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Running: Powered by a C Major Progression

The pros and cons of using music to train for the Boston Marathon


Max Lerman (ENG’12) listens to music while running recently at the Fitness and Recreation Center. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

This is the third in a series of stories about training for the Boston Marathon. Click here to read the previous installments.

I recently found the perfect running song: “I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’” by the Scissor Sisters. I stumbled onto one of their concerts on TV, and within minutes I was scouring the Web for a download. Now, when I’m striding along the Esplanade and I hear that piano pounding, the relentless high-octane drumbeat, the exuberant disco falsetto, I find myself trying to catch up with my own feet. I hit repeat again and again. I’m flying into the ether, the shaved-off seconds scattering behind me like spores. But I know this athletic romance won’t last. It can’t. I’ll get to know the lyrics too well, the musical bridges and chord changes will wear thin, all of the surprise bled dry. And before long, I’ll start skipping it, already trolling for the next musical thrill. Yep, I’m officially a running-song slut.

For the past three months, I’ve been training for my first Boston Marathon, on April 20. I’m running to benefit the Michael Carter Lisnow Respite Center, a small, grassroots outfit that relieves the families of developmentally disabled adults and children. And with so many of my hours now spent in running shoes, I’m constantly sniffing out ways to keep my motivation charged and my mind distracted from my footfalls, the swish of my running pants, my labored breathing — in other words, my very humanity. Thank God for the little iPod shuffle. Apple’s 10.7-gram clip-on device has meant the soundtrack of my life can be piped directly into the auditorium of my brain, seducing my legs to stick around for the entire show. Research, in fact, has found that music — the right music — can boost stamina by dilating blood vessels and sending more oxygen to tired muscles. Some races even forbid music as an unfair advantage, as well as a safety hazard. Fortunately, Boston isn’t one of them.

These days, whenever a song grips my brain — in a pub, in a clothing store, or during movie credits — I instantly put it through the formula: Can I run to this? How many times? And where can I download it? I’ve long since exhausted my iTunes library and have started raiding my 16-year-old daughter’s collection. And while I may have held my nose at one time, I’m not above ear candy and one-hit wonders. Tom Cochrane’s “Life is a Highway,” Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch’s “Good Vibration,” Men at Work’s “Land Down Under,” and “What’s Up” by the Four Non Blondes have all made appearances on my run mixes.

While a good driving beat can work wonders, a song with strong lyrics or a narrative carries me even further and stays on my run mixes longer: Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane,” Lucinda Williams’ “Pineola,” Leonard Cohen’s “Closing Time,” Steve Earle’s “Johnny Come Lately.” Music is not just about lining up my footfalls and arm swings with techno drumbeats and power piano, but about delivering me from the moment, from the knee pain, from the cheek-chapping wind, from the toenails cutting into my skin. Sometimes, I’m launched into a daydream. The rollicking Pogues make me feel like I’m spinning through a sweaty pub in Dublin with a pint of Guinness in each hand. Other times, I land in the past, my legs fueled by nostalgia, blood coursing with wistfulness. Phish tunes catapult me into a booth at Nectar’s Lounge in downtown Burlington, Vt., in the late ’80s, where that quirky foursome was the house band and I was a drunken college student.

The Waifs inject my stride with a particular oomph. A few days before my one-time best friend got married, my wife and I saw the young Australian band open for Bob Dylan. We bought their disc and on the way to the nuptial festivities, listened repeatedly to “Highway One,” “London Still,” and “Since I’ve Been Around.” I was just a few years sober and former friends and drinking pals were on hand. In college, Nate and I had promised each other all sorts of things — to be each other’s best man and godfather to each other’s kids, to share forties on a porch in our rocking chairs. In the end, I eloped and he chose a different best man. At the reception, I knew I was watching us split into something else, and so I raised my glass of seltzer to the hand of fate — content now to be best friend emeritus — and danced the rest of the evening with my wife. Hearing those songs as I’m slogging up Heartbreak Hill on a training run reminds me that nothing is static, not our physical conditions — two miles on a treadmill used to leave me panting at the water fountain — nor the promises of youth. Next thing I know, I’ve gone three-quarters of a mile and Boston College is looming.

In my ongoing quest to turbo-charge my playlists, I decided to pick the brains of some local experts — members of BU’s cross-country team. Men’s captain David Proctor (SAR’08) says he sometimes listens to the Chariots of Fire soundtrack or the Olympic theme song and gets an extra boost imagining himself sprinting down that final straightaway with the crowd roaring behind him. He also recommends Clint Mansell’s “Requiem for a Dream (Remix Version).” “It’s a favorite among the cross-country team,” he says. “The 300 soundtrack is pretty great, too.”

Women’s captain Mollie Zapata (CAS’09) says, “When I’m running alone, I usually just put my iPod on shuffle, which means I listen to a lot of country because it’s upbeat and makes me happy. If I’m doing hill repeats or something harder, I like to listen to rap because it makes me feel like a badass.”

But much of the time, they train to simulate race conditions, which means no music. “In competition, I’m focused on that race and taking in my surroundings, listening for other runners,” Proctor says. “With adrenaline, you’re working as hard as you can, and you’re already at your absolute maximum. Music is just something I don’t think about.”

He has a point. There’s the soundtrack of a historic marathon to consider, after all. Do I want to miss out on the cheers and screams at Wellesley College and along Beacon Street, the galloping footfalls, the grunts and gasps of impossible dreams being realized, the Rocky theme song that someone will inevitably play?

So on my long run last Sunday, I ran naked — musically, that is — from Hopkinton to my sister’s house in Brookline, near Cleveland Circle, some 22 miles. The drive out to the starting line took a full hour, and as each long mile piled up, I felt more nervous, not just about making it back in one piece, but doing it solo. I was looking at three-and-a-half hours with nothing but the thoughts in my brain. It was a horrible notion. I might as well have been fitted with one of those head cages filled with starving rats from George Orwell’s 1984.

But I had no choice, and I shuffled down Route 135 toward Ashland. In the beginning, the lyrics from my mixes popped into my mind and carried me along a few seconds, but they were soon replaced with chirping birds, the soft waves of passing traffic, a chainsaw, the sounds of communities tuning up for the day. After 12 miles, I found myself scanning my aches and pains, assessing the sound of my gait. From Wellesley to Newton, the scrape of my heavy shoes, normally muted by music, began to torment me. I concentrated on straightening up, and that seemed to lighten my footfalls. When I turned onto the Newton Hills, all five miles of them, the hellos and overheard bits of conversation of my fellow marathoners-in-training lifted me up. I could hear their hard work, and it inspired my own. We were in this thing together.

So it’s a dilemma. Music powers me through monotonous and strenuous training runs, but on race day, it would mute the experience. Well, I still have five weeks to figure it out, right?

In the meantime, heard any good songs lately?

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.

Click here to sample a playlist of the songs featured in this piece. Readers can click here to sponsor Caleb’s run and benefit the Michael Carter Lisnow Respite Center. You can also follow Caleb’s training progress (and setbacks) at his marathon blog, where he charts his runs and muses about life in running shoes. Tips, derision, and song suggestions all welcome.


13 Comments on Running: Powered by a C Major Progression

  • Anonymous on 03.18.2009 at 8:05 am

    I totally agree. I would not be able to run without my music. Running is my favorite way of dancing. It keeps me sane every day. Unfortunately, most of my running songs sound the same (eurodance techno) so they get old pretty fast, leaving me constantly on the lookout for cheap replacements.
    Good luck with your training! (And I think you should wear your iPod for the race. You can always pause it to hear the cheering.)

  • Anonymous on 03.18.2009 at 9:07 am

    Correction on headphones

    Just a quick correction – since the Boston Marathon is a USTAF certified course and one of the 5 courses in the World Marathon Majors, use of headphones is actually prohibited, a fact which the race packet will remind racers of. Of course given the large 30,000+ field, race monitors usually only monitor the elites, but as I ran the marathon last year, let me say that you don’t want to use an iPod or any other device that will interfere with experiencing how amazing the crowd support is in this race. Good Luck!

  • Camilla on 03.18.2009 at 9:52 am

    Hi, Caleb. I think you

    Hi, Caleb.

    I think you really nailed the whole running-with-music thing on the head. A song that keeps finding its way onto my play list is The Flys “Got You Where I Want You.” After about 10 listens it wears a little thin, but it’s a good song to run to. Another guilty pleasure is Bad Company’s “Shooting Star.” Cheesy, but it’s working for me on my runs right now. Good luck!

  • Anonymous on 03.18.2009 at 10:17 am

    Music Therapy

    As a music therapist in a past life and having studied the effect of music on time estimation for my master’s thesis, I can attest to the fact that music can make time seem to go more quickly as well as have an effect on one’s physiology. During my running days (pre-iPod), I would sing to myself (“Rub Your Tummy” from “Sesame Street” was a mainstay!) to maintain my pace and ensure breath control.

  • Anonymous on 03.18.2009 at 10:22 am

    “Get ‘em high” by Kanye gets me way jazzed.

    Something about “Live you life” by T.I. does it too.

    “Army” by Ben Folds

    All time favorite, “Lose yourself” by Eminem

    Just some thoughts

  • Anonymous on 03.18.2009 at 11:28 am

    The marathon playlist-Good Luck Caleb!

    I thought I was crazy when I started counting beats in the music and daydreaming about “Can I run to this song?” So, I’m not crazy, just a runner with an Ipod. Here a re a few of my favorites: Lust for Life (Iggy Pop), Runnin’ Down a Dream (Tom Petty), Vertigo (U2), Theme from Linus and Lucy (Vince Guaraldi Trio). I laugh and think of Snoopy and his dancing smile-it keeps me smiling until the next hill.
    Thanks Caleb for sharing and best of luck next month in Boston!

  • Anonymous on 03.18.2009 at 1:45 pm

    Boston '08

    Despite the size of Boston, they were quite effective last year in monitoring headphone usage. We had to show our bibs in order to gain entry to our corrals (and I was no where near the elite corral), and we weren’t allowed in if headphones were visible. Some people snuck headphones in and put them on immediately before the race, but as others have said, they missed out on what makes Boston such an amazing event.

  • cdanilof on 03.18.2009 at 5:09 pm

    re: Correction on headphones

    Thanks for the good thoughts. Actually, last December, the USATF amended its rule regarding headphones, leaving the policy in the hands of race directors. Click here.


  • j. alain ferry on 03.18.2009 at 9:01 pm

    music is a must.

    i’ve run 7 marathons, including boston 5 times. brought the ipod along each time and suspect i’d lose my mind running a marathon without it. every marathon, boston included, has long, quiet stretches of road where music can really help push you along. that’s when the sound of music (no, not the corny flick about vermont’s trappe family) is your best friend.

    important caveat: don’t crank the volume! it’s both risky (you need to hear that over-zealous runner shooting the 18″ hole between you and the hot girl next to you) as well as an impediment to hearing the incredibly powerful cheers of the crowds along the route.

    as far as the usatf rules applying to those of us not in the elite field, really, who gives a crap? you’ve trained long and hard for the marathon and paid a hefty entry fee… as long as you act responsibly, there’s no reason to leave your music at home.

    rock on and run strong!

  • John on 03.19.2009 at 7:44 am

    I hear you...

    I can totally relate to this article.. As I am training for Boston, I too ran my last 21.5 mile run “naked” (no ipod). I ran the first 10 with another runner, and then went solo. I was surprised that I did fine without the music. Music has helped me in the past for sure… I ran most of my personal records last year while wearing an Ipod. In my last 2 marathons I carried the Ipod, but did not turn it on until I hit 16 miles. When I stopped to stretch in mile 24 of the VT City marathon last May- I started fussing with trying to find the right song–all but ignoring the crowd around me — and they were encouraging me to keep going!

    But I figure there is no way using music on a lonely run can compare with the excitement of the course and spectators at the Boston Marathon.

  • kcornuelle on 03.19.2009 at 10:33 am


    When I was on the track team up at BC, I never had music for training runs. I was a sprinter anyway, so distance runs weren’t an everyday thing. But at meets, I usually had my walkman before races. Some of the better tunes I remember were on the Top Gun Soundtrack – especially the two Kenny Loggins songs: “Playing With the Boys” and “Danger Zone”.
    There’s also a song on there titled “Destination Unknown” that was upbeat and decent, I forget who recorded it. Anyway, those are good for their tempo, their cheesiness, their ability to make your head get
    lost in movie scenes, and the lyrics are actually reflective of roads and competition, etc.

  • Fred Silck on 03.23.2009 at 6:18 am

    running and music

    After 13 marathons my knees aren’t able to sustain the wear of marathon training. I never used music while running. I felt it safer to hear anything approaching that wasn’t immediately in sight. Things like dogs, cars, bikes, runners, preditors, anything that I should be aware of being present, I wanted to be aware of. Not trying to sound, sexist or parinoid, but women should be vigilant of their running habits, don’t be so routine that someone can set their watch to your location while you run, and I feel it best to run with a partner.

  • Anonymous on 04.06.2009 at 1:05 pm

    Destination Unknown = Missing Persons

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