Thursday, April 16, 2009

Running with an iPod

Should you use one or not? That is one of the great debates in running community. I for one don't buy the argument that they are a safety hazard and I’m a big fan of wearing one while running. I find it a shame that some race organizers go so far as to prohibit their use and threaten participants with disqualification if they are caught wearing one. I can understand them prohibiting the elite (paid) runners in major events, but not for the majority of runners. Fortunately, there was a recent amendment by the USATF in December 2008 to their rules regarding headphone use. The USATF official rule now states that such devices are only prohibited for those competing in Championships for awards, medals and prize money.

One big reason I'm a fan of wearing an iPod is that I love music and there is nothing like a great running song to get you through the hard part of a hill climb or to the end of a long training run when your body says no and you need that extra motivation to go the extra mile. Another great reason, and perhaps even more important, is that if you put the right music on your iPod, you can use the beat to help you maintain proper running cadence (stride turnover rate). Jack Daniels and many other running gurus have determined the optimum cadence for running (10K to Marathon distances) is 90 steps per minute for each foot. Meaning, your right foot should touch down 90 times per minute.

Most beginning and intermediate runners run with a cadence that is too slow. When this was first pointed out to me, my cadence was only 82 per minute. Figuring out how to run at the faster 90 cadence was a real challenge. I remember that my heart rate went up significantly and it was really hard to maintain. Like most things, the focus on speeding up my cadence led to a number of running stride changes and when I finally figured it out, the result was that I ran much faster with less effort and had lower heart rate. I’ll warn you this didn’t happen overnight and was part of a long evolution in my stride, but will say that it is a journey well worth taking as the end result is faster times, less fatigue, fewer injuries, and great sense of accomplishment. I’ll go more into that journey in future posts, but for now, let me tell you how to leverage your iPod to help you focus on the correct running cadence.

First off, you need to go through your iTunes and locate all the songs that are 90 Beats Per Minute (BPM). There is a program you can download called beaTunes that will analyze your iTunes music to determine the BPM for all songs in your library and update iTunes to show the BPM counts. It is a shareware program that costs about $30, but you can download a free trial to use for a week and that’s all you really need for this project. The program can be downloaded here: They have versions for Mac, PC, and Linux.

Once you install beaTunes, you can sort your iTunes music library by BPM and then add the songs that are roughly 90 BPM to your iPod and use it to run at the right cadence. Overtime, I have narrowed my running playlist to about 20 songs that range from 89 to 94 BPM that get me psyched up while running. Was a bit of a trial and error process of trying out some songs, then deleting them after a run if the beat was not clear enough to make out or the song didn’t have the positive aspects needed to keep me running. Note that 180-188 BPM songs also work great. Also note that in iTunes, you will need to go to the file menu and select view, then view options…then put a check mark next to Beats Per Minute in order to see BPM column in your music list.

When you first try running at 90 BPM, it most likely will feel really fast so don't expect to do it for a long period of time. Just use the iPod beat as a focus point and try to keep up with it. When running with faster cadence, you will most likely need to shorten your stride. ChiRunning is a great book to reference for this and the author Danny Dreyer also goes into why 90 BPM is the best cadence for injury free running. After you practice this a while, you will eventually get used to the faster turn over and find your speed increases while perceived effort level decreases so you can cover more ground with same output of energy. I find that when I get tired, my cadence slows down and I end up working harder. By having 90 BPM songs on my iPod, when I get tired, I focus on keeping pace with the beat with shorter fast strides. Works great!

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