Zombie Basketball in North Korea (Or why music is so important to running fast)

zombieWell yes, this is primarily a music blog. But we’re allowed to cross genres from time to time. Donald Glover flipped from playing a goofy high-school dropout in Community to being, well, a bit of a goofy rapper . Dennis Rodman went from being a basketball player to fronting some kind of basketball-diplomacy weirdness in North Korea. The point is, change is good. And usually goofy.

As well as writing content on here, and writing for the wonderful Bearded Magazine and Music In Oxford, I’m one of those strange creatures who likes to fill their time by running. Once just a pastime of neanderthals escaping from bigger and scarier things, running is now something many of us actively choose to do. We could be sat on the couch, watching people on The Walking Dead run away from zombies, or playing computer games, running towards zombies. But that’s not enough for me. It’s a tortuously addictive habit to have, particularly when you start getting involved in organised races as you just want to run faster.

Music has always been a key part of the experience. It prevents me from hearing my own out-of-breath panting, and a track with a decent BPM (beats per minute) is like a giant fork poking you in the backside to go faster. But what has intrigued me as this hobby has grown into a full-blown addiction is the limited effect that perceived fitness actually has on your performance, and how much of an impact peripheral elements like a well-curated running playlist can make.

I ran my first half marathon in October 2011. My primary aim was to finish, and beyond that, to run under 2 hours would be a bonus. I ran 1:47:54, and was immensely proud. One year later (after having run a marathon during the intervening year) I ran two more half marathons on two consecutive weekends. I wouldn’t have said my fitness was overly better than the previous year. The only difference was that I knew what running 13.1 miles felt like, and knew how to deal with that. I was no longer running to finish, I was running for a quick time. I ran 15 minutes faster than the previous year, clocking 1 hour 32 minutes at both the Oxford and Birmingham half marathons.

The following year I had one goal – to run under 1 hour 30 minutes for a half marathon. It’s a number that means nothing to people who don’t run. But to people who run long distance, it’s such a huge milestone. Again, I don’t think I was any fitter than the previous year, but I had a few more of those peripheral tricks up my sleeve, to trick my body and mind into achieving this goal. October 2013. Oxford Half Marathon. Peeing down with rain. Twelve seconds. I finished twelve seconds under the 1 hour 30 mark in a torrential downpour. 1:29:48. It’s probably my proudest achievement to date.

This is what 1:29:48 looks like. 50% zombie.

This is what 1:29:48 looks like. 50% zombie.

Well, how could I run 1:47 in 2011, and under 1:30 in 2013 with a similar level of fitness? This is a bit of a brash statement to make, but I think actual fitness contributes to 50% of your achieved time. Part of that 50% is knowing how to pace a run, and what your absolute limitations are. 10% comes from getting your food and drink intake before the race right. 10% comes from getting your food and drink right during the race. 20% can come from a perfect music playlist. And 10% from complete bloody-mindedness and grit. That October 2013 half marathon race had pace runners running certain times. I blitzed ahead of the 1 hour 30 minutes pace runner early on. I had a couple of bad miles at mile 7 and 8, and the pace runner came past me. I felt I had nothing left at that point, but the combination of food (an energy gel), music, and that 10% of “you’re not running away from me you 1 hour 30 minute sign-holding bastard” meant I managed to piggy-back the pace runner and cross the line just 12 seconds ahead of my goal.

To prove I’m not crazy, this scientist claims music helps runners perform 15% better with music. And this I found after coming up with my hilarious 20% theory.

I have a 10k race in a month’s time, and I’m starting to build a playlist. I’m actually getting into the science of stacking together a playlist based on BPM, trying to start off at a steady and metronomic 170 BPM and building towards a 190 BPM finale. Now I’ve made up this fantastical percentage of 20% that a playlist contributes to overall performance, it seems all the more important. There’s some free software floating about that will analyse your music library and tell you the BPM of your tracks. One track that’s been a part of my running playlists consistently over the years has been Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Smiley Faces’. The speed and pacing of it is just perfect – there’s no slowdown for a bridge, it’s relentless without being overpowering. And it’s just a damn good song. Which is what this whole site is all about, as opposed to zombies playing basketball in North Korea.

Below are a few more 170-190 BPM tracks for people to terrorise themselves with, if they so choose:

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