In the realm of sport and exercise, music plays an important role. Nowadays, fitness centres blast music, professional swimmers enter the pool deck wearing waterproof headphones, famous singers are invited to perform at the Olympics, and many people hold on to music devices while jogging up and down the street. Whether one listens to music for aesthetic pleasure or stress relief, it is a form of media enjoyed by expert and recreational athletes alike.
The Psychophysical Effects of Music
Researchers have found that music can directly enhance sport performance in a variety of ways: arousal regulation, synchronisation, and dissociation.1
- Arousal Regulation
Music is found to have a significant impact on our emotions and arousal levels and can thus act as a stimulant or sedative in training or during competition.2 For instance, fast, loud, and upbeat music can be used as an arousal-inducing strategy to psych oneself up, whereas softer, slower tunes can be used for their calming effect. Apart from a song’s rhythmic elements, the lyrics and extra-musical associations (the meaning that the national anthem conveys, for example) can also influence our arousal levels.
Whether it’s the pre-race chills or the feelings of self-doubt that creep up during a game, athletes do experience emotional swings from time to time, and these oncoming emotions will affect performance. To this end, music can be used as a tool to alter psychomotor arousal and foster an optimal mindset.
The synchronous use of music is when an athlete puts in conscious effort in his or her exercise movements to stay in time with the rhythmical elements of the tune they are listening to. In one of the more recent experimental studies involving differences in effects of synchronous and asynchronous music on cyclers, those who listened to synchronous music used 7% less oxygen than those that cycled with random background (asynchronous) music over the same distance.3
Ethiopian long-distance runner Haile Gebrselassie rose to fame not solely due to his two Olympic gold medals, but also because he was setting world records while running in sync with his song of choice — “Scatman” — matching his target stride rate with the tune’s tempo.4 This suggest that synchronous music can prolong endurance and increase productivity.
Another benefit of music lies in its ability of diverting attention from fatigue and pain, both of which are commonly experienced among athletes. These unpleasant bodily sensations will negatively affect our concentration, which may, in turn, cause our body to slow down. Effective dissociation can help enhance positive dimensions of mood — such as happiness and vigour — and temper the negative — such as depression and anger. An empirical study examined the dissociative effects of runners on treadmills, and found that there was a 10% reduction on perceived exertion of effort.5 6 7 Hence, dissociation can make a task feel easier than it actually is — so those who listen to music are likely to find the experience more pleasurable.
Get a Good Playlist
There are two key questions to ask yourself before a run:
- On a scale of 1-10 (1 indicating you being in a totally relaxed state, and 10 feeling completely psyched up), what is my optimal arousal level before a race?
Arousal levels are important, and it is essential that you feel right before you ‘put your best foot forward,’ literally. Do you usually run best if you are a little psyched up (i.e., at a level 6), or would you feel better if you were in a more relaxed mode (perhaps at a 3)? Try to recall past running experiences and give yourself a number that best represents your level. Once you are aware of your optimal setting, you can choose upbeat or softer tunes to help you get to your ideal state.
Don’t forget the pre-race song. This song should match exactly with the way you want to feel when you enter the race. Find lyrics of songs that can get you going. Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” and Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now,” are all popular picks.
- How do I want to feel during a race?
Ultra marathon runners need to find their own rhythm to survive long hours on their feet. Apart from looking into the circuit and planning ahead about your strategies, you need to be aware of how you want to feel. Therefore, check out the altitude map and try to chart your playlist according to your course.
Let’s say that for the first hour of the race you want to start off slower than your marathon pace. B.o.B.’s “I’ve got the Magic in Me,” Flo Rida’s “Good Feeling,” or “Peace Frog” by The Doors may help you establish a steady, efficient cadence. Songs by Tricky and Madonna can give you a good beat count and can synchronise your strides. When you get to the climbs, you may want to find something that can pump you up — songs by Boom Boom Satellites, or Metallica, for instance. Going downhill, you may want to choose something a little relaxing, like songs by R.E.M. or Seal.
Alternatively, you can also organise your tunes based on distance. If you know that the fatigue will start to kick in at the 30mi mark, try to throw in songs at that time that can dissociate painful feelings. Here, a funny melody that reminds you of your own wedding can lift your spirits and disconnect you from the run.
Bear in mind, however, that every individual is different. Songs that can help you with heat acclimatisation may not serve the same purpose for another individual. Be mindful of your arousal levels and mood swings. Your playlist should be tailored to your emotions in a way that helps achieve desirable psychological and performance effects.
So the next time you go for a run, don’t just choose songs you fancy — find tunes that will help get you to your optimal arousal level. You’ll be surprised how much this can affect your pace and mood.
By Karen Lo, Inner Edge Limited
- Karageorghis, C.I., and Terry, P.C. “The Psychophysical Effects of Music in Sport and Exercise.” Journal of Sport Behavior 20 (1997): 54-68.
- Bishop, D.T., Karageorghis, C.I., and Loizou, G. “A Grounded Theory of Young Tennis Players’ Use of Music to Manipulate Emotional State.” Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology 29 (2007): 584-607.
- Bacon, C., Myers, T., and Karageorghis, C.I. “Effect of Movement-Music Synchrony and Tempo on Exercise Oxygen Consumption.” Manuscript submitted for publication (2008).
- Karageorghis, C.I., and Priest, D. “Music in Sport and Exercise” The Sport Journal (2008).
- Karageorghis, C.I., and Terry, P.C. “Affective and Psychophysical Responses to Asynchronous Music during Submaximal Treadmill Running.” European College of Sport Science Congress, Italy (1999).
- Nethery, V.M. “Competition between Internal and External Sources of Information during Exercise: Influence on RPE and the Impact of the Exercise Load.” Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness 42 (2002): 172-8.
- Szmedra, L., and Bacharach, D.W. “Effect of Music on Perceived Exertion, Plasma Lactate, Norepinephrine and Cardiovascular Hemodynamics during Treadmill Running.” International Journal of Sports Medicine 19 (1998): 32-7.
Karen is the first Certified Consultant of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology in the greater China area. Follow her facebook page on where she trains people on mental toughness: www.facebook.com/inneredgehk.