Creating the Perfect Workout Playlist

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If you’re anything like the majority of fitness enthusiasts, a pair of headphones and a killer playlist are two major must-haves for every workout. But not just any playlist — the lineup you choose has the potential to make or break your fitness routine.

If you’ve ever struggled through a silent workout because you left your headphones at home or felt a surge of energy when your favorite song comes on, you know that, when it comes to exercise, music matters. Research has shown that listening to music while you work out can elevate mood and make exercise seem easier. One study even suggested that it may help moderate exercisers work harder.

Building a scientifically sound workout playlist, however, requires more than just setting your iPod to shuffle and pressing play. There’s more to an effective workout playlist than simply compiling a rotation of songs you enjoy. If you have hopes of creating the ultimate workout playlist, be sure to keep these factor in mind:

Match your workout style with the right genre.

You want fast-paced music on your playlist, but some songs may be deceptive. Just because you like a song, doesn’t mean it will be motivating enough to push you through those last few sprints, so make sure to keep it upbeat. Some people like to find a tempo that matches their run, but that may be digging a bit too deep. Instead, get way more songs than you need, make them mean something to you, and skip through them until you find your rhythm.

Plan ahead. 

There’s nothing worse than heading out for a 45-minute-run only to realize you only loaded up a half-hour worth of music.

Think strategically: Begin with slower songs to encourage you to warm up gradually, then hit a fast pace tailored to whatever lies ahead.

An expert tip? Songs with faster choruses than verses are great for interval training, and steady electronic beats are great for long jaunts on the trails. But don’t forget to include a relaxing endnote for the cool-down.

If you’re a runner who’d like to try synchronous running, start by determining your stride rate. That sounds complicated but all you need to do is count your steps for a minute while running at a comfortable pace. If you want to be fancy, do it several times and average the results. Once you’ve found your stride rate, you need to find music with a comparable number of beats per minute (BPM). For example, if you take 150 steps per minute, you’ll want to listen to music with approximately 150 BPM.

Don’t know the BPM of your favorite tunes? There are plenty of sites that can help! You can look up the BPM of almost any song using SongBPM.com or, if you’d prefer to search by speed instead of song, Jog.fm has a large database of popular songs organized by BPM. The app RockMyRun is another great resource.

If this sounds like a lot of work — don’t worry. You’ll still get a boost even if you don’t sync your movements to the music.

Evoke Positive Memories. 

Look for songs that not only make you want to run, bike, or do tabatas on your porch, but also evoke memories and emotions that inspire you. And don’t be ashamed to get super personal with your picks – no one else is listening to what you pump into those headphones.

Structure your playlists like your workout.

You don’t start your workout at a sprint, so don’t start your playlists that way. According to a 2011 study, “music tempo should be selected with the expected exercise intensity in mind, and be sequenced to contour in accordance with changes in heart rate.” Gradually increasing the BPM as your heart rate increases will help you stay motivated, even if you’re not using music synchronously.

Additionally, research suggests you should pay attention to how your mix works as a whole. If you’re going to spend a half an hour on the treadmill, “consider the congruence of musical pieces that appear in close proximity ” and aim for cohesion. Abrupt changes in style or speed should be saved for transitions between exercises.

No matter how many songs you include in your playlist, they should always flow something like this:

  1. Warm-Up Song- This is your big opening. Choose a song here that inspires and motivates you but has a moderate tempo. At this point, you’ll be doing some light static stretching and easy movement to warm you up, and you don’t want to be rushed, so choose a song that’s at least four minutes long.
  2. Get-You-Going Song- The second song of a playlist should be as inspiring and as motivating as the warm-up song, only faster paced so that you can naturally get your heart rate from an easy level up to a moderate-paced workout level. Choose a moderate- to fast-paced track with a strong and catchy beat that you naturally want to match your walking/running/elliptical speed to. For example, “Let’s Get It Started” by the Black Eyed Peas is a song that ironically fits the description.
  3. Pump-You-Up Songs- Playlists that feature songs with varying beat speeds are a perfect way to naturally work some intervals into your workout—maybe without you even noticing—because people naturally pick up their pace when a fast song is playing and slow down their pace when a slow song is on. For this reason, be sure to throw in at least one or two super-fast and high-energy songs into your playlist. You want these songs to be music that is darn-near impossible to sit still to.
  4. Recovery Songs- After any pump-you-up song, it’s important to have a moderate- to slow-paced song after it to recover. Because you’ll usually be out of breath from the previous song, choose a track that you really enjoy and find meaning in. During these songs you want to slow down your pace, but still stay motivated enough to keep up your workout.
  5. In-Between Songs- Unless you plan to do a full workout of intervals,  you’re going to need some songs that hold your interest and keep you motivated. All of our workout playlists are so different, but they all work to motivate us. No matter the genre or guilty pleasure, just make sure that the beat keeps you moving.
  6. Finale Song- This is the mother of all songs on your playlist. The finale song is basically a pump-you-up song times 10 because it has to inspire you at the time in your workout when you’re the most tired—the very end! This song should remind you that you just have a little bit left to do and then motivate you to give it your all.
  7. Cool Down Track- The cool down track should be slow and give credit where credit is due—to you, of course!  Be sure to cool down for at least five minutes—you may need more than one song to cool down to, which isn’t a bad thing since it gives you more time to enjoy music that you love.

You may already have a go-to workout playlist, but structuring it in this way is guaranteed to push you harder and faster! And remember, it doesn’t matter what genre of songsyou choose, it just matters that you enjoy them.