Running is a naturally rhythmic affair, so it makes sense that when you add music into the mix, it only gets better. And the more we learn about the relationship between music and running, the more we realize that music doesn’t just make running better, it makes you a better runner. We have the science to prove it: numerous studies have shown that listening to music while running can lower perceived exertion level, improve mood, and accelerate performance.
Whether you’re training for a new race distance, looking for creative ways to stay connected with other runners, or just wanting some fresh spice for your neighborhood loop, music might be the boost you need to elevate your workouts.
Racing a 5K is nothing like racing a marathon. Your training plan, gear, and race-day tactics will all be different, and your soundtrack should be, too. To help you dial in perfect playlists for the mileage at hand, we enlisted Jen Galvin, director of music for the Electric Flight Crew, a multi-city running club that synchronizes its disparate workouts with a communal playlist. Here is Galvin’s advice for creating playlists for the most common race distances.
The 5K is ubiquitous, but it might be the toughest distance for planning a playlist. For just 3.1 miles, 15 to 30 minutes depending on your pace, you need to make all your song choices count. “I was running a fast 5K before COVID, but I’m at a light 5K pace right now,” says Galvin. “Regardless of your pace, there isn’t a lot of time in a 5K, so you have to get right to it with your playlist.” Look for songs around 130 to 140 beats per minute and let your legs do the rest.
At 6.2 miles, you could be on the course for an hour or longer, so you have some wiggle room in the songs you choose. You do need to think about your goal pace, though, and when you start to fatigue in this distance, and plan your songs accordingly. Galvin suggests keeping the tempo steady at first before ramping it up toward mile five so you can finish strong.
This is your chance to do a deep dive into a single artist or really explore a single genre, like East Coast Rap or eighties grunge (or Midwest polka, whatever floats your boat). Galvin suggests seeking help to uncover unknown gems that will keep you entertained during this long run. “If there’s a song you’re really in love with, go to Start Radio on Spotify, which pulls songs from the same genre. It will feed you new artists and old favorites you’ve forgotten about. Start Radio really opens up new music.”
This is it, the long haul. The marathon isn’t about how fast you can run; it’s about how long you can endure. Your playlist needs to be cut for endurance too. “Everyone has a different style for what they like to run to, but I like to mix it up for myself,” Galvin says. “I’ve had all sorts of musical tastes throughout my life and the marathon is the chance to bring them all into play.”
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a casual runner or training for a PR — one thing remains the same: a friendly group will motivate you and make running more fun. Fortunately, there are thousands of running clubs with built-in support networks across the country. Here are some of our favorites, all of which have found creative ways to keep their members charged up this year.
While most groups refuse to be pinned down to a specific running niche, the Chattahoochee Road Runners are singular in their focus: they run long distances. Every Saturday before the pandemic, the club met to run anywhere between six and 20 miles. “Running keeps a lot of us sane,” says Steph Davy-Joy, CRR’s president. And while CRR took time out during the tightest COVID restrictions, instituting virtual social hours and weekly mileage challenges to raise money for charities, members plan on returning to in-person group runs as soon as it’s safe to do so.
Austin is a running community and the Austin Runners Club is the largest game in town, with group runs Monday through Thursday. Some days there are even two runs you can join. Runs take in Austin landmarks like Lady Bird Lake and the State Capitol and come in a variety of lengths and paces. You can also sign up to run the Austin Distance Challenge, a series of local races that increase in duration until you reach the Austin Marathon in February. And, this being Austin, the club understands the importance of music — check out the high-tempo playlist on its website.
The Electric Flight Crew is a fun-first running club that has grown from the campus of UCLA to become a nationwide phenomenon with groups in multiple cities. “We’re definitely social and then fitness,” says EFC’s music director, Jen Galvin. “That’s how we like to describe it. It’s like running with your friends after work and grabbing a beer.” Weekly workouts can include speed sessions, long runs, and circuit training, typically last for an hour and a half, and finish with a No Shower Happy Hour at the bar of the month. Also in these cities: Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle.
Tracksmith doesn’t just make retro-inspired running gear crafted with modern technical fabrics. It also hosts regular group runs that begin and end at its stylish Trackhouse, the retail store that has become a social hub for Boston runners. Instead of traditional meetups during the pandemic, Tracksmith’s sponsored athletes are guiding virtual workouts, clinics, and races like the Cross Country race series this fall, which has entrants running a 5K against other athletes in the region with hopes at earning a spot at nationals.
NoDa Brewing is one of Charlotte’s oldest breweries, and the Run Club has been an integral part of the brewery’s success from the beginning. The club leans toward the casual side of things, offering one-, three-, and five-mile run options twice a week, beginning at the brewery. After a pause, the club is back to meeting in person with safety protocols in place, including staggered starts to help reduce crowding. Post-run beers in the beer garden are a must, of course.
Three Run Two is rooted in the Chicago neighborhoods its members have been running since 2013. The club sponsors a competitive racing team, but the majority of its members are casual runners just looking to stay fit and connect to their neighbors. The group is taking a hiatus to observe social distancing protocols but will get back to the regular Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday runs as soon as public safety allows.
Run wild and do good — that’s the guiding principle here. “We meet weekly for workouts, but we also meet once or twice per month to volunteer at the local food bank, pick up trash in parks, or collect money for local charities,” says Liz Clark, Run Wild Cleveland’s executive director. The workouts are usually fun too, as the club likes to incorporate games like leapfrog, sharks and minnows, and rock-paper-scissors. The club posted weekly themed independent workouts during the COVID restrictions and has just recently begun meeting again in person.
How fast do you think you can run a 5K? That’s the premise behind the Plano Pacers’ prediction runs, which ask members to predict their 5K times, then run the race without a watch to see who can get closest. The Pacers are an event-based running club that hosts 12 races and 12 less-formal prediction runs a year in the suburbs of Dallas. “It’s all about maintaining motivation,” says Fred Ellefson, director of the Plano Pacers. To keep things competitive during the pandemic, the club has replaced its monthly races with virtual races and scaled down the monthly prediction runs to adhere to current safety protocols.
The Rocky Mountain Road Runners, who recently resumed socially distant group runs, have been rallying runners in Denver’s metro area for more than 60 years. The club focuses most of its energy on casual monthly road races, called the Trophy Series, that give entrants a chance to go head-to-head against their friends. In addition, there are training groups for both track and marathon runners, and splinter groups for those looking for casual group runs.
Want to get faster and stronger? Get a coach. That’s the idea behind Team Run Flagstaff, a training program that hosts regular track workouts at North Arizona University led by professional coaches. The club also hosts the annual Fourth of July Downtown Mile, with staggered starts for everyone from kids to elite runners.
One of the more progressive running clubs in the country, BlacklistLA emphasizes art, architecture, and local culture on runs through the City of Angels. The group runs all over the city, taking in corners and artwork that typically go unnoticed, in an effort to bind the community through running. Currently it’s created different routes for runners to tackle in small groups and share virtually, and its Controlled Running Experience (CONRUN X) allows runners to meet in person while practicing social distancing measures.
Stairs for breakfast? This Miami-based club’s after-work runs often end with beer at Batch Gastropub, but the early-morning stair sets and obstacle-course trainings are its signature workouts. Regardless of the time of day, the club’s larger goal is to make the city a better place by spreading kindness and free fitness guidance. Workouts are currently on hold, but members are raring to go as soon as it’s deemed safe.
The Middle Distance Running Association, in Minneapolis, is a massive organization, pulling together almost a dozen races in the region every year. The club also develops a variety of different training programs, from trail-running classes to marathon PR plans. Therein lies the beauty of a large club like MDRA: there’s something for everyone. Sign up for one of the virtual training programs, all of which are developed by pro coaches.
The founders of T-Rex are serious about keeping tabs on their progress. So whether the goal is a better 5K or a marathon PR, they use their local track, where factors like elevation gain and distance can be controlled and monitored, to help its members get faster. Fair warning: there might be some hill workouts thrown into the regular Tuesday-night runs, but there will also be beers at the pub after, so it all balances out.
Streets 101 is more than a running club; it’s a program for success. The group is helmed by certified running coaches who set goals for each member of the group, then guide them through the chase, week by week. “We thrive in an environment that is based on effort and commitment,” says Greg Laraia, founder and head coach. Midweek speed sessions, hill work, and longer Saturday runs are staples. The club adopted virtual coaching sessions and challenges to help keep runners motivated during the pandemic but recently assumed its first in-person workouts.
Omaha Running Club is all about motivation, whether it’s hosting the Heartland Marathon or encouraging its 500 members to participate in one of the club’s free holiday-themed fun runs. Experienced runners can get faster in the club’s 20-week distance clinic, while new runners join the fold comfortably in the less intense Step Into Running program. There’s even a program for youth runners, so the whole family can participate.
Hailed as “America’s coolest running club” by Born to Run author Chris McDougall, the Fishtown Beer Runners might be the only such assembly with its own documentary. Founded in 2007, the club formed in honor of a scientific study that showed that beer was hydrating after exercise. FBR popularized the social beer-running movement in the U.S. and abroad and eventually inspired an award-winning documentary, Beer Runners. While all in-person runs are currently on hold, the club does meet virtually every week to toast the professor who led the hydration study.
Like to get dirty and drink beer? Group runs are currently on hold, but in normal times the Aravaipa Running group meets every Wednesday night to run trails around Phoenix, with a post-run brewery stop built into the festivities. Runs are typically an hour and split up into groups that tackle either 3.5 or 6 miles. “There’s a no-pressure atmosphere,” says Noah Dougherty, race director for Aravaipa Running. “And different options for all skill levels and the ever-changing locations keep people from getting burned out.”
Old Port Pub Run has a simple mission: help members run and then drink beer. Before the pandemic struck, the club hosted Thursday-night runs that hit some of Portland’s best gathering spots, but it’s ceased group gatherings pending the all-clear. All is not lost for Portland runners, though: Liquid Riot Bottling Company has made a beer in OPPR’s honor, Pace Yourself, a dry-hopped ale brewed with oranges.
Portland has a legendary running scene, but the beer and coffee are pretty good, too. The Stumprunners manage to combine all of the above. The runs begin across from a cherished local coffee shop (Dragonfly Coffee House) and then disperse onto local trails and neighborhood streets for various miles and paces. Post-run milkshakes (or beers) are common. Workouts are currently on hold, but members are raring to go as soon as it’s deemed safe.
This run club in North Carolina’s capital took a break during the heaviest days of COVID but plans to restart as the state enters Phase 3 of its reopening. All runs begin on the patio of Big Boss Brewing before hitting the Capital Area Greenway for car-free and stress-free miles over three-, five-, or six-mile routes. Naturally, runners find their way back to the patio for beer and food-truck refreshments.
Have more fun running: that’s the main goal of Black Flag Running Club. Sure, members want to stay healthy and get faster, and the club is designed as a formal training program for full and half marathons. But mostly it’s about making those long runs more fun, so in addition to access to coaches, organized runs, and the club’s exclusive app, you can count on weekly happy hours and monthly social events, too. The club moved to a free model after COVID hit to help ease some financial burden but plans to move back to the more formal training plan as soon as safely possible.
Puget Sound has some beautiful trails into outstanding scenery, and the Seattle Running Club does its best to hit them all. The club focuses on trail running throughout the Sound, hosting a run almost every day of the week. Sometimes those runs are hill repeats in Squak Mountain State Park; other times they’re lunch-break runs around Lake Union. Saturdays are for long runs in Discovery Park. The club has met virtually during COVID restrictions and it’s recently commenced group runs with safety protocols in place.
Happy’s has more than 150 members, most of whom meet every single Tuesday to run a 5K together before getting a beer. The club has become an institution for its members. “We’ve been running for well over seven years without missing a Tuesday, and we couldn’t let a pandemic stop us,” says club president Kristen DiFate, adding that their runs went virtual in recent months and have been a success. “We just celebrated our 26th Happy’s Running Club STL Virtual run.”
District Running Collective isn’t just about running. It’s a free organization designed to promote wellness, culture, and community. The club organizes weekly runs (now with safety protocols in place), races, and community-service events, all with the hope of pushing individuals past their perceived limits to become better people through running and community support. In practice, that typically takes the form of regular Wednesday-night runs and long Saturday runs through D.C.
There are factors besides mileage that you should consider when composing your playlist for any given run. The best place to start? “Personal preference should be the biggest factor,” says Jasmin Hutchinson, PhD, associate professor of exercise science and sports studies at Springfield College in Massachusetts. In other words, don’t force a classic-rock playlist into your headphones if hip-hop is your thing.
But there are other key ingredients to consider. “Start with music you like and then find songs that fit your parameters for running,” Hutchinson says. Feeling heavy or lacking motivation? Positive lyrics can be helpful and can even serve as a mantra. Think “Stronger,” by Kanye West, or “All I Do Is Win,” by DJ Khaled, if those fit your preferences.
Chris Lawhorn founded the website Run Hundred to design personalized playlists; it’s now serving half a million runners with ideal soundtracks each year. “The biggest requests I get from runners under 30 is that the music is recent,” he says. “Over 30 and songs of any era work, as long as they like it.” While beats per minute matter, the playlist rule comes down to this: genre first, tempo second.
By now you know that music can help you run faster. But it can also help you recover sooner, according to a study that showed music lowers post-workout blood pressure and heart rate while increasing the production of natural hormones necessary for muscle recovery. David Rosales, a Southern California-based singer-songwriter and trail runner, doesn’t need science to tell him music can change his physical state. “It’s an important part of my cooldown, easing me back into real life.”
“Music makes it social,” says Erik Valiente, cofounder of BlacklistLA, a Los Angeles group that mixes running with community involvement. Before the pandemic, his club would have pacers hold speakers to keep the communal energy up. BlacklistLA also uses music during speed workouts. “Run a tempo pace until the song finishes, then take a recovery jog. Music makes running a bit easier.”
Nobody knows what it’s like to struggle on a long run like Liz Anjos. The Portland-based musician, who releases music under the name Pink Feathers, is a longtime marathoner, and she recently completed a Fastest Known Time attempt on the Appalachian Trail, running 18-hour days to finish the 2,000-mile trail in 51 days, 16 hours, and 30 minutes. “Every day had its ups and downs. Music pulled me out of the lows, put me in a better mood. I’d match my steps to the music, in a way dancing with the trail. It made it fun.”
There are days when you’re just feeling it. You feel light, fast, and with-it. Jen Galvin, Electric Flight Crew’s music director, loves those days. Her favorite kind of run is a fast 5K and she knows just the music to pair with it.
“It’s got to be upbeat, and the third song has to be the strongest,” Galvin says. “The first two songs are good, but a warm-up. They need to build.”