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Earbud Face-off: Lady Gaga versus Ira Glass

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The sea of options we have to motivate, inspire, and distract us during our workouts is incredible – music, podcasts, and books are all available and easy to take anywhere.  Even with such abundant options, until a few years ago, I always defaulted to music – the light, poppy, top-40 stuff for my high-intensity workouts, and more melancholy sounds for trail running, yoga, and long rides (my needs were so basic that even my old Sony Walkman may have even sufficed).  I wasn’t open to other kinds of media, in short, because I was concerned that my brain and body wouldn’t simultaneously function well enough to digest anything beyond music.

A few months into training for a marathon a few years ago, however, boredom drove me to abandon Lady Gaga and give podcasts a shot.  And to my surprise (although my husband and friends had been telling me this for months), I got very hooked very quickly.  My long runs seemed to go by faster when I was distracted by Ira Glass telling a detailed story about two little girls from Wisconsin being switched at birth…I found myself laughing out loud one minute and sobbing the next as stories from The Moth accompanied me through winding trails….and I came home full of ideas and questions and things to talk about.

After a few years of trying out various types of media during my workouts, here’s the formula I like to use to keep content fresh and keep my body and brain engaged:

  • Music: I still think music works best for high-intensity workouts, like intervals (including Tabata), tempo runs, spin classes, classes (obviously, etc).  I use my own mixes on my ipod/Spotify and Pandora (“dance cardio radio” and “pop fitness radio” are both pretty reliable if you’re into the cheesy, pop stuff like I am)
  • Podcasts: I like to use podcasts during longer, endurance workouts (long runs and rides).  Some of my favorites are This American Life, The Commonwealth Club, and The Moth (The Moth’s stories are 10-15 minutes, so also good for circuit training).  There’s a new (free) app called Stitcher, that makes it super easy to stream all podcast subscriptions in one place.
  • Books: I haven’t used books much, but I have friends who swear by them.  I think the best options tend to be thrillers (think Divinci Code)…50 Shades of Gray might be an awkward workout read.  I’d use books similarly to podcasts – for long, endurance training when distraction is often more important than keeping up intensity.

Will listening to any of these things – or exercising in silence – make you fitter than others?  The jury is still out.  I found a great review article talking about the emerging research on music and exercise – a science that touches on biomechanics, physiology, and neurology.  Studies do show that music helps boost performance, pushing people to work harder.   However, music results in diminishing returns as exercise intensity increases (no matter how great the music is, it doesn’t take away fundamental physical limitations/pain).

What works best for you – a steady beat to motivate your muscles, or a story to distract and transport you?  If you’re listening to something you like, I’d love to hear about it.  And if you’ve been listening to the same thing for years and years, why not try mixing it up this year?

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. ebriceno #

    Cool – I just subscribed to The Moth feed, I look forward to checking it out! I love to listen to audiobooks in workouts that require little conscious thought (e.g. elyptical, runs). If I’m on the elyptical I listen to non-fiction stuff where I’m learning and like to take notes on key takeaways (I do so on evernote as I’m on the elyptical, I later paste the notes to an internal wikipedia-like wiki). During runs it’s hard to type, so I tend to listen to fiction or podcasts. And sometimes I’m in the mood for music so I listen to that, and I tend to listen to that when doing calisthenics / whole body workouts. The audiobooks definitely are a part of the workouts I look forward to, works great for me.

    January 3, 2013
  2. ebriceno #

    …btw, I’m also realizing that for me, key to being able to take notes (type on my cell phone) on the treadmill is to have a great predictive keyboard on my mobile (I use Swiftkey) – that way I just type quickly without needing to read what I type, not worrying about errors. Later (at a computer), I copy and paste the evernote text into Word to correct spelling mistakes, then copy and paste from word into my personal wiki. (I find it helpful to type key takeaways b/c it helps me distill the key ideas and b/c it’s very easy for me to later review the key points from a book…).

    January 4, 2013
    • ebriceno #

      … I meant on the ellyptical, not the treadmill…

      January 4, 2013
  3. Nadine #

    I listened to my first ever podcast this week, while at the gym. It was different, and did make the time flow differently. I will have to investigate different podcasts, and find more options. Thanks for the excellent suggestion.

    January 9, 2013

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