The Powerful Effect of Music in Sport

There’s no denying that music plays a big part in our lives. From the tear-jerking ballad at just the right moment in a film, to the feel-good steel drums halfway round a race route, music is powerful and can elicit all sorts of different responses in our mood and behaviour. It’s no surprise, then, that music can also affect our performance in sports and exercise.

How music can be used

Back in April I attended an event hosted by Currys and Monster where the role of music in sport was discussed at length by Dr Costas Karageorghis, an expert in sports psychology who has conducted a number of studies on the effect of music on performance and motivation. At the event we were each kindly given a pair of Monster iSport Wireless Superslim headphones. While, unfortunately, the headphones weren’t for me, I did find the topics covered in the event really interesting (maybe that’s the science-geek in me, but hey-ho), and that’s why I’m writing this post.

Anyway, before the event I had already investigated the impact of music on my own training, making a playlist with a selection of music within a set beats per minute (bpm) range. I had heard that a tempo of 140-145bpm was the sweet spot for running a 9.5 minute mile so I tested that theory out on a long run.

What I hadn’t realised is quite how far the impact of music in sport stretches. The association is a long established one, demonstrated in film and professional sports alike. For example, the New Zealand rugby team, the All Blacks, performing their ritual Haka before matches, or the Rocky training montage and, finally, the iconic scene from Chariots of Fire.

When to use it

What’s especially interesting to me is how there is a clear place for music, not just in-activity, but pre- and post-activity too.

Pre-activity

I’m not usually one for listening to music when I run – my running time is my down time and I enjoy the experience of running for running’s sake, without the need to escape from the task with music. However, knowing that listening to a stimulating track before a run could mentally prime me is really useful. Michael Phelps is known to be plugged in right up until he steps up to the platform for a (no doubt medal-winning) race. Apparently he listens to the rap “I’m me” by Lil Wayne.

In-activity

Another place music has is in-activity. Usually this music fits into two categories – synchronous (meaning you can synchronise your movement to the music) or asynchronous (background music). Despite my preference not to listen to music while running, it’s certainly not to be sniffed at; synchronous music can be known to boost performance by as much as 20%! Haile Gebrselassie famously runs to the beat of “Scatman”, even having it played during a track race to smash a 10,000m record. Apparently it’s the perfect beat for his target race pace.

Karageorghis has us  synchronising some basic movements to music.

Karageorghis has us synchronising some basic movements to music.

Somewhere I do find in-activity music really useful is in CrossFit. When we start a WOD the first thing the coach does is crank up the music, and for good reason: music can help you to “dissociate” for longer, meaning your rate of perceived exertion (RPE) goes down, and your work intensity goes up.

Post-activity

The other time music can be used is after your workout. Sedate music of around 60-90bpm has a psychobiological as well as a psychological effect on your recovery, meaning that it can aid, and even speed up, both your physical and mental recovery from training. I’ve never tried this myself, but it definitely seems like a good excuse to relax after a race!

What to listen to

I’ve already mentioned that the bpm range of music can have a direct influence on your performance, and there are apps for this – I used Beatunes, which analysed my iTunes library and calculated the bpm and “colour” of my music. But that’s just one piece of the puzzle; according to Dr Karageorghis, there are several constituents of music to consider:

  • Volume
  • Tempo
  • Rhythm
  • Melody
  • Harmony
  • Instrumentation
  • Lyrics

Music with a faster tempo is stimulating, while a slower tempo is more sedate. Iwan Thomas listens to the highly stimulating sounds of The Prodigy’s “Firestarter”. Whereas Dame Kelly Holmes, by contrast, listens to the calming “If I Ain’t Got You” by Alicia Keys. What might not be clear from just thinking about those two tracks is that the lyrics can make a huge difference – the lyrics of Alicia Keys stimulate Holmes’ ambition, relating them to the medal she wants to win.

Personally, I prefer to listen to slightly aggressive, more high tempo music, like Linkin Park or The Prodigy, when I train, but that’s probably more because of the style of training I do. I always remember my two favourite spin tracks were “Fascination” by Alphabeat, and “Flux” by Bloc Party – both more high tempo, but upbeat too.

A few points to remember

While music can be an aid to exercise, there are some safety points that should be taken into consideration when choosing how and when to listen to music:

  • I would always advise against listening to music when cycling for obvious road-safety reasons
  • Listening to music when running is usually safe, but be extra-careful to look properly when crossing the road
  • Most races ban the use of headphones for safety reasons (so you can hear marshalls giving you important safety advice)
  • Try not to use headphones for more than an hour per day, in order to preserve hearing
  • Combining high decibel (loud) music with high intensity interval training (HIIT) can damage the cochlea

Do you listen to music, before, during or after training? Do you find it makes a difference to your enjoyment or performance? What do you listen to?

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Disclosure: at the Currys and Monster event I was kindly given a pair of Monster wireless “superslim” in-ear headphones. Unfortunately they weren’t for me and as such I have decided not to post a review of them. As always, my opinions are my own and are not affected by any items gifted to me.

2 Comments

  1. 19th June 2015 / 7:21 am

    This is so interesting to read. I actually stopped listening to music when I run because I found that I was affected by the beat of the music and and slow down or pick up speed to match my tracklist – it made me inconsistent as I’m quite picky when it comes to my playlist! I do like to listen to some music just before I set out the door however, it helps to motivate me to get moving! x

    Laura | Loved By Laura

    • 20th June 2015 / 10:18 am

      Thanks Laura! Personally I think it’s good not to listen to music when you run, especially as most races won’t let you – people can often become too dependant on music to keep them going! What’s your favourite pre-run track? x

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