Is music a 'legal drug' that improves performance?

In a Times Online article, Dr Costas Karageorghis calls music sport’s “legal drug”, capable of reducing an athlete’s perception of effort by 10 per cent while increasing performance by 20 per cent. 

As head of Brunel University’s music in sport research department, Karageorghis has authored more than 100 academic papers on the subject of sport research. He is also the head coach of the British students athletics team. 

“Carefully selected music can make you more efficient by reducing your oxygen uptake by as much as 7 per cent for the same performance,” he says, before stating several other benefits, from banishing pre-race nerves to erasing the pain of exercise.

There are several elements at play here. The first is music’s ability to establish an optimal state of mental absorption that psychologists call “flow”, which is why Paula Radcliffe (and other top runners) use music to prepare for intense training sessions.

Music can also alleviate pain caused by exercise, making working out more pleasurable. “Music is integral to exercise,” explains the head of London’s Gymbox chain, Richard Hilton. “We even have live DJs. We’ve never measured the effect scientifically, but it definitely creates an uplifting mood that people love.”

Fitness First, the UK’s biggest gym chain, doesn’t have DJs but still recognises the importance of workout music, playing sports music at all its gyms. The No.1 song for male members is Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger, while women love Abba’s Dancing Queen.

Human beings have an innate tendency to co-ordinate movement and rhythm - this is final piece in the exercise and sports music puzzle. Performance can be greatly improved by choosing sports music with the right tempo for the right exercise.  

This works most readily with repetitive exercises such as weightlifting, but can also apply to running. The best illustration is Haile Gebrselassie, perhaps the world’s greatest distance runner, who used the techno-pop smash Scatman as a relentless metronome for his stride when he broke the world 2,000m record.

To find out if music could make the him faster, the Times Online author hatched a plan. First he would attend a training day to experience the benefits of the right music at the right time, then he would run Sony Ericsson’s Run to the Beat music half-marathon, with the doctor creating the optimal playlist. 

Training tracks used included the Chemical Brothers’ Galvanize 104bpm (beats per minute) for warm-up, Lady Gaga’s Poker Face (120bpm) for getting going, the Killers’ Mr Brightside (148bpm) for really tramping on, and Beyoncé’s Halo (81bpm) to cool down. But if music had been so essential to Gebrselassie, it begs the question of why top runners never race with headphones, and why had he himself used it only once in 26 record-breaking runs?

“For a lot of elite athletes music is irrelevant,” Karageorghis says. “Research has shown that when you cross the anaerobic threshold, which happens at 70 to 80 per cent of maximum heart rate, music is less effective. Also, elite runners tend to be associators, which means they focus inwardly on regulating their bodies, rather than outwardly to stimuli such as music. Above 85 per cent, silence may be golden.”

Several studies back up this claim, including one from the University of North Carolina’s psychology and sport science departments. Research showed found that “listening to fast, upbeat music during exercise may be beneficial for untrained runners but counterproductive for trained runners”.

In the author's race the music was as much a hindrance as a help as the playlist skipped genres with all the musical integrity of pub karaoke. So while rocking tracks such as Von Kleet’s Walking on Me made the going easier, other urban monstrosities left him wanting to discard the MP3 player entirely. He listened to Gonna Fly Now (Bill Conti — the Rocky theme tune), Chariots of Fire (Vangelis), Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough (Michael Jackson), Back to Life (Soul II Soul),  and Lovely Day (Bill Withers). Crossing the line he had beaten his previous personal best by a minute, but had it been the music? He felt it had more to do with plenty of training than with the addition of sports music.

Ostensibly, sports music isn't useful for the regular distance runner in search of that extra boost. It may work in warm-up, it may help in cool-down, but when it comes to really pushing your aerobic limits, Depeche Mode said it better than anyone: Enjoy the Silence.

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