Thursday, March 22, 2012

Power songs

It's a fitness cliche -- the power song.  Aerobics and spin classes feature so-called "high energy" music, while many runners feel naked without their ipod shuffles and "running mixes" complete with special songs for the big hill or mile 20 of the marathon.

And the internet is full of discussions of "OMG what are your favorite songs to workout/run to"?    These discussions always amuse me, as I don't believe anyone ever really is interested in what music other people listen to.  Rather, people post these discussions so that they can post a list of what they're listening to -- the equivalent of blasting a track in your cars with the windows down,  And others respond in turn by doing the same. 

You hope that by listing out your music you're somehow creating an impression of yourself as a cool person with great taste in music; but in actuality, it's just noise.  I really don't care what you listen to (and I probably don't like it); I'm just hoping that you care about what I listen to (though you won't like it).

But, I digress.  Back to "the power song."  The theory behind it is that certain music can motivate us to greater effort, and bring out our best performances.  You hear your song, and your heart rate rises, the adrenaline pumps.

And for the longest time, I bought into the concept of the power song.  Of course, after nearly causing an accident with my oblivious running (cut off a bike -- totally my fault), I swore off the iPod for running outside, but still relied on it for treadmill runs, especially hard workouts.  I had "go to" tracks - like the track I share below, though I'm certain few readers of this blog will have the cultured musical palate that is a prerequisite for appreciation of the sonic majesty that is Taktical Sekt.

Tactical Sekt - "Bring Me Violence"  
Tempo run power song par excellence
And yes, industrial music is an acquired taste, kinda like turpentine.
Self-indulgence finis.  Anyhoo....I've met quite a few excellent/elite level endurance athletes, and one thing that has always fascinated and confused me was the very sedateness of their preferred music genres.  As a general rule, the fastest people I know enjoy the mellowest music.  Nothing high energy or "power," just chill.  And this in contrast to the multitudes of slower and beginner racers/runners who rely heavily on "Where the Streets Have No Name" and "Born to Run."

I was confused.  And then I figured it out.

As I've worked on my own improvement in my running, I've learned that improved performance in an endurance sport comes NOT from expending more effort, but rather from expending less effort for the same pace, so that you can then hold an increased pace for the same effort. You can't give more than 100%, and so improvement comes not from increased exertion, but increased efficiency.

The power song is a lie.  Or at least massively counterproductive if you're trying for improved competitive performance.  I'm sure it works just fine if your goal is to burn as many calories as possible by flailing on your aerobic exercise machine of choice.

And so, I've revised my running mental jukebox (I don't listen to music while running, but I almost ALWAYS have a song stuck in my head, whether I'm running, at work, showering, etc).  And I've discovered a new "power song" -- the earworm that I mentally groove to during my best workouts and races.  And I relax and channel the superchill of the track, and I flow to faster times. 

Orbital: "Halcyon + On + On"
A classic.  And my "powerchill" track.

(posted another one - self-indulgence squared.  But it is my blog, so self-centered by definition anyway)

Is it working?  So far yes.  And that's good enough for me.  I keep the energetic music in my back pocket for hard cross-training workouts (bike or pool) when I'm injured -- I don't care if I'm biking or pool-running well -- I just want to work as hard as I can, so I can maintain my fitness. 

But when I'm running, the priority is performance, not effort.  And so I channel the groove, and relax to my best times.


  1. I see your point but have a totally different experience with it. The power song as you call it is the thing that relaxes me. It focuses me too so that I can be more efficient and perform better. I don't need it all the time, but it's key at certain moments it's exactly the right thing to help me get my head out of my ass and focus on what's really important. And I don't just mean that in running.

  2. Great post. You hit the nail on the head with "You hope that by listing your music. . .creating a cool impression of yourself. . ." So funny!

    Caren Jew

  3. I admit to never having heard of Taktical Sekt but that song is killer. Thanks for sharing.

  4. also, I've had a similar experience - as I've been in IM training I've put increasingly more mellow music on my ipod (when I listen to it at all - rare) and retired the pump em up crap except for races.

  5. What a timely post for me in light of recent developments! I think that the song type depends on the workout. I like "power songs" for pool intervals or any quick hard effort. For a long run, more "chill" songs are good. :-)

  6. Can there ever exist a new EBM act that doesn't sound like they're just ripping off Front242? Or maybe to turn it around; did Front242 so completely define EBM that everyone that comes after sounds painfully derivative?