Runner's Life
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Runner's Life

Trails and Susurrations: Why I Listen To Ambient Music When Running

(Disclaimer: This article is intended for entertainment purposes only and should not be considered as medical advice or instruction.)

Photo by Megan Lee on Unsplash

When scrolling through algorithm-based recommendations for running playlists on Spotify, one is confronted with a wealth of playlists. Most of which are packed full of intense, high-energy ‘work-out’ music. These playlists tend to take the form of — and sound like — an unofficial Fast and Furious 12 soundtrack. Or the set-list of a DJ playing at a ‘blue drinks or no drinks’ type venue on the strip in Magaluf. Or peak-time at Tomorrowland. And, whilst I do not have an across-the-board aversion to any of this music, there is a time and a place for it — and for me, it’s not when I’m running.

There are playlists on Spotify that attempt to subvert the formula of frenetic and fierce. But even then, most of these alternatives tend to be crammed full of well-trodden rock staples, sickly indie shufflers, or beat-driven electronic Eclectica. There’s a reason for this, and it makes perfect sense. These types of music are essentially aurally ingested steroids. A study by the American Council on Exercise suggests that listening to, ‘motivational synchronous music’ during a workout can increase endurance by up to 15%. It can also act as a metronome. Repetitive and pulsating drum patterns can assist in maintaining pace, cadence, and rhythm.

I am an around-the-clock consumer of audio. Whenever I am in motion, be it by plane, train, automobile, or self-locomotion, I wear headphones. Like bionic auditory appendages. When I’m running, I use them to block out a host of things. Not least the whistling noises that my deviated septum makes, and the — benign — wheezing sounds that come from my chest when I am running at full-tilt. These hoarse sounds can be unsettling to me. I’m not alone – Olive told me so. Many runners are impeded by the anxieties that arise from incorrectly, ‘Listening to their bodies’.

It might help you to know that during moments of running-induced stress your body/mind duality is akin to a beleaguered parliamentarian addressing the House of Commons. Your somatic system will tell your psychological system all sorts of lies so that it can wriggle out of any situation that it doesn’t like. Don’t listen to the lying politician. You’re almost never if ever, going to pass out — and if you do, you’ll probably be fine, maybe. You’re unlikely to have any sort of cardiac episode. The pain in your chest is often muscular. And, the shortness of breath you sometimes experience is most likely due to breathing from above your diaphragm — or running at a pace, or up an incline, that is stretching your fitness level. Also, excess sweating is hardly ever excessive — unless you’re Prince Andrew, who apparently doesn’t have the ability to sweat. It is just your body doing its job and doing it well.

I am better at reasoning with myself about this stuff when I don’t have to listen to myself rapidly inhaling air, like a whale does krill — or a sinkhole does its surroundings. This then is one of the main reasons why I listen to ambient music when running. It dampens the sound of my body to an extent that I am able to focus on breathing steadily and maintaining a majestic gazelle-like form. It calms me. I don’t fall into that old trap of turning the volume up to 11 and chucking form out the window because of a particularly endorphin enhancing ‘bass drop’. If I pick up the pace, ambient music keeps me fixated on processing air like a reliable pair of bellows. Ambient music blends in with the sounds around me, rather than shutting them out entirely. I can still hear cars and cyclists approaching, and I can still say ‘Hello’ or ‘Morning!’ to people that I pass without freaking them out by shouting at them.

Tip: When such a greeting is shouted at a stranger at 6am, it can sound like an observation — or an exclamation!!! — rather than the precursor to a bilateral pleasantry.

Person 1: ‘MORNING!’

Person 2: *Jumps out of their skin, then looks down at their feet and thinks to themselves* Wow. He’s probably a vampire that has been returned to the mortal realm by a mischievous angel and is seeing sunlight for the first time in 300 years….Or he’s lost his chihuahua-a-doodle named Morning.

Listening to ambient music encourages me to both zone in, and zone out. It helps me think strategically. It’s also less boring than not listening to anything at all — especially on long runs. I am more than aware that some people find ambient music in and of itself extremely tedious. I am not here to try and change your mind about that. Skye Butchard addresses the bullish nature of ambient music aficionados in their article for Loud & Quiet:

‘Forums, comment sections and clubs [and arguably the music press] are full of white dudes ready to explain exactly how you should listen to ambient, exactly what its artistic purpose is, and exactly why you don’t get it.’

I am not that guy. If it’s not for you, I appreciate that. I’m not here to pontificate over its artistic merit. I’m here to talk about ambient music as a weapon — or a shield — in the runner’s arsenal. For me, ambient music serves up a steady palette of noise that stops me from doing too much or too little when I’m out on the road, or deep in the trails. It can lock me into a fixed pace. It can steady my breathing. And, when my muscles are burning and my mind is in a battle with my body, the extended song lengths help me go faster for longer. Ambient tracks tend to wander beyond the typical 3-minute territory of a pop song. So, I tell myself, ‘I’m sticking to this pace until the end of this track’. Often enough, the next track carries me like a cloud. Not always though, sometimes the cloud is jet black and it spits me out immediately.

The structure of dance music undulates too violently for me. The intro/drop/middle break/drop/outro structure interferes with my emotions and causes a negative adrenal response. The type of response that is not conducive to avoiding thoughts of death or collapse. If we think of music genres as football coaches, ambient music offers me a Jurgen Klopp-style arm around the shoulder. Whereas dance music shouts, spits, and seethes at me like Diego Simeone — before giving me a clip round the earhole. I used to think I needed aggression to run faster, but I’m learning that a calmer approach is more suited to my manic personality. It’s science. Or so I tell myself.

Let’s consider my experience as a single-person study. I know this is a terrible way of eliciting knowledge, but this also seems to be the basis of many contemporary truth systems, and opinion-based journalism pieces — so I’ll join in. The results of my study, engineered by me, on myself, confirm that ambient music makes me a faster runner. Previous studies, headed up by me, with me as the subject, have shown that dance music makes me run faster but does not make me a faster runner. There is a difference here. I promise. Dance music makes me run similar to how a boy racer drives. Like a twat. Weaving in and out of traffic carelessly. Stopping and starting. Emitting a lot of unnecessary fumes and noise. If I listen to frenzied music when running, especially over long distances, it sends my pacing haywire and causes me to burn up fuel in a less than economical fashion.

Fuel economy is central to becoming a better runner. And so is emotional prudence. So, let us have some classic, ‘This is how I get through mile twenty-four, five and six. . . and that extra 0.2 of a marathon talk. During the final stages of a 26.2 miler, my mind takes me down some dark paths. Into the kind of passages and alleyways that appear in movies with green steam emanating from manhole covers. The sort of alleys that are teaming with malevolent anthropomorphic shadows that readily transform into street furniture or black cats with arched backs and glowing eyes. At this point in a marathon, my mind is flooded with a deluge of negativity. The word ‘stop’ ceases to be a simple verb and becomes an all-consuming elixir — albeit a toxic elixir in a poison chalice.

This is when ambient music becomes an antidote. The trailing synths and pads offer a path to safety, away from the shadowy figures. They stop the walls from closing in. The perpetual evolution of noise and sound offers a plethora of novel thinking material that helps me cut through the thicket. It allows for the inception of new mundane, harmless thoughts. Popping, trickling, fizzing, crackling, clinking, near-silent susurrations and reverberated resonances act as a mental balm. The often rhythmless tracks start to expand and take on their own rhythm. They start to breathe when I breathe. Ambient music can be blissfully infinite, it can shine down from above and add a hopeful shimmer to the hellish eternity that is the final stage of a marathon. It can help disperse the rolling mental thunderstorm that so often attempts to convince me that I’m on the cusp of total somatic cessation. The subtle unorthodoxy of ambient music offers enough distraction to keep me moving, without getting me so high that I then slump at the final furlong. It can act as a cushion for both mind and soul. Especially when the actual physical act of running is completely battering me.

Check out my playlist of some of my favourite ambient running tracks:



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