The Weird & Specific Trick That Gets Me Through Winter Workouts

Photographed by Molly Cranna.

If you want to see a ballet dancer have a Pavlovian response, play any track from The Nutcracker out of context and watch them squirm. While the Tchaikovsky score is iconic and gorgeous, it also triggers an intense combination of anxiety and nostalgia for those of us who have fond memories of performing the ballet every winter since we were kids. Call me a masochist, but this is exactly why I listen to The Nutcracker whenever I go for a run in the wintertime.

When I was little, I used to watch the Macaulay Culkin Nutcracker movie on repeat, and I listened to the soundtrack constantly. Then, from second grade until my senior year of college, I performed in The Nutcracker every year. I've done virtually every role from Fritz, the little brother who breaks the Nutcracker doll, to Dewdrop, the lead in Waltz of the Flowers. I've had some of my highest highs and lowest lows dancing this godforsaken ballet.

After college, however, I decided to hang up my tutu and pointe shoes, so nowadays I like to run for exercise, because it's cheap and makes me feel good afterwards. During the actual run, it's always a challenge to find songs and podcasts to listen to that will either distract me from the fact that running is boring, or motivate me to run harder. But, last winter, I put on The Nutcracker just for kicks, and it was exactly what I needed.

If you're picturing a weirdo flailing their arms on the treadmill, I get it. But trust me when I say this works.

When I listen to the Nutcracker soundtrack on the treadmill, I mentally review the choreography that I grew up doing. I also "mark" the arms, which is a dancer habit in which you half-heartedly go through the motions to remember a piece. If you're picturing a weirdo flailing their arms on the treadmill, I get it. But trust me when I say this works.

Studies suggest that listening to certain music can distract your brain from the physical effects of exhaustion, allowing you to work out harder. Other research notes that when you identify with the artist's emotions in a song, it makes you more motivated. And some studies suggest that the tempo, cadence, and bass of your music can help you move faster or feel more powerful. As it turns out, The Nutcracker score does all of these things for me. But it also helps that I'm already conditioned to exercise to the music.

Here's my Nutcracker workout: I start the run with the Waltz of the Snowflakes, a six-minute fast-paced track that's around 105 BPM. (Interestingly, some informal research has shown that the ideal running music has a tempo between 170 and 180 BPM, or half that, at 90 BPM.) As soon as I feel my throat start to get dry, I think back to all the times that I've danced Snow, and suddenly running on the treadmill feels like NBD. Then, I skip ahead to Act II, and listen to Hot Chocolate, Tea, and Candy Cane, which are each around one-minute long and between 65 and 131 BPM. Tchaikovsky really knew how to write a running interval.

Then there's the pièce de résistance, Waltz of the Flowers, a six-minute 68 BPM song. In ballet time, six minutes is an eternity, and it's worth noting that this is smack dab at the end of the show. I can remember gritting my teeth as the corps de ballet huffed and puffed through this marathon of a section. But the music is epically sweeping and beautiful, which helps me power through the middle of a run.

I end with the Sugarplum and Cavalier Pas de Deux, and usually by this time my runner's high has kicked in and I get very emotional — sometimes I'll even cry. (If you're not convinced, start this track at 3:12, and you'll see what I mean.) And finally, the Finale, which is just a fun, four-minute track to end my run on a positive note.

Look, it very well might be whacky that this is what I choose to run to, but chances are you have an unexpected piece of music that you really connect to during your workouts — whether it's the Dear Evan Hansen soundtrack or Ariana Grande's Christmas album. If you're bored and trying to exercise, why not put it on and see what happens? Worst case scenario, you look a little nuts.