The Right Music Can Aid Recovery

New research shows how to build the ideal post-run playlist.

If you’re among the millions of people who listen to music while running, you probably put a lot of thought into your on-the-go playlist. And for good reason: research backs your intuition that the right music can help a given pace feel easier, get you to stay out another kilometre or two, or just make your run more enjoyable.

But what about after your run? According to a new study out of Brunel University in London, listening to the right kind of music post-workout can help you get the most out of the run you just did. In particular, 20 to 30 minutes of slow, sedate music after your run can produce bodily changes that mean you should recover more quickly. That same music can help you remember your run more fondly, meaning that you’ll be more likely to want to repeat the experience.

For the study, 42 university students (21 women, 21 men) did a cycling workout to exhaustion on three occasions. They concluded the workout with a brief cool-down of easy spinning (what the researchers called “active recovery”) and then sat in a comfortable chair for 30 minutes (“passive recovery”). The difference among the three workouts was that each student either listened to short, fast songs (around 130 beats per minute), longer, slower songs (around 70 beats per minute), or no music at all during the half-hour of passive recovery. The researchers measured the students’ levels of cortisol, a hormone that’s released in response to stress, as well as their overall emotional states.

The key findings: The students’ cortisol levels increased the most during active recovery when they listened to the fast music. Their cortisol levels returned to normal most quickly when they listened to the slow music. Both are desirable outcomes in terms of recovery. In the short term, higher cortisol levels during the easy effort of a cool down get glucose to your brain and increase anti-inflammatory activity in your muscles, speeding repair.

But you don’t want your cortisol levels to stay elevated for too long after a workout, because your body suffers when it sustains fight-or-flight mode. (If you’ve ever felt wired but tired a couple hours after a race or hard workout, you know this sensation.) Instead, what you want once you’re done cooling down is for your body’s stress-management systems to return to normal as soon as possible, so that true recovery can take place. That’s why elite runners are fastidious about post-workout nutritionstretching, and the like. According to this new research, listening to slow, sedative music in the half-hour after your cooldown should also hasten recovery, because the music appears to lower your cortisol levels sooner than would otherwise be the case.

Supporting this thinking is the study’s finding that the students reported feeling calmer and less aroused when they listened to the slow music. That is, their more relaxed emotional state matched the lower cortisol levels that accompanied the sedate music.

Given the findings of this and other studies he’s done, Dr Costas Karageorghis suggests a post-workout playlist that starts with medium-tempo music (115 to 90 beats per minute) for your cooldown and switches to slower music for the next block of time, when you might be stretching, driving, or otherwise transitioning from hard-working runner to going about your day. Karageorghis, who is probably the world’s leading researcher on the intersection of music and exercise, says you’ll get the most benefit if you stick with the slower songs for a while. “The most pronounced differences between slow, sedative music and fast, stimulative music conditions were evident in the latter stages of passive recovery, after 15 minutes,” he says.

Karageorghis advises these general parameters for the relaxing, passive-recovery section:

  • The music should be neutral or relaxing in nature.
  • The music should use what Karageorghis calls “soothing, warm instruments, such as strings, oboe, muted trumpet or gentle piano.”
  • Consider including nature sounds, as you might find on music designed for meditation.
  • Consider finding longer songs, of 10 minutes or more, to lessen the jarring of transition between tracks.
  • Avoid rhythmically complex music, such as hip-hop.

If you’re up on your musical theory, Karageorghis has even more specific advice.

“The music should be characterised by regular pulsation and repetitive tonal patterns based on a limited number of pitch levels,” he says. “Good examples of recuperative music include the slow-tempo classical works of Vivaldi, Handel and Bach. For a more contemporary sound, I would recommend the music of artists such as Enya or Enigma. On Spotify, the easiest thing to do is pick a single ‘archetypal’ recuperative track, such as ‘You’re Beautiful’ by James Blunt, and the algorithm will do the rest.”

Remember that this study involved people cycling to exhaustion. The most similar types of runs are races, interval workouts and tempo runs. Think about using this music-manipulation idea for any workout you do that involves a warm-up and cooldown, as well as after long runs. Of course, if you have time after normal workaday runs to listen to half an hour of calming music, your cortisol levels will thank you.


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