50% of recreational runners and up to 90% of runners training for a marathon will sustain a running-related injury this year. It’s not all bad though — runners have the ability to identify and correct faulty running form in order to prevent injuries this Spring.

So what is the secret to a healthy training season? The true answer is complicated. We are all different, and our injuries can stem from a whole host of causes. However, we all have one tool at our disposal that can help shield us from injury: a running playlist.

Most of us run to music because it’s fun. The perfect playlist pumps you up, inspires you to run a little faster and motivates you to go the extra mile. But did you know that your playlist can also prevent injury by influencing your step rate?

Stride length and step rate are important pieces in both injury recovery and prevention. You may not have given much thought to your running stride before, but the length of your stride is a potential power player in your health as a runner. The right running playlist can influence how many steps you take and will therefore also determine how long your stride is.

Overstriding is a faulty running mechanic that deserves our attention. Like the name says, overstriding simply means that a runner exhibits a long stride length, and therefore takes fewer steps per minute for any given distance. This may sound efficient, but overstriding has been linked to a variety of running injuries including patellofemoral pain syndrome, iliotibial band syndrome, plantar fasciitis, achilles tendonitis and tibial stress fractures. Any of these sound familiar? Most runners have unfortunately experienced at least one of these ailments. These injuries often result from excessive impact forces at the hip, knee and ankle joints, which accompany overstriding.

The solution to combatting overstriding may lie in your running playlist. Our music choices can decrease stride length by naturally prompting us to take more steps. A study in Sports Medicine – Open found that a song’s beats per minute (BPM) has a direct effect on step rate.

Without being prompted to run to the beat, the runners in the study demonstrated increases in self-selected step rate when the music tempo was faster. This basically means that music with higher BPM naturally makes us take more steps and prevents overstriding. The result – decreased risk of injury!

If you have been a runner for 20 years, or even 5 years, you are most likely set in your ways. It can feel daunting to change it up. Rest assured though, there is no magic number for step rate; it simply has to be higher than your originally preferred rate.

Subtle increases in step rate—even as little as 5-10%—have been shown to reduce joint compressive forces and decrease risk of injury. To free you from the burden of counting your steps, there are metronome apps like Spring and JogTunes that will find music according to BPM to match your new step rate. If it still seems overwhelming to implement a new running pattern throughout the entire course of your run, you may start by adding incremental time periods at the new step rate.

Many studies have linked an increased step rate to a considerable reduction in running-related injuries. This alteration in running mechanics has proven to be just as, if not more important than, a strengthening rehabilitation program.

Strength is not the sole indicator of recovery; when returning to running after an injury, it is paramount that rehabilitation principles carry over to your daily runs. By using music to increase your step rate you can easily prevent overstriding and improve your running form when you hit the streets this Spring.

So next time you head out for a run, throw on some music with a higher BPM. It may be your key to success this training season!

Lily Mercer attended Villanova University for her undergraduate studies and graduated with honors with a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree from Columbia University. She also earned a master’s in Human Nutrition from Columbia in order to better understand the influence of nutrition on musculoskeletal healing. She has been with Finish Line PT since 2016.

References
Influence of Stride Frequency and Length on Running Mechanics: A Systematic ReviewSports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach 2014;6:3 210-217

Heiderscheit BC, Chumanov ES, Michalski MP, et al. Effects of Step Rate Manipulation on Joint Mechanics during Running. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 2011;43(2):296-302.

Schubert AG, Kempf J, Heiderscheit BC. Influence of Stride Frequency and Length on Running Mechanics: A Systematic ReviewSports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach. Sports Health. 2014 May;6(3):210-7.

Taunton JE. A retrospective case-control analysis of 2002 running injuries. British Journal of Sports Medicine 2002;36(2):95-101

Van Dyck E, Moens B, Buhmann J, et al. Spontaneous Entrainment of Running Cadence to Music Tempo. Sports Med Open. 2015;1(1):15

van Gent RN, Siem D, van Middelkoop M, van Os AG, Bierma-Zeinstra SM, Koes BW.. Incidence and determinants of lower extremity running injuries in long distance runners: a systematic review. Br J Sports Med. 2007;41:469-480

Willy RW, Buchenic L, Rogacki K, et al. The effects of a gait retraining program using mobile biofeedback in high risk runners. Proceedings of the 3rd International Patellofemoral Pain Retreat 2013

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