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‘Gimme Shelter’: Experiencing Pleasurable Escape through the Musicalisation of Running

By Finola Kerrigan, Birmingham University Business School, Birmingham University; Gretchen Larsen, Durham University Business School; Sorcha Hanratty, BPL Marketing; Kasia Korta, News UK.

Everyone has seen them – those determined souls, headphones on, pounding along the pavement to an unknown rhythm. Does the music make it easier for them? Are they trying to drown out the pain? Or is the virtual company of Taylor Swift or The Rolling Stones the only thing that helps to ease the loneliness of the long distance runner?

Music has long been integral to society and advances in digital technology have increased accessibility in almost every walk of life. Runners have been using music as an aid since the days of the Walkman and now a group, including academics from Birmingham University Business School and Durham University Business School, has undertaken a study of just how they use it to ease or improve their running experience.

Existing literature shows that music enhances both the physical and psychological benefits of exercise, with strong beats helping participants to work at increased intensity. There’s also evidence that new technology has allowed runners to personalise their ‘soundscapes’, helping them to escape into a stress-free world as they run, just as a commuter might plug into their favourite tunes on a crowded bus or train.

Born to run: Studying the music of the amateur athlete

It is never easy to quantify such things as pleasure or personal experience, so the team’s approach draws on qualitative data from a range of sources. Prime among these is a recently-developed approach called ‘netnography’, which allowed them to evaluate discussions among amateur runners on an internet forum established by Runner’s World magazine. This was supported by a small number of detailed interviews and music diaries kept by participating runners.
The forum was established in 2002, although early discussions related to technology that was not widely used and the discussions on music as an aid to running only really blossomed with the advent of the MP3 player, with an associated shift in theme from technology to advice on inspiring music.

Thank you for the music: The escape into pleasure

Runners use music for escape, for inspiration or for distraction, and their choice is highly personalised. Many runners’ preferred soundtracks differed from their mainstream tastes, possibly reflecting the fact that they regard themselves, while running, as somehow different to the way they are in their normal lives. Rock and dance music, with their heavy beats, proved the most popular and runners sought inspiration from their choice of tune, especially in tackling the more difficult parts of their regime.

The researchers argue that running is, in itself, an escape from everyday life and into an alternative world. Music facilitates this escape, through distraction or inspiration, allowing the runner to exert further control over their environment. Such research as this, into the balance of pain and pleasure as a means to an end – in this case, improved fitness or performance – can be employed in other areas of consumer research.

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