Cast your eyes over Abu Dhabi's Corniche this evening, and it's likely you'll spot a few bobbing heads jogging along, threading their way through the bicycles and meandering families. Some may be wearing headphones, others may not. It is probable that many of these lycra-clad runners will be listening to workout favourites – Eye of the Tiger, Flashdance, Rhythm Is a Dancer, that sort of thing. But it's also likely that a few will be skipping along to something entirely different. Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, to be exact, because they'll be limbering up for this weekend's inaugural Abu Dhabi Classics Run.
Entitled Beat Beethoven, the event's premise is this: competitors must run the 6km route along the Corniche in the 32 minutes it takes the symphony to play through. The idea is mostly thanks to Pam Simmons, the president of the consultancy firm coreNICHE, who came up with the idea and approached the director of the Abu Dhabi Classics series, Till Janczukowicz. He then took the idea to the director of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture & Heritage (Adach), Abdullah al Ameri, who agreed to champion the project. The race was on.
It won't be easy, though. To finish with or before the music, a runner must maintain a minimum pace of just under 12kph. "You need to be above average fitness," says Steve Watson, who should know because he is the director of the running club Abu Dhabi Striders, which is fielding several of this weekend's competitors. I am something of a runner myself, and am currently in training for the Beirut Marathon in November. But I find the thought of such a pace daunting, because my training has mostly been spent hovering around the 10-11kph mark in the hopes of completing the Beirut course in just under four hours. Six kilometres in 32 minutes? That's almost a sprint. And can one be as spurred on by the French horn as by a blast of 1980s pop? As encouraged by Beethoven as by Bonnie Tyler? I headed to the gym earlier this week to find out.
The answer, for me at least, was: not exactly. While chuffed that I managed to nail the six kilometres in under the allotted time (mere seconds over 30 minutes, to be precise), zipping along to Beethoven proved too much around the 22-minute mark when I needed to up the tempo and spur myself on. So I switched from the Allegro to the Sugababes and pushed on. Apologies to the late, great German composer: your timpani just couldn't quite match the galvanising effect of Push the Button.
But then, the runners among us will know that the music you run to is a very individual choice. As is whether you run to music at all. Champions such as Paula Radcliffe, Kelly Holmes and Haile Gebreselassie have all said that music can help with various aspects of a big race (the latter used Scatman John's Scatman as a metronome for his stride when he broke the 2,000-metres record in 1998), whereas others choose to go solo, with only their thoughts for company.
Some scientists say music helps to boost performance. Costas Karageorghis, from Britain's Brunel University, is a specialist on the ergogenic and psychological effects of music in sport and has written papers arguing that the stimulating effect of music, which he calls sport's "legal drug", can improve an athlete's performance by up to 20 per cent. Others say that is rubbish, and that music is at best a distraction from the sweaty grind at hand.
In 2006, USA Track and Field, the US governing body for track and field events, went so far as to ban runners from using personal audio players, classifying them as "assistance and therefore not allowed", and also citing safety concerns. So determined were runners in events such as the 2007 New York Marathon not to be pried from the headphones that the ban was widely flouted. In 2009 the rule was changed, leaving it up to race directors to decide whether headphones should be allowed or not.
I am a recent convert to the pro-music camp. Marathon training throughout the UAE summer proved all but impossible outdoors, so in July I was forced to retreat inside to the boring treadmill. It's not too bad for brief trots, but as the runs have stretched out in distance (up to 18 miles), I came increasingly to rely on my little green iPod for company, first for radio podcasts, now almost always for upbeat music. Tracks vary from the embarrassing (hello, Backstreet Boys) to the motivational (Proclaimers), the contemporary (Florence + the Machine) and the wryly apt (Chris Rea's Road to Hell). I have invested in a geeky pair of over-the-head headphones because the Apple ones slipped out of my ears on the longer, sweatier runs, and occasionally I find myself singing along in the final few minutes as the endorphins kick in.
Changing tracks and shaking up playlists have become key, however, because running can be monotonous enough without plodding along to boring music. Enter the internet, which throws up all manner of inspiration in the form of websites dedicated to top (musical) running tracks. Robert Marcus, otherwise known as Dr Bob, is the founder of one of these sites - the American www.jogtunes.com, which has been up for the past five years. Based in Texas, Marcus has created a site that now lists thousands of running-track suggestions, each with a BPM (beats per minute) measurement that allows you to synchronise your stride with the song's beat.
Aiming for a sprint? Look around the 180-190bpm mark. Among others, Jogtunes suggests Queen's I Want It All and Usher's Hush for this speed. A little slower, say around 120-140bpm? There's the Black Eyed Peas' Boom Boom Pow or maybe Santana's Oye Como Va. Something for everyone, see, with handy links to iTunes. Marcus even issues bi-monthly podcasts of certain running tracks, based on certain themes. The most recent was called "All Happy" and included 11 tracks, all with the word "happy" in their titles.
"I see music as a motivator," says Marcus, who has been running for the past 30 years and says he never steps out without music. "It's not clear that it enhances performance overall, but it can certainly motivate the user to perform better at any one moment." Any weird music choices he's heard of? Not really, he says. "I have played New Age music on my podcast and have had only positive reviews."
Corey Oliver, the founder of the UAE's Original Fitness and bootcamp master, says otherwise. "Some athletes I've been involved with listen to Celine Dion to prepare themselves for a rugby match, triathlon or boxing, which I find weird," he jokes. His favourite genre? "I like to listen to funky house music… but sometimes when I've had a hard day and I want to train really hard, I'll put on heavy rock and old favourites such as Eye of the Tiger."
Several other people racing this weekend emphasise the importance of running to music. "I personally have to have music to run," says Elizabeth Reuter, " I wouldn't make it one kilometre without it, ranging from rock 'n' roll, hip-hop, jazz and classical among others." Kate Forrester lists De La Soul, the Gypsy Kings, Vampire Weekend and, naturally, Michael Jackson among her top running artists. "It distracts me from the pain and helps my mind to wander and think about other things so I am not constantly thinking about how hot and tired I am," she says.
Ananth, a 17-year-old Abu Dhabi Strider, mentions Vangelis's Chariots of Fire track and Manfred Mann's The Runner as among his favourites, and has apparently gone through three iPods this summer alone, through moisture from running outside. This weekend, there will be speakers along part of the route piping Beethoven out for runners but not the whole way, so it's recommended that competitors equip themselves with iPods or small radios tuned to Abu Dhabi Classic FM, which will be broadcasting the entire symphony on 91.6FM from the start gun on Friday at 8.30am.
Not a runner? You can join in anyway, because the Fifth will also be piped during the three-kilometre family walk tomorrow evening, and the 1km children's walk on Friday, with all proceeds going towards the Abu Dhabi Classics education programme and diabetes research at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City. "A goal is to break the barrier between classical music and its potential audiences," says Simmons. "Beethoven is our composer this year. If we do it next year, a different composer will be selected."
Ÿ For details visit www. abudhabiclassicsrun.com. dr bob's top five running tracks 1. Runnin' Down a Dream - Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers 2. World Goes Round - Hedda Layne and Troy Lee Warden 3. I'm Having a Great Day - The Alice Project 4. Like Someone in Love - Karrin Allyson 5. Golden Ticket/I Want It Now - Harry Connick Jr