How to Create the Perfect Workout Playlist

Music is a great way to get the most out of exercising and also makes it much more enjoyable!


Research has shown that listening to the right songs before and during exercise will not simply reduce feelings of tiredness, but also increases performance levels by up to 20%.


During sub-maximal repetitive exercise (e.g. running, step-machine, cross-trainer, cycling etc.), music can narrow your attention and consequently divert your attention away from sensations of fatigue. Many marathon runners and triathletes refer to this as dissociation, i.e. focusing on stimuli unrelated to the task such as the surroundings. Successful dissociation tends to encourage a positive mood through avoidance of thoughts relating fatigue.


There is a link between music and the attainment of flow state during aerobic exercise. Flow implies an altered state of awareness during physical activity during which the mind and body function on “auto-pilot” with minimal conscious effort. Some refer to this as being “in the zone”; it is an almost trance-like or hypnotic state. Flow has been associated with optimal psychological state and represents complete enjoyment of and immersion in physical activity. Once you get in the zone, you’ll know what we’re talking about. It is a great feeling and once you catch the bug – you’re hooked.

The great thing is you don’t have to be an Olympic superstar to get “in the zone”, but you do have to push yourself. Some people find it helpful to get “in the zone” by closing their eyes for a few seconds (only on stationary machinery in the gym e.g. bike, Stairmaster, elliptical trainer – not the treadmill!) and focusing in on the music.


If you’re in the gym and you’re not working as hard as you might, you may be listening to the wrong type of music. For a piece of music to truly inspire the listener, it must fit you own personal music preferences, have strong rhythmic qualities that match the activity at hand and also have a tempo, which matches the predicted heart rate you are aiming for. The melody and harmony of the music should promote a positive mood state in you; specifically, they should energize you and increase vigor. To maximize the psychological benefits of music follow the guidelines below:

  • Synchronize music with your exercise. The tempo of the music must concur with your preferred work rate. For example, if you were swimming using the breaststroke at a rate of 100 strokes per minute, it would be sensible to use music playing at 100 beats per minute (bpm). Alternatively, breast stroking at a rate of 60 strokes per minute a tempo of 120 bpm can be used as the swimmer can take one stroke every two beats. This also applies to running/ cycling etc. – match the rhythm of the music to the rhythm of your body. When you feel like slowing down, the music can push you along because you are trying to keep up with the rhythm of the music, because it feels good. See here for a comprehensive table matching type of exercise to bpm, and a table of running speed and bpm for runners.
  • Songs are particular to an individual – they are not prescriptive. So it’s up to you to select songs that drive you and inspire you. If someone has just broken up with you or someone treated you poorly, it may be that Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Woman” or “Survivor” may inspire and drive you. See list of the best workout songs and the bpm.
  • Songs that also make good choices are associated with physical activity either through the lyrics (e.g. “Work Your Body!”) or its association with other media such as film or television. A classic example of such a track would be Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger”, from the Rocky series.
  • You need variety. Have a playlist; do not play the same song over and over. Variety will keep up interest levels up and increase performance. You should modify/ update your play-list regularly as the songs that drive us are constantly changing, as the circumstances in our life are constantly changing.
  • Your playlist should have fast and slower paced music. Fast tempo music for exercise at high intensities, medium tempo music during weight training and slower music during recovery and stretching periods, during which heart rate is lower.

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  1. I don’t know… while listening to music does help the workout time go by quicker – and I am guity of using headphones on the treadmill – I don’t think “dissociating” helps the workout be as effective as it could be. You need to be present – feel what you’re doing, focus on your form, focus on the muscles activating and working hard.
    I don’t use music when I run outdoors (preferring instead to focus on my body and the pretty outdoors scenery) and I definitely don’t feel the need to dissociate while doing resistance training – that’s when I focus on my muscles/body the most! Focus on your breath, your form, etc.


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