AS A PROUD MEMBER of the Walkman Generation, I have fond memories of pulling on foamy old headphones, slipping the heavy cassette player—with a 60-minute mix tape I'd stayed up half the night splicing together—into my fanny pack, hitching up my tube socks, and bounding along to the inspirational sounds of Wham! and Bananarama. Yeah, life was pretty good.
It's a lot better now—and not just because of the music. With the Nike + iPod Sport Kit, I've joined the early adopters turning digital audio into a training tool. Nike Plus integrates the iPod Nano (not its brethren), iTunes, a two-piece pedometric sensor (a transmitter that fits in your shoe and a wireless receptor that plugs into the iPod), and nikeplus.com, which tracks running data and, if you want, connects you to an online community of runners. For $29—the price of the Sport Kit (shoes and iPod sold separately)—my tiny 8GB Nano was transformed into a DJ, personal coach, and training log.
In a 1998 study conducted at Pennsylvania's Bloomsburg University, participants exercising with music noted a lower perceived exertion than those who worked out at the same intensity sans tuneage. But beyond easing your pain, can music actually improve performance? This past fall I signed up for a 12-mile trail run that climbs 2,000 feet to the top of a ski area, and I needed an edge. About a month before the race, I got on iTunes and downloaded a 45-minute running mix of songs by the Crystal Method (Apple and Nike are commissioning a series of original "sport music" from existing bands), and blew out the door to try the Nike Plus basic workout.
The software allowed me to program simple workouts based on time, distance, or the number of calories I wanted to burn. In basic mode, I ran as long as I wanted while the Nano tracked mileage, pace, and more. A few weeks in, when I set a new personal record on a local three-mile circuit, I was startled by a spoken congratulations from world-champ marathoner Paula Radcliffe. But my favorite function was the ability to cue a preselected "power song." On a dreaded mile-long ascent I'd dubbed Pain Cave Hill, I kept replaying TCM's dance-floor dervish "It Hertz." I cruised to the top like a Kenyan.
As race day approached, I began to seriously investigate the burgeoning world of sport music. In the universe of digital sound, it had become a galaxy unto itself. It was an entire subcategory on iTunes, and it yielded a new guilty pleasure: browsing the playlists posted on the Nike site by celebrity athletes like Lance Armstrong, Steve Nash, and soccer prodigy Freddy Adu. Armstrong's list included Sheryl Crow's "Letter to God." Dude, c'mon. No wonder people accuse you of doping.
Nike had also posted some downloadable workouts ($10 $15). I sampled Increase Your Speed, with marathon legend Alberto Salazar. This syncs the famous runner's voice-over coaching with a soundtrack of high-energy pop. Salazar leads you through a warm-up and four intervals of increasing intensity. I can't say I liked all the songs (the Wallflowers?), but the audio prompt to rev up a four-minute interval was great.
I showed up for my run on a dismal October morning—40 degrees, steady rain—along with more than 100 others. Based on the number of iPod-equipped racers I saw heading to the start, I wasn't the only one who'd embraced musical motivation. I sat in my car listening to the rain patter on the hood, strapping on all my gizmos. Wait a minute. Was this really where my motivation was supposed to come from? Techno? What's more, I'd hit my gadget threshold. In a fit of digital defiance, I ditched my Nano, heart-rate monitor, even my watch, stuffing them in the glove compartment before striding, proudly unplugged, to the line. I finished two hours later, in the middle of the pack. I was miserable the whole way.