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Running with Rhythm: PT Research Uses Music to Help Runners

Physical TherapyFor runners who experience knee pain, Taylor Swift may just be the ticket to a gentler workout.

Physical therapy researchers in Creighton University’s School of Pharmacy and Health Professions are using music to help runners find a beat to their paces, shortening strides and thereby lessening impact on the knees. The researchers are hoping to find another approach to help runners experiencing patellar-femoral pain syndrome (PFPS), a common ailment for runners.

The typical means for adjusting a runner’s cadence — the number of steps taken per minute — is a metronome, a tone played at a constant speed. Physical therapists take a baseline reading of a runner’s cadence and then try to increase the steps per minute taken by the runner by 10 to 15 percent.

“Rather than listening to a boring metronome just beeping at you, we thought a music mix would work,” said Danny McAndrew, a third-year physical therapy student who is leading the research with faculty advisor and physical therapy professor Terry Grindstaff, PhD, and Brooke Farmer, MS, ATC, a research assistant in the department. “Music has been proven to be motivational and to increase enjoyment. People who run, many of them have a better feeling when they’ve got music.”

Research participants come into the PT lab at Creighton and run for seven minutes as the researchers use sensors and a battery of cameras to capture everything about the subject’s running gait. With that baseline established, the researchers provide the runner with a playlist and tell them to spend the next two weeks running to the beats — staying at the same running speed, just finding a different cadence.

The playlists have a range of musical genres — everything from rock and hip-hop to country and classical. T-Swift not your jam? There’s Styx, T.I., U2, Outkast, Huey Lewis and the News, Tim McGraw, Coolio. And, of course, who can’t find their stride listening to Beyoncé?

“We wanted some breadth in there so everyone could find something comfortable,” McAndrew said.

When the participants come back for another look two weeks later, the hope is the music has helped them find a cadence that more evenly distributes the forces on their knees. Researchers are also looking at subjects’ pain levels and ease of motion in other daily activities — from climbing stairs to rolling over in bed.

“The idea is that we can decrease their everyday knee pain by changing their running cadence,” Farmer said.

The study broadens from there, too, with potential applications for movement or gait disorders like those found in Parkinson’s disease.

McAndrew, himself a runner and a musician, said he’s also interested in seeing if people with more or less musical inclination have an easier or more difficult time with the process. Part of the baseline data taken is a musical beat alignment test to see where a subject’s steps fall as to their sense of beat.

“We think there’s a correlation between how well they do on the beat test and their ability to match the music with their running cadence,” McAndrew said. “Some people might do better with the metronome in the end if they aren’t as in tune with music.”

After studying musical effects on cadence among a healthy group of runners last year, McAndrew presented his findings at the American Physical Therapy Association’s Combined Sections meeting. He hopes to gather many more participants with PFPS for the present study and present at next year’s APTA conference. He’s already done several presentations about the research locally and regionally, and will have a poster at this year’s upcoming St. Albert’s Day celebration at Creighton.

“We didn’t see a ton of research out there about the use of music,” McAndrew said. “We thought it was something worth exploring and we hope that at least the music makes it more interesting and enjoyable for the runners.”

If you're a runner who experiences knee pain while running and are interested in being a part of this study, contact Brooke Farmer at 402-280-5265 or brookefarmer@creighton.edu.

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