Oh Shit, I’m Running A Marathon: Spotify Running Is… Meh

Week 12 of first-time marathoner Joe's training, and he's putting Spotify Running through its paces

Trying to weigh up whether or not it’s okay to enjoy Boys Of Summer

Sometimes I enjoy running while listening to music, and sometimes it does my brains in.

When I’m totally zoned-out and the music feels like it’s a suitably movie-like soundtrack to my spectacular cinematic striding, I love it. But when I’m having one of those cack-footed, itchy-shorted runs where it feels like everything’s a teensy bit ‘off’, music feels like a grating distraction, particularly if – as is usually the case – it’s at a different tempo from the one I’m running at.

But as I’ve got further into my marathon training, it’s become less and less possible to run without some kind of musical accompaniment – running for two-plus hours in complete silence starts to feel borrrring as hell when you have to do it week-in, week-out.

Anyway, it’s obviously not just me who finds running to a mismatched musical tempo aggravating, as Spotify have now added a Spotify Running feature to their standard app. “It finds your tempo and plays music to match,” they say, and it’s been steadily rolling out to Spotify mobile-app users over the last few weeks.

It’s not just me who finds running to a mismatched tempo aggravating

(To check if you have access to it, tap those three little stripes in the top-left corner of the app, and see if it appears alongside options such as Search, Browse and Your Music.)

You LIED to us, Spotify! (Kind of)

Spotify Running in action

First off, let’s deal with the slightly cheeky claim that Spotify Running “finds your tempo” – does it bollocks. From that description, I was expecting Spotify to use my phone’s internal accelerometer to detect my running speed and adjust the music’s tempo accordingly, but nope, you input the tempo manually before the music begins, which means you have to know what your usual steps-per-minute rate is.

Spotify Running claims it ‘finds your tempo’ – does it bollocks

Spotify reckons the average running pace is 160 steps-per-minute; my pace turned out to be closer to 170. To be fair though, it is easy to adjust the pace while you’re running, via the faster/slower arrows, which are large enough to remain easy targets even if you’re blindly tapping at your phone while it’s attached to your arm.

So, with the pace in place, how b@nGin were the ch00nz?

The good, the bad and the painfully generic

This is isn’t exactly clear upon your first stab at it, but there are basically three ways to use Spotify Running:

1. Spotify’s choice

You can listen to Spotify-curated playlists with names such as ‘Mood Booster Run’, ‘Indie Kick’ and ‘Electronic Moves’. Enjoyment of these playlists will, of course, vary wildly, according to personal taste…

Enjoyment of these playlists will vary wildly

The app will select tracks based on the tempo you input, and it’ll need to stream these tracks, as you won’t have them already downloaded – which is fine if you’re in the gym and have access to free WiFi, but potentially ruinous if you’re running outside and reliant on costly mobile data.

2. Your choice(-ish)  

You can use the Recommended For You option, which will search through your own playlists to find tracks that match the tempo you selected, and will also stream in other songs from artists who you’ve playlisted.

Very few songs (outside of punk and drum’n’bass) are 160bpm in tempo

Sometimes this works okay, sometimes not: very few songs (outside of punk and drum’n’bass) are anywhere near 160bpm-plus in tempo, so the app is instead forced to use songs that are exactly half your selected tempo. At one point,I was running to MF Doom feat. Angelika’s loping, melancholy ‘Guinnesses’ – a fine ditty, and technically in time with my pace, but not exactly the kind of air-punching stormer you’re after when the chips are down.

Provided you’ve got a fair amount of music downloaded onto your phone’s Spotify app, this option can draw upon those tracks alone, if WiFi isn’t available and you don’t want to rinse your mobile-data allowance by streaming additional music that’s been ‘recommended for you’. However, you do need a lot of downloaded tracks for this to work, or you’re going to be hearing the same songs over and over again.

3. Generic no-frills rave-pop that sounds like something off a terrible SyFy Channel series about runaway psychic teenagers in the 23rd century 

This final option is nearly impressive, but sadly also a bit rubbish with it. Spotify has commissioned six bespoke running soundtracks (one by Tiesto, the others anonymous), with names such as Epic and Lock The Flow. Each of them is around 45 minutes and broken up into seven, eight or nine “Chapters” (i.e. skippable tracks).

Superstar trance DJ Tiesto: would you go for a run with this man?

The cleverness here is this: you can change the tempo of each of these soundtracks as you’re running, without skipping tracks or altering the pitch. It’s not a 100% smooth segue, but you’ll be listening to the exact same tune, except either faster or slower.

Sounds like it should be piped into the lifts at a three-star ski hotel

The problem here is this: the music itself is so blandly uplifting and middle-of-the-road that it feels like you’re running to something that should be piped into the lifts at a three-star ski hotel. Unless you’re extremely undiscerning about what you put in your ears (or a diehard Tiesto fan), you’d never listen to these tracks in the comfort of your own home – so would you really want to listen to them while out running?

In conclusion, then (fiiinally)

Jesus, what a long post it’s been this week, eh? I thought, “Oh, I’ll just test out Spotify Running and pop out a few thoughts on that, won’t take long,” but now here we are, 11,327 words later, and it’s all turned out to be highly exhausting.

A decent-but-flawed first run at a potentially game-changing idea

But anyway, what have learned? Well, firstly, I’ve learned not to review new features of music-streaming apps within the context of a light-hearted weekly marathon-training diary. Yeesh.

Secondly: Spotify Running feels like a decent-but-flawed first run at a potentially game-changing idea. The overall concept – a bottomless supply of music that perfectly matches your running pace – is obviously enticing.

But Spotify Running has issues that need fixing before we all start going mental for it: its lack of automated tempo-detection; its reliance on pricey mobile-data streaming; its use of downtempo tracks in place of uptempo ones; and the blah-ness of its bespoke tunes.

I won’t be using it myself just yet, but in five or six updates time, I’ll doubtless be all over it.

High point of the week: New shoes! These New Balance Vazee Rush are what I’ll be wearing for my first-ever marathon (Bristol + Bath, 25 October).

They actually look alright for running shoes, I think. I mean, they look terrible in terms of ‘normal’ trainers, but they could be a lot worse.

Low point of the week: Listening to crappy, pound-shop EDM while running. Felt a right nincompoop.

Training tune of the week: Squarepusher – Squarepusher Theme

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