The Power of Practice: How My Music Teachers Helped Me Become a Better Runner

When I started running in middle school, running was something that almost always went together with practice. Track practice, cross-country practice. I’ve also spent thousands of hours practicing different instruments in my life – piano, violin, viola, voice – but until recently, I never made a connection between practicing music and practicing running.

Track and cross country practice were these things I had to do at school because I wanted to run, and going to practice was the price you paid for that particular hobby (usually I didn’t mind it, but still remember speed ladders with a shudder).  Music practice was something I did because I wanted to play cool, complicated pieces, and in order to do that, I had to get better at my instruments.

These two concepts don’t seem all that different now. You practice running in order to get better at it, right? That never occurred to me as a teenager, and the association of practice with running has faded in the last 20+ years. I don’t “go to practice.” I just go run. Recently, though, I finally made the connection between my hobbies of running and music.

I was standing on the track before a 5x800m workout, creating in my head a whole narrative of what I was going to tell my coach about why this workout was terrible. (You know the kind of thing: The cinder track was covered in muddy puddles, it was humid, it was hot, Mercury was in retrograde, and the infield was full of ultimate frisbee players so I was probably going to get hit by a flying object at some point.)

Suddenly I thought, why all the excuses? Why am I doing this workout? Obviously I’m not really hoping to impress my coach with perfectly executed interval paces. It’s not a test. I’m hoping to get better at running those paces. I’m just practicing! What’s the big deal?

Well, duh, right? It was just running practice, the same way I might practice singing before my voice lesson: not to be a total virtuostic diva every time I open my mouth, but to get a tiny bit better at singing every time. We runners aren’t strangers to the concept of deliberate practice, yet we also tend to be so hard on ourselves when it comes to hitting paces in a workout, doing the exact number of intervals prescribed, or running the exact mileage in our training plan.

Why? Is that the best way to practice? From there it wasn’t much of a leap to thinking about all the ways I’ve learned to practice music in my life and how they can apply to running – and wondering why I didn’t make the connection sooner.

Some of the best tips for practicing an instrument can be applied word for word to practicing running. Others apply more figuratively. Here are the music-practice tips I find most relevant to running:

Always play with intention and be mentally present.

If you’re practicing a tough passage on your instrument, it is possible for your fingers to play the same few measures over and over by rote while your brain is somewhere else entirely. It’s not a good idea, though. If you notice your mind starting to wander, it’s time to stop. This tip may not translate 1:1 to running – you’ll still get benefits from your long run if you spend the whole time chatting with your friends – but I find it really useful for getting through tougher interval or repetition workouts where I have to think more about my form and breathing.

I used to listen to music during track workouts, desperate to dissociate from the horror of lactate and burning lungs, but lately I’ve made it a priority to get through the tough workouts without distractions. It’s not always easy and I don’t always manage, but it’s important mental work to try to stay in the rep I’m in, concentrating on form and pacing to get the most I can out of the workout.

Similarly, if you start to feel physically tired, strained, or cramped, it’s time to stop for the day.

With music, going on to practice more whenever you’ve reached this state is counterproductive. Essentially you’re practicing wrong and risking that this passage – and accompanying technique issues – will get cemented the wrong way in your brain. In the best case, you’re simply wasting your time and it’s not going to get any better if you keep on practicing.

To me, this tip parallels the common running advice to “never do ‘just one more'”. We’ve all been there: The training plan says 12×400 but you know you’re done after 10 because your form is going and you’re starting to feel that deep inner tiredness that says it’s enough. Do you keep going just because the plan says so? Or do you trust your gut and believe you have done enough practicing for today?

Never get upset about wrong notes. Once you’ve played or sung them, they’re out in the world and you can’t take them back.

If your mind is busy berating you for making a mistake, you can’t make music. My most recent opportunity to apply this to running came with a 12x200m repetition workout last week. I launched into the first 200m rep like I was channeling world 200m champion Dafne Schippers, finishing almost 10 seconds faster than goal. And you better believe my hamstrings let me know how they felt about that.

My instinct was to get mad at myself for potentially ruining my workout – I was worried I wouldn’t be able to finish it – but I decided my Dafne impersonation was the equivalent of messing up a tough passage in a piece of music. I couldn’t change it, so I let it go (and finished the workout, though my hamstrings were sore for two days afterwards.)

Speaking of wrong notes, my viola teacher once gave me the tip to smile when I made a mistake in a performance.

Sometimes the “mistakes” you make in performance are not even things the audience will notice; indeed, sometimes they are all in your head and when you listen to a recording later, you will wonder what you were so upset about because it sounds fine. This tip is about mindfulness, and being non-judgmental and kind to yourself, but it’s also science!

Smiling has been shown to reduce stress levels by inducing the release of endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin. These lead to lower blood pressure and heart rate and a feeling of physical relaxation. That means less energy wasted on tension and negativity, and more mental and physical energy for the performance at hand.

Never practice without knowing what you want to accomplish today.

Have a road map for every practice session that includes a decent warmup and at least one or two things you want to work on and improve. Sound familiar? This is one of those 1:1 translations. Nobody launches into a repetition or interval workout without warming up first.

Even if all you’re doing is an easy half hour jog, it pays to know the purpose of that jog and how it’s contributing to your overall training. In fact, it’s the recovery jogs that most often spark this thought in me, because they tend to come the day after a hard workout and can feel terrible. If I tell myself my job for today is to relax and go as slow as possible, I feel so much better.

My voice teacher pointed out recently that practicing is not limited to the time you spend singing. 

With music, listening to recordings, memorizing lyrics, doing breathing exercises – these can all be done during a commute, or while cooking dinner. It may be cliched, but we runners can practice during our down time from actual running, too. Foam rolling, strength training, reading about the latest in sport science or how the pros train, and thinking about how you can apply that to your own training: these are all activities that help us to become better runners.

How has the power of practice taught you to become a better runner?

I'm a 43-year-old living in Berlin, Germany and currently training for the 2020 Berlin Marathon.

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  1. Oh my gosh, this is SO GOOD. Yes. To all of it. You hear it in yoga and pilates a lot — “it’s a practice, not a perfect.” I love the part about intervals being practice at running certain paces — not a test. And being mindful about each run’s purpose … that would probably keep a lot of people from running too fast!

  2. It’s really true – SO much of running transfers to music, and vice versa. When I’m in a rehearsal that I’m not *exactly* prepared for, I liken it to a hard workout that I’m not 100% sure I can do. It might not go perfectly, but as long as I keep moving forward, it’ll eventually be over and I’ll learn something along the way and come out in better shape. Except I can get fired after a really bad rehearsal. That’s a little stressful. And I’ve always thought of races like auditions (ok, maybe the really long ones are more like a recital). This is a great article – thanks!

    1. Race as recital, I like that!! You practice a lot and then you show everyone what you can do.

      Wow, I’m glad I can’t get fired from running after a bad workout.