There’s no doubt your favorite tunes make working out more fun. But the perfect playlist can also spike athletic performance and make your gym time even more productive.
“Humans have a tendency to lock into a rhythm, and that has a direct influence on physical work rate,” says Costas Karageorghis, Ph.D., a sports psychology professor at Brunel University London and one of the leading experts on the relationship between music and athletic performance. Studies show that listening to music will reduce your perception of how hard a workout is by 10% (so you’ll feel like working out longer). Workouts will also become a lot more efficient, since syncing your stride or lifting motion to a beat will help reduce wasted muscle movement and slash your body’s oxygen uptake by as much as 7%.
Here are a few rules to keep in mind as you compile your next training set list.
1. Before you create a playlist, calculate your pace
The rhythm you train at should dictate song selection, with your workout pace matching the BPM (beats per minute) of the songs you choose to listen to. For running or cycling, count your motions over a 60-second period. Runners typically move at 150–190 strides a minute, and cycle at about 80–110 revolutions a minute.
If you’re doing strength work that doesn’t have a consistent movement, your heart will still synchronize to the music you play, so it’s good to keep it nice and energetic, but not so ratcheted up that you venture into an endurance pace—hang out in what’s considered the rhythmic “sweet spot” of about 120–140 BPM.
2. Build a library organized by beat
Most music sites like iTunes let you sort songs from your own library according to BPM. Apple Music is also a great platform to make workout playlists.
There are also apps like BPM Tap or PaceDJ that can not only search your library according to BPM but also allow you to speed songs up or slow them down slightly to give you the right rhythm.
3. Create mixes with a musical arc
Once you have your arsenal of tunes, it’s time for the fun part—building your actual playlist.
“You can’t just hit shuffle or you’ll be all over the place,” says SoulCycle spin instructor and de facto music director Parker Radcliffe. “And you can’t just go hard straight out of the gate. You have to let momentum build.”
When building his own playlists, Radcliffe says he uses the first song to “establish strength.” The second song’s meant to “get the oxygen moving through the body” and wake your body up a little more. By the third song, it’s time to jump right to a rocker. “We call it popping the party,” he says. “Usually we’ll jump to something over 200 BPM. I actually want to show what the finish line’s going to feel like—give a taste of the intensity we’ll reach later on. After the third song you just want to keep it really mixed up, making sure there are intervals of pushes and sprints to keep the body on its toes.”
And don’t forget the cooldown, he adds. “Finishing up with something mellower will give your heart a chance to slow down and provides a sense of conclusion.”
4. Match the mix to your mood
Even the most disciplined guys dread a workout from time to time. To combat the problem, build a few different playlists and keep them on reserve for those days you just don’t feel like working out.
“Some days your EDM playlist just isn’t going to work,” says Radcliffe, “so you need a mix that matches your lower energy level, which will help you build intensity as you train.”
5. Use the beat to raise your game
Something as simple as a beat could push your running or cycling to the next level, according to Radcliffe. So when you’re looking to step up your work rate, select a mix that’s slightly faster than your natural pace—just a few extra BPMs will make a difference. One study found that when music was sped up, subjects riding stationary bikes not only did slightly more work, they also minded it less.