What I Talk About When I Talk About Running Music

My first experience of what it might feel like to be good at running came in grade 5 when my P.E. class was circling the oval in an 800 meter time trial on a hot Gold Coast summer day. 800 meters equated to four laps and our eager teacher, Mr. Gee, marked us off as we rounded each one to ensure that we didn’t cheat. By some wonderful twist of fate, as I rounded my third lap (notably behind pace), I saw the weathered and sun spotted hands of Mr. Gee come together in a clap.

“Good time!” he exclaimed and gestured me over to the sideline with the two other child athletes who had finished the exercise, clearly having mixed up his tallies somewhere along the way.

I of course, did not correct him. I revelled in the small praises from my classmates and felt strong and fit despite my minor dishonesty. In that moment I loved running. I loved everything about it from the sweat dripping down the back of my shirt, to the sharp twang of the stitch in my side, to the shortness of breath and the dizzying faintness that washed over me in the stifling heat. I had to spend the next few weeks convincing my mother that it was all a farce, and I would not be enrolling in the school team, but it was a small price to pay. For the rest of my primary school career I was forced to proclaim that I didn’t run because I hated it, not because I actually had no skill whatsoever. I will never forget poor Mr. Gee’s disappointment at all that talent going to waste.

It was only very recently that I rediscovered my passion for running, this time under more genuine terms. I found myself working my way up from 3km, to 5km to 6km on an ultimate quest for 10km and beyond, enjoying the physical and mental challenges it posed. More than a passion for the exercise itself, I discovered a passion for those moments of focus where the outside world drifts away and it is just you, your body and if you’re anything like me, your headphones. Just as important as choosing my location, my distance, my time, choosing the right music became an equal part of the ritual.

In my quests I discovered that the art of curating the perfect “running playlist” has become so popular that many fitness and music apps now have specialised features that allow you to match your music stream to your tempo. For example, those who use Spotify Premium can utilise the “Running” section, which sees the app find the beat of your footfalls and then matches tracks from your selected genre or mood to your cadence. Once the app finds your personal tempo, the BPM remains constant allowing the playlist to act as a metronome, pushing you ever forward through your workout. There are entire polls dedicated to the most popular running tracks, and for those wondering, Lose Yourself by Eminem seems to come up trumps.

If my ten year old self had the power to create whole internal worlds of sound perfectly manufactured to assist in achieving whatever goals had been set out, maybe I would be an elite marathon runner by now. Over the last few months as I have made my first serious foray into the field, I have developed a very strong bond with the songs that take me to and beyond my limits, and a fascination with the relationship between the music and the act itself. When you are pushing towards that next kilometer there is a primal sort of instinct that demands the kind of music that connects you to your deepest self. I have discovered that running music for me consists of the guiltiest of pleasures, the songs that would usually prompt me to hit “private” on a Spotify session, and from the smiling faces and blaring noises I hear coming from my fellow cardiophiles at the gym and on the streets, I am sure I am not alone.

At the core of the music we choose, I think is the meditative state we are trying to achieve through the repetitive motion of pounding our feet into a hard surface. Rather than listen to our favourite tracks we seek out the kind of music that lulls us into a state of nothingness. We could opt for the songs that make us feel a certain emotion or evoke a nostalgic response, but instead we turn to tracks that allows us to fall into stride with our physical selves and silence the mind entirely. For some, that might be heavy rock, or indie remixes, or Latin beats. For me it is the dirtiest, grimiest, loudest EDM and dub step I can find.

As someone who has never set foot in a rave or worn a pair of phat pants, this comes as more of a surprise to me than anyone else. I have tried to listen to my favourite tracks instead. I have painstakingly picked the songs with just the right tempo that would usually see me toe tapping under my desk, but it is useless. The repercussions are not only apparent by my lackluster enthusiasm, but also in my results. A 5km time nosedives in full minutes, and while tempo certainly plays a part, there is more to it than that. The feeling of all that pulsing blood and adrenaline has become so synonymous with those deafening bass drops, that those have become some of the happiest moments of my day. Through the act of physical fitness I have become perhaps the biggest Skrillex fan I know, and I am not even a little bit ashamed. We can all find great joy in the fact that running acts as a get out of jail free card for all our guiltiest pleasures.

The author Haruki Murakami penned the nonfiction memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running as a reflection of how the sport has impacted him as an individual and a writer. He began running twenty-two years ago at the age of 33 as a means of warding off the common evils that come with living an artistic life, and to hear him talk about it is inspiring. Personally, he likes to listen to classic rock while running. Some favourites include Creedence Clearwater Revival, Manic Street Preachers and The Beach Boys. Those who don’t run probably read on with a morbid curiosity or an aloof uncaring, but for those who find solace in the pastime there is no more succinct description of how it feels.

“When I am running my mind empties itself,” he says, “Everything I think while running is subordinate to the process. The thoughts that impose themselves on me while running are like light gusts of wind — they appear all of a sudden, disappear again and change nothing.”

And much like the thoughts that pass through our minds, the songs too are like gusts of wind. They blow through on a beat as we push through our own personal barriers, whether it be running from something, to something or just for the sake of the ritual. The songs we choose might not make a lasting impact. We may never revisit them on a bus or while going to sleep or after a break up. They might change nothing. But, in that moment they are just what we need, and that’s got to count for something.

For your running pleasure, you can try our ultimate playlist below.