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.
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.
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)
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).
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.
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.
We’ve collected a few tips on finding those songs that will really work in your favor for a workout.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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:
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/
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.
Johnny found a love for swimming a little later in life. He really didn't know how to swim too well when he first started...