I recently came across the article, "The Nike Experiment: How the Shoe Giant Unleashed the Power of Personal Metrics" in Wired Magazine. The article describes the phenomenon of "Living by the Numbers--the ability to gather and analyze data about yourself setting up a feedback loop that we can use to upgrade our lives, from better health to better habits to better performance." The concept that feedback can elevate your performance is one of the core principles of the "Flow," a theory by happiness psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Basically, the theory is that people who are happy tend to get that way because they do things they enjoy and feel in control of. A key way to get there is by earning positive feedback. This is similar to "being in the zone" in sports because that happens when you are performing at the peak of your ability. In this case it is the the numbers (pace, distance, running frequency) that are telling you when you are improving.
The article explains that as people upload data into the Nike+ network they become hooked. There are many effective elements, watching the data, the online community, the challenges and the goals. The Nike+ Apple union is a great gateway drug for running. They are tapping into something that goes deep. There is a whole other element to its success that the article barely even touches on. In order to use Nike+ you have to also be using an iPod. Those 1.2 million runners had to spend 130 million miles listening to something. There is also a hunger for a good soundtrack. So, I take over where Wired left off and present some useful resources I have found for running music, including a tried and tested playlist.
The Nike+ store has started including a section for the "SportMusic" blog. Conversely on iTunes you can now make "Sport iMixes." Runner's World uses Sport iMixes for a series called Music is Motivation with playlists of elite athletes such as Deena Kastor, Andrew Wheating, and Kara Goucher.
When you are in sync with a song while running it is a very similar feeling to the ecstasy of nailing a song as a musician because you are synchronizing movement to something bigger and you can feel it. It's the same reason why Guitar Hero can be gratifying. If you become one with the beat the fact that you can stay on top of it is the positive internal feedback.
The problem with so many of the songs being pushed forward in "running mixes" is that they are all over the map in terms of pace. Even when you are not trying to run directly to the beat, a powerful rhythm can still have an effect so it is important to be conscious of it. Popular songs are frequently around 120 or 130 b.p.m., which is terrible for running.
If you are running strictly to the rhythm of a song it is your steps and relative arm swing that are syncing. Since your legs tend to match what your arms are doing I suggest that you use your arms to find the beat. This will keep them engaged and hopefully avoid your feet stomping it out. Light quick steps are best. If you count the steps of one foot for one minute you will get a number that could range from 70 to 100. If you double that you can get a good idea of what b.p.m. (beat per minute) will naturally match your stride.
There are podcasts that are especially geared to running with music. Jog Tunes Indie usually goes through a set of songs that range of tempos with Dr. Bob Marcus explaining them as you go. Podrunner DJ Steve Boyett takes one tempo and goes with it electronica style. Then the Indie Soup Runner's Edition with Cecil Smith tackles all things Indie. There are also sites with extended mixes that do a good job of helping you choose a tempo like Hellasound and run2rhythm.
It turns out that most elite and experienced runners have the same average stride rate: 180 steps per minute. If you do any reading on this subject you will see this number come up a lot. One renowned coach and exercise physiologist who did a comprehensive study is Jack T. Daniels, PhD, who said, "I try to save runners a lot of grief by encouraging them to convert to a stride rate associated with less landing shock and more efficient use of energy."
I have been doing a lot of experimenting with this idea and have found that you can still run really slowly at 180 b.p.m. It becomes more about nailing down your form with a short quick stride, then when you want to speed up you put on the gas. It is the force you are pushing off with that will speed you up (and lengthen your stride.) However, your cadence and basic form should stay smooth and consistent. I have found the quick stride makes it easier to go faster when you want to. I explain this more here.
Music has the potential to be effective tool in your training. If you can tap into the tempo and maintain it you can develop a more efficient stride. That efficient use of energy will help you feel on top of your running for longer periods. It a form of internal positive feedback to help you achieve your running high. Let music can be your guide in that. It certainly beats running with a metronome as suggested by ChiRunner, Danny Dreyer.
I put together a Sport iMix incorporating some Lady Southpaw songs. I was so disappointed not to be able to include some of my favorite artists because they didn't have the right tempo, but it furthers my point that there is a need for more music with the running experience in mind! There are several programs out there for analyzing tempos but I used the very unscientific method of tapping it out on my amp. Therefore this is not a perfect 180 bpm mix, but all of these songs are in the neighborhood and when I tested it they all worked pretty well. Enjoy!