Health, Cardio, and BPM: How to Harness Rhythm for Fitness

Superhero Woman Running

If there’s one thing you’ll find common among most gym-goers, new, seasoned, and everywhere in-between, is that a good majority pop in the headphones or pump the loudspeakers when they work out. While you might think this is happy coincidence, there’s good science to show that listening to music might improve your workout. In the case of running, you could see improvement up to 15 percent.

Before you get too excited, realize that simply cranking the jams is not going to net automatic gains — there’s a science behind the madness, calculating beats per minute, heart rate, stride-length, and myriad other considerations.

Jack Daniels and the 180 per Minute Rule

A legendary distance coach named Jack Daniels decided to examine the stride rates of the top finishers in the Olympic Trials 5K in 1984. He came to the conclusion that, while there was no uniform number of steps per minute that compelled runners to victory, all of the racers that he observed maintained at least 180 steps per minute (SPM). Since then, many have declared Daniels’ amateur research proves 180 SPM is a great target for the average runner to shoot for, stirring up plenty of debate among members of the running community.

While the cadence debate is not yet settled, there’s no doubt that improving or maintaining a set number of SPM at a consistent stride length can help to measure and increase performance. Run2Rhythm suggests the best way to mentally spur yourself on is to link musical beats per minute (BPM) to your running speed. To figure out which BPM you should run with, they suggest (for outdoor running):

  1. Run for 15 minutes at a comfortable pace.
  2. During that run use a phone app or wearable tech to count your steps and compare them to mile times.
  3. Then, use this chart to find the correlation between your steps, mile time, and target SPM/BPM.
  4. (Treadmill runners should refer to this chart).

According to the chart, somebody who runs an 8 minute mile will likely take 1340 steps per mile, meaning that they take approximately 166 steps per minute. This means that somebody who wants to run an 8 minute should listen to music at about 166 BPM!

It’s important to note that R2R’s chart times are based on a set stride-length. If you’re running faster than the chart time is suggesting, for example, you are either running faster than the beat or are over-striding.

Special Consideration: Aerobic vs. Anaerobic Exercise

One thing to realize is that you utilizing BPM to set the cadence of your workout will generally only yield results pertaining to aerobic fitness as opposed to anaerobic fitness such as strength training or lifting weights. However, you can still use rhythm and BPM to enhance your anaerobic workout, and it all starts with figuring out your target heart rate.

Livestrong suggests that, to find your target heart rate for weight training, you first should find your maximum heart rate. To do this, simply subtract your age from 220 (So if you’re 20, for example, your heart rate should never go above 200). Your target heart rate is going to be between 50 and 85 percent of your max rate.

In action, this means that a 20 year old’s heart rate should be anywhere between 100 BPM and 170 BPM while they’re lifting. By creating a playlist that stays within in this range, or even one that starts around 100 and slowly increases toward 170 as it progresses, the 20-year-old weightlifter now has a device to measure their own heart-rate against — anything below the BPM of the music they’re listening to means they need to lift harder.

One thing to keep in mind is that the higher your BMI, the more strain you are putting on your heart and the harder it has to pump. If you’re overweight (and especially if you’re working hard and losing weight) your BPM may be easier to raise and may not stay consistent over time.

Other Considerations: Safety

For veteran runners, this shouldn’t be news, but newbies sometimes miss the memo: running is a low-risk sport, but injury awaits those who don’t take care of themselves! First and foremost, stretch before and after every run, and make sure you properly warm up and cool down. Second, and most pertinent to this post, make sure that you pace yourself and aren’t overdoing it. The rate at which our hearts respond to increases in running is astoundingly quick, but it takes much longer for our ligaments and connective tissue to adapt, and you don’t want to hurt yourself.

Also, make sure that you’re maintaining hydration. Drinking plain ole water is the best way to keep yourself from going dry, but some runners are turning to post-race IV drips. While some are quick to call this a placebo-fueled fad, we at least know IV nutrient therapy reduces lyme disease. Use at your own discretion and judge for yourself.

Last, but not least, make sure that you’re practicing proper earphone safety. Some will argue that there’s no such thing, as earbuds deafen you to the world around you, meaning it’s harder to hear traffic and may distract you from your surroundings. Our suggestion is to simply make sure your music isn’t too loud. Also, if you’re using earbuds, make sure to keep your ears clear of wax — not only does this contribute to hearing loss, it can also leave a nasty residue on and damage your headphones.

Now that you’re all set, figure out your target SPM or weight training heart rate, download your favorite songs at the right BPMs, and enjoy your workout!

Andrew Heikkila is a tech enthusiast, a futurist, and a business owner from the Pacific Northwest. He believes in the power of technology to guide the world in the right direction, but also understands human fallibility means it won't always be used to these ends. Still, he has hope that people will transcend their natural devices, and become the beings we have the potential to be. You can follow him through the buttons below.