The Perfect Playlist

Jim Peterik still remembers the conversation. The year was 1982, and the songwriter was sitting in his Chicago home when Sylvester Stallone called with an intriguing request: "I'm making Rocky III," he said, "and I need a song for the kids." Soon thereafter, Peterik got together with Frankie Sullivan, guitarist and fellow cofounder of the rock band Survivor, to watch a rough cut of the film. He was immediately inspired.

"I started playing what became the beginning guitar riff of the song on a dead string [untuned] Les Paul," says Peterik, who runs three miles four times per week. "We added the drums, and it created a real energy, a real pulse. Then I was watching the movie and punches started being thrown. So on the keyboard I went bop, bop-bop-bop!--to emulate the punching. That created the tension."

The result was the Billboard number-one hit Eye of the Tiger, an anthem that some runners love, some runners loathe, and nearly every road race from 5K to ultra-marathon blasts at ear-splitting decibels along the course.

Love it or hate it

Even those who consider Eye of the Tiger the nadir of 1980s pop acknowledge that it holds all the key elements of a standout running tune. "I understand the greatness of it," says Kenny Laguna, US music producer (and recreational runner). "In working out, there is nothing more dramatic, more intense than what a fighter does. So when you're running to it, you can picture Rocky Balboa waking up at 4am and taking a run and pounding the steps in Philadelphia. It's a simple, powerful message."

Maybe so – but let's be upfront for a moment. If you take the sport seriously, there's a 50:50 chance you consider the phrase 'truly great running song' as disconcerting as co-workers who talk to you from the next toilet cubicle. For many runners, bringing an iPod along for a jog is sacrilege. Running, they say, is about tuning in to your body; about living the moment; about not drowning out a trot through the woods with that 12,471st helping of Aretha Franklin's Respect. Fair enough.

But for the millions of us out there who enjoy training, and even racing, with music, the quest for ideal running songs is an endlessly fascinating pursuit. Hundreds of blogs and websites debate the subject. An ongoing online dispute – Eye of the Tiger versus Eminem's Lose Yourself – may well never be settled. Whereas many runners opt for the hip-hop sounds of a Talib Kweli or Public Enemy, an equal number seem drawn to rockers like Lenny Kravitz, Metallica and Velvet Revolver; crooners, such as Michael Buble or Tony Bennett; or even the latest techno beats.

Given such variety, does the perfect running music exist?

Applying the science

Definitely. So says Dr Costas Karageorghis, professor of psychology at Brunel University. Karageorghis is a former college sprinter who has spent two decades researching the correlation between music and athletic output. Not surprisingly, he discounts the impact music has on top-flight distance runners. "The elite choose to focus on regulating their bodies and efficiency," he says. "They focus inwardly, not on music." Yet for the rest of us, he sings a different tune. "With non-elite athletes, I've found that listening to the right songs before and during exercise will not simply reduce feelings of tiredness, it will also increase performance levels by up to 20 per cent," he says. "That means the rhythmic component of music is almost an analogue for movement and decreased energy expenditure. If runners pick the right songs, they can improve their efficiency."

So what are the right songs? Through research pinpointing the relationship between heart rate and musical preference, Karageorghis has found that fast-tempo songs – exceeding 120 beats per minute (BPM) – yield peak performance at high exercise intensities of 75 per cent maximum heart rate (with slower music working better during recovery periods). Though Karageorghis has studied the impact of literally thousands of songs, he lists four that, because of the up-tempo arrangement, feisty lyrics and speedy BPM, induce particularly powerful results for runners performing near maximum heart rate. Keep in mind, this list is from a guy who works in a laboratory, not a record store:

  1. The Heat Is On by Glenn Frey
  2. Reach by S Club 7
  3. Everybody Needs Somebody to Love by The Blues Brothers
  4. William Tell Overture by Rossini

"Our research has shown that you can select one musical track for a number of people from similar upbringings, and the impact will be profound," says Karageorghis, who is helping organise Run To The Beat, a half-marathon in London in October that will be accompanied by meticulously selected musical acts. "There are some songs that serve as near-universal motivators. It's a proven fact."

Maybe. But The Heat Is On? The Blues Brothers featuring Dan Aykroyd? Surely, we can do better.

Success is simple

What is clear is that effective workout songs – ranging from Kanye West's Stronger to AC/DC's Back in Black – share a common trait of simplicity. Simple beats, simple chords, simple messages. During a break in the filming of 8 Mile in 2001, Eminem revisited a song he had been working on for over a year. He wanted the track to capture the theme of the movie – the fight for respect and a better life. In less than two hours, he completed Lose Yourself which pairs a relatively basic beat with potent words of inspiration.

“You better lose yourself in the music, the moment/You own it, you better never let it go/You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow/This opportunity comes once in a lifetime...”

"It's just a perfect song for getting pumped up to run," says Dan Browne, a member of the 2004 US Olympic Marathon team. "There's nothing confusing about it – just a plain old go-get-'em message that you have to respond to."

Many runners, even those with exquisitely hip taste in music, seem to prefer working out to less sophisticated fare. For all their obvious gifts, performers like Bob Dylan, Billie Holliday and Van Morrison appear on precious few running mixes – while across the UK thousands of pavement pounders bob up and down to the upbeat sounds of Madonna and The Black Eyed Peas.

Along with simplicity, an informal poll of runners and musicians shows that the best workout songs draw upon at least a few of the following five attributes.

  1. A relentless rhythm
    The hard-driving sounds of artists such as Led Zeppelin and The Strokes to Outkast and Queens of the Stone Age serve as a sort of heart-pumping metronome. Though one can surely knock out intervals to Barbra Streisand's The Way We Were there's a physical reaction to a pounding drum, a fierce guitar riff, a big-voiced singer screaming at the top of his lungs (wince and picture David Lee Roth here). There's a reason so many runners seem smitten by the relentless intensity of alt-rockers Rage Against the Machine eight years after the band's break-up: drummer Brad Wilk's unparalleled speed behind the skins.

  2. Powerful themes
    Most beloved running songs feature lyrics that inspire or inflame passions. Eye of the Tiger concerns getting tough in the face of despair. AC/DC's Back in Black is about returning from the dead stronger than ever (the song is a tribute to Scott, the band's lead singer who had died a few months earlier). Public Enemy's Fight the Power is an angry proclamation for social change. "The songs that get me angry get me pumped up," says DJ Aaron Handelman. "And the songs that get me pumped up make me want to run faster."

  3. A trancelike quality
    Though Steve Boyett is loathe to admit it, he knows one of the reasons people listen to his running mixes is to forget they're listening to his running mixes. Steve is the creator of and DJ for, a website and popular podcast of electronic dance music.

    "At its best, the music acts as a mediator between the body and the mind," says Boyett. "It gives a runner something to focus on and occupies enough concentration that the athlete isn't bombarded by 'please, just let this race be over'."

  4. An aggressive pace
    Often without knowing it, runners use music as a pacer, timing their strides with a song's beats per minute. While this works wonders for Foo Fighters fans it doesn't exactly lend itself to a day of up-tempo training with the airy melodies of the Carpenters.

    "That's what's great about running to electronica – the BPM is almost always perfect for runners," says Boyett, whose site offers an array of mixes at various BPMs. "Musicians and producers don't go into a studio and think, 'Let's make a slow, laid-back electronica song. It's always fast and powerful – just what runners want. So when you're running and the music is coming at the perfect speed, you're on another level."

    And yet, a high BPM does more than just pace. According to Boyett, it subliminally coerces a runner to literally speed up and make an effort to stay with the beat. While a five-hour marathon runner can't keep time with the beats of, say, The Chemical Brothers’ Out of Control the music can push a runner, causing him to churn his arms a little more and lengthen his stride a bit as the impossibly fast beats infiltrate his eardrums.

  5. Uplifting arrangements
    For every 10 runners craving the pace-pushing drive of The White Stripes' Seven Nation Army there will always be a few looking for expansive melodies and sweeping soundscapes that just hold them up for a while. Take Misha Dichter, a renowned classical pianist, who would sooner listen to a wood chipper than a Megadeth album. "Of all the things to exercise to, my favourite are Bruckner symphonies. They help me almost forget I'm doing something strenuous."

    This is also why so many races play Bill Conti's original Rocky theme near the finish line. The soaring optimism of the horn section combined with the chorus's cheesy chant of "gonna fly now", has an almost universal effect of sustaining the runners' energy when it's flagging the most.

    Olympic marathon runner Deena Kastor uses trance DJ Matt Darey's up-tempo remake of U2's Beautiful Day to a similar effect for her tempo runs. "My husband Andrew plays it from the car alongside me during the final mile of these hard-effort days," she says. Inspiring tunes like these can keep elites and midpackers going when a more fast and furious tune would beat them down. In other words, they run happy. "I'm slow enough that I'm not looking for music to give me a better time," says Dichter. "I'm listening to music to give me a pleasurable 45-minute experience."