Make a PR Playlist

I was running mile 8 of the Staten Island Half Marathon. New York Road Runners, the organizers of the race, had promised the course would be gorgeous. But all I could see around me was broken pavement, random gravel, and warehouses.

I wondered why I had even bothered to sign up. I had completed my first half-marathon a few months before, on my 30th birthday, and had decided I could just go out this time and get a PR, no problem.

That PR was not happening.

Instead of simply being happy to try again at 13.1, I had put pressure on myself .I wanted to give up. Then a Kenny Chesney song I didn’t quite recognize blasted through my headphones. His trademark Tennessean drawl sounded so odd in the middle of f*cking Staten Island, in New York City, that I couldn’t help but laugh.

And as I laughed out loud to “Beer In Mexico”, I actually took a moment to hear what Kenny was singing.

I'm at these crossroads in my life

And I really don't know

Which way to go

In addition to putting pressure on myself with that race, I had also been putting pressure on myself to find a boyfriend. I was sick of dating and sleeping around casually, (yes, I’ll admit to that) and I was ready to find a real relationship.

This silly Kenny Chesney song, which I had added to my race playlist on a whim, was totally speaking to me. I started grinning like a maniac, and singing along with the chorus about drinking beers in Mexico and not worrying so much about what’s going to happen.

Let me interrupt here to say that New Yorkers are used to crazy. But most New Yorkers also tend to be hyper-focused on performance, and are very attuned to how they look in public. They are basically striving every day to be on the “normal” or “cool” side of the spectrum, not the wacky side. Singing about beers and grinning like a maniac made me look like, well, a maniac.

I stopped singing at the end of the chorus. The next verse said,

Maybe I'll settle down, get married

Or stay single and stay free

Which road I travel

Is still a mystery to me

And it was! I would like to say that this was the moment I decided not to put up with any more bullshit from dudes, but that epiphany came (very shortly) after the race.

So, what does any of this have to do with running?

Science overwhelmingly supports the idea that listening to music affects performance. If you run with headphones, what you’re listening to really matters. I take creating playlists really seriously. During a race I want to run fast, I listen to a lot of heart-pumping pop. Think Ariana Grande, Avicii, Pitbull, Rihanna, Beyonce, Britney. During races where I expect to be out for hours--half marathons and especially marathons--I combine medium-tempo songs and fast-tempo songs with songs that have emotional lyrics which speak to me (“Freedom” by Beyonce is a great one, as is “This Ain’t Nothin” by Craig Morgan), and then mix in a few songs that are just fun (“The Booty Don’t Stop” by Davy Rothbart, “Mr. Blue” by ELO, “I’m In a Hurry” by Alabama). I don’t get as specific as some people do, choosing songs based on beats per minute. But looking over Jog FM, some of the songs I do love running to are listed for the paces I usually run, like Miranda Lambert’s “Fastest Girl in Town” for a 10:30/mile pace and “Whatever It Takes” by Imagine Dragons for 11:30/mile.)

Typically, I build playlists of my favorite songs and then from those general playlists construct a unique playlist for every race. Using this method, I can revisit the mood of not only those individual races, but also where I was in my life when I was running that race.. Jess Glynne’s “Hold My Hand” will forever be connected to me turning back into Central Park after 26 miles and finishing the New York City marathon with a 20 minute PR. So that’s on every playlist, as is “Don’t Stop Believing” from the Glee Cast, because I loved that show so much, and my friend Marcos’s cover of “Halo” that played when I walked down the aisle to marry Scott.

Today, “Beer In Mexico” ends up on every race playlist I make. It reminds me of how far I’ve come with my running, and how long I’ve been competing and training and loving the sport. The song also makes me laugh because I remember how crazy I looked at the Staten Island Half. I also remember how that song made me feel okay with being single. It seems silly, but a song about drinking beer in Mexico helped me to realize that I would be fine either way, partnered or not. When that song comes on now, I know that Scott would be right around the corner (I met him less than a month after that race). But even more important, “Beer in Mexico” reminds me to chill out a little, and to have fun, and maybe to sing along loudly while running because why the f*ck not?

I encourage you not just to create individual playlists for every race, but also playlists for your overall training cycle (or the season of the year), and even perhaps for specific types of runs (easy, speed, and long runs). See what songs speak to you, and what works in terms of your pace and stamina, both emotional and physical. In general, fast songs work well for fast running; slow for slow. As with everything else, you may want to try a playlist first in training before utilizing it in a race, especially if you’re trying to beat a time goal.

Some runners like to construct a playlist like a mix-tape, where songs are played in a particular order. I ’ve found this to be helpful in shorter races, like a 5K or 10K, and less useful for long distances. Personally, I like being surprised by shuffle, and I typically load hours more of music than I’ll need so I can skip songs without worrying I’ll finish the playlist. Whatever you choose to do, make sure to download the whole playlist before race day so that you’re not trying to stream. This runs your phone battery down, and the loading speed can be slower than normal due to poor cell reception or at larger races, because thousands of other runners are also trying to stream.

What music do you listen to while running? Leave your suggestions in the comments!