Make your music work for you and create a custom exercise playlist that actually helps. Music while you exercise can work for you or against you. And while running to music is far from a revolutionary idea, music can help you get more out of your workout whatever your activity. So whether you’re a swimmer, a biker, a kickboxer, or an aerobic dancer, the tips we’ve compiled here will help you maximize the benefits of music while adapting your exercise playlist to perfectly suit your fitness goals and exercise routine.
Make your body move to the music
When you tap your foot to the beat, march in time, dance, and so on, that’s synchroneity, and humans have a natural tendency toward it. In fact, your heart will actually speed up or slow down to better match music. What’s more, synchroneity makes your movements and your respiration more efficient.
The first step in creating a custom exercise playlist, then, is deciding how much you want to synchronize your motions to the music. Do you want your heart and breathing at maximum efficiency? Some of your decisions are made: songs with between 125 and 140 beats per minute have been shown to give you the most bang for your metaphorical buck. Are you more concerned about being entertained or distracted from the effort of your workout? You may want to weigh content, mood, and emotional response more heavily than beats. Do you want your footfalls or swimming strokes to hit on the beat? You’ll want to determine your pace.
Find your pace
Next, if you want to synchronize your movements directly with the beat of your music, you’ll need to determine your pace. Whatever your activity, get to your usual (or desired) pace and count the number of movements – strokes, strides, revolutions, etc. – in one minute. (If that seems like a lot, count for 20 seconds and multiply by 3.)
You can also shoot for a target. Take, for example, this description of the “ideal” running pace:
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. (Source)
Fit your BPM
BPM stands for Beats Per Minute, and is a key piece of information when selecting songs for an exercise playlist. Check the BPM for a song using google or songbpm.com (my personal preference when creating Underwater Audio Playlists). If you know your target pace and corresponding BPM, find your music with songs that fit your goal. Bear in mind that if, for example, your goal is 180 BPM, songs with 90 BPM can have the same feel if you listen for half beats.
Sites like jog.fm provide lists of songs organized by pace, BPM, and/or activity, such as running, walking, and cycling. When choosing music, make sure you include a little variety. You’ll want songs both a little faster and slower than your goal, as well as a few good, slow, cool down songs (80-90 BPM can be a good range for these).
Structure Your Exercise Playlist
The key to creating a really killer custom playlist and unlocking all the power of synchroneity (and those other awesome benefits of exercising to music) is structure. Your body wants to follow the music, so set your music up as a template for the most effective workout.
Structure your playlist like your workout, and create a musical arc. (Credit for the subcategories belongs here.)
Even if you prefer listening to podcasts, audiobooks, or unabridged operas as you exercise, you can still reap a lot of the benefits of exercising to music by starting off with a couple carefully selected songs.
- Warm-Up Song – Start with a song to establish your strength and indicate the type of activity you’re headed toward. This should be something to psych you up and prep your heart and lungs for the exertion to come. A BPM of 120-140 is usually a good choice for a first song.
- Get-You-Going Song – The next song on your playlist should really wake up your body and get blood flowing a little more. Choose a song that gets you a little excited and makes you feel energized. It could have a faster tempo (higher BPM) than your warm-up song.
- Pump-You-Up Songs – Third song is a good place to really pump it up. Party feel, quick pace. Sprint.
- Recovery Songs Pace a little slower than normal, provide a recovery space, time to breath and re-energize
- In-Between Songs have a good, average pace
Here’s where you want to look very closely at the type of workout you’ll be having. If you’re training for an Ironman triathlon or marathon, the body of your playlist can be a real tool to keep you going.
- Do you want to increase your speed? Interval training is the way to go. Alternate Pump-You-Up songs with Recovery Songs, and shake it up (or round it off at the end) with in-between songs.
- Will you be better benefited by songs that help you keep your pace steady? Choose songs with a consistent BPM. Give yourself a mental break by alternating the tone or feel of the song while not sacrificing tempo.
- Or, do you need something that’ll help you dissociate from the activity, the passage of time, or the environment in which you’re exercising? If that’s what you’re looking for, once you’ve established your pace, you can let the BPM-wrangling go a bit and just choose what engages you the most. The middle of your workout is a great time to listen to songs from your favorite musical, an engrossing podcast, etc.
- Finale Song – This is the finish line; give yourself one last hurrah and push it with an exciting song and a faster pace.
- Cool Down Track – A slower, more mellow song to finish helps you cool down, returns your heart rate to normal, and gives you a satisfying sense of completion and accomplishment. This might be something you listen to as you stretch, dry off, put away equipment, etc.
Song Selection Tips
We’ve collected a few tips on finding those songs that will really work in your favor for a workout.
Pick something UPbeat
This is going to look different for different people, but in general, upbeat is energizing. For an exercise playlist, that’s exactly what you want. Opt for tunes with a strong, energizing rhythm, uplifting melodies, and inspirational lyrics.
Look for a Rhythm Response
What’s a rhythm response? A song that makes you want to move along! Obviously this is subjective, but songs with strong beats usually work well.
Find the Familiar
This doesn’t necessarily mean songs you already know. Rather, add songs that hold meaning. Current hits and personal favorites can be especially motivating. Also look for songs with cultural associations: Eye of the Tiger, anyone? Songs associated with athletic prowess or overcoming adversity are awesome for exercise playlists.
Engage your Emotions
Finally, choose music that makes you feel something:
The stronger your emotional response to music, and the more you identify with the singer’s perspective, the more motivated you’ll feel. Songs that evoke particular characters, complex narratives and vivid scenes, such as songs from musicals, can elicit particularly powerful emotions. (source)
Organize Your Library
Our final tip for creating amazing playlists is to organize your music. Sorting your entire library may seem like a waste of time, but a little extra effort in the beginning will make creating killer custom playlists a breeze.
Sort Songs by BPM
Make creating playlists worlds easier by organizing songs in your music library by BPM. Your place in your routine tells you what BPM you’re looking for, and with your songs organized by BPM, it’s easy to quickly scan through appropriate options.
In iTunes, you can set up a smart playlist with the criteria “BPM in the range of” as long as your songs have BPM info listed. Or, right click on the Name/Artist/Album etc. bar at the top of your list of tracks. Click Beats Per Minute on the list; then, once BPM is included in the header, click it to have the tracks sorted by BPM. Not seeing BPM on the list? Here’s what we found:
- you have to switch into “Songs” mode (the button is on the top-right of the iTunes window, just below the “Search” field).
- Once you are in “Songs” mode, you can re-enable the BPM column by.
- clicking on “Songs” again,
- then choosing “Show Columns”
- and then “Beats Per Minute”.
If you want to analyze a sizable existing library for BPM, the easiest route would be to use a program such as beaTunes, beatgauge, or Tangerine!, which calculate BPM for your songs and imports that information into iTunes. Some programs actually create playlists for you from your library based on BPM.
This blogger gives a decent overview of the hows and whys of sorting your library by BPM, including a few other music analyzer suggestions: https://www.nateshivar.com/1182/how-i-cut-157-off-my-average-5k-time-by-tweaking-my-playlist/
Create multiple playlists
Variety is the spice of life, and even if you come up with the perfect playlist, you’ll get sick of it eventually.
Predictability on a playlist can make songs you love seem mundane by reducing anticipation and create a rut. Once you’ve memorized the sequence of songs there is no mystery, which can create monotony. (Source)
Music loses its effectiveness with over-familiarity, so create multiple playlists to keep things fresh. Consider creating one “perfect” playlist, and then two or three other options to swap in. Try making them to fit your moods and your goals: use, for example, a collection of sad, angry, empowering, or pick-me-up songs.
You may want to create playlists to suite your energy levels. On days when you want to push yourself, increasing the tempo of your songs by just a few BPM may increase your pace without you even noticing the extra effort. For low-energy days where just talking yourself into a workout takes effort, consider a slightly slower playlist.
Does this seem like too much work? Check out the playlists we’re creating to try something a little different that’s geared specifically for swimming and water aerobics. (One of our customers even told us about doing deep water dance with her waterproof iPod! How awesome is that?) Drop us a comment, and we might even be able to make one to fit your preferences.