There’s plenty of research on the impact of music on exercise, but can music really influence your workout? In other words, is there much benefit to grabbing a pair of the best running headphones (opens in a new tab) if you want to improve your performance? Well, some of the results are quite remarkable.
Over the past two decades, scientists have studied the influence of music on training performance and found significant benefits.
Music can positively affect your mood, decrease perceived exertion, increase endurance, and make athletes more efficient when it syncs with their movements. While listening to music, people were able to run further, cycle longer and swim faster.
And yet, there are caveats. It all depends on an athlete’s level of ability, the length of a workout, and the intensity of the exercise, but there are many benefits to be gained from listening to music.
One of the world’s leading experts, Professor Costas Karageorghis, author of Application of music in exercise and sporttells us exactly what music does when we exercise.
Professor Costas Karageorghis is an expert in sport and exercise psychology. He is a Chartered Sport and Exercise Psychologist (British Psychological Society), Chartered Scientist (Science Council) and Fellow of the British Association of Sport and Exercise Science. His scientific output includes more than 200 scientific articles, 14 chapters in edited texts and the text Inside Sports Psychology (Human Kinetics), which has been translated into Polish, Turkish and Farsi. He has just published a second text, Application of music in exercise and sport (Human Kinetics), as well as an associated study guide.
How does music influence mood during a workout?
Professor Karageorghis and his team at Brunel University London have spent years monitoring the brain’s response to music while people exercise. One of their studies published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise (opens in a new tab)found that listening to music resulted in a 28% increase in enjoyment of physical activity, compared to listening to nothing.
Enjoyment was also 13% higher for participants who listened to music, compared to those who listened to a podcast.
Meanwhile, another study showed that participants who listened to music they deemed “enjoyable” had higher levels of serotonin, as reported in the International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-being. (opens in a new tab). It is the hormone that promotes positive feelings.
It soon becomes clear that by increasing pleasure, music can reduce perceived exertion and make training less strenuous. Additionally, the research in this area is extensive, with over 100 studies showing an average of a 10% reduction in perceived exertion during light to moderate exercise while listening to music.
But which tunes work best? Well, Professor Karageorghis says that listening to “any kind of music” will reduce perceived exertion whether you like the music or not.
“Arbitrarily selected music will reduce perceived exertion by approximately 8% at low to moderate exercise intensities. Beyond the anaerobic threshold, music is generally ineffective, but well-selected music can reduce perceived exertion by 12%,” he adds.
But once someone is exercising at more than 75% of their VO2 max (opens in a new tab) during high-intensity training, music is “relatively ineffective” in influencing perceptions of exertion.
Can music really improve my performance?
As stated in a recent review in the journal Psychological Bulletin (opens in a new tab), research suggests that music helps improve athletic performance. One explanation for this is that music can help distract from soreness and fatigue, allowing people to work out longer.
According to Karageorghis, the benefits of distraction are greatest during low to moderate intensity exercise. When you’re really putting in the effort in a workout, music is unlikely to distract you from fatigue. This may impact how you answer to that fatigue, though – it can actually motivate you to keep going.
In addition to distraction, music affects our sports performance in another way: by synchronizing itself with a rhythm.
“When you apply music in a synchronous mode, where people consciously synchronize their movement pattern with the music, it can have an ergogenic or work-enhancing effect of 10-15%,” Karageorghis explains.
The key to listening to music is therefore to synchronize your movements with the rhythm in order to improve energy efficiency. In Karageorghis studies, this metronome effect reduced oxygen delivery by up to seven percent. But the professor points out that these tests were carried out in sterile laboratory conditions where there is nothing else to distract the participants; actual results may differ.
What tempo should I listen to?
If you’re using music to enhance your performance rather than just to distract you, it’s imperative to select tracks with a tempo that matches your desired speed of movement. But rather than choosing something with a very fast pace, Karageorghis recommends going for something with a pace that is exactly at half at your desired pace.
“If, for example, you want to run at a very high stride rate, say 180 strides per minute, what you could do is select a piece of music that is rhythmically quite loaded, that has a total of 90 beats per minute. .and you would take one stride cycle on each [half] beat,” he says. He offers this advice because listening to music with more than 150 beats per minute can be very difficult to process, making it difficult to maintain synchronicity.
And if you’re looking to put on music for motivation rather than timing, research suggests that 120 to 140 beats per minute is the “sweet spot.”
“So 120 would be [suitable for] a very low intensity exercise activity, such as walking and 140 would be appropriate for a very high intensity mode of exercise, such as running at 80% aerobic capacity,” says Karageorghis.
What about listening to podcasts and other audio files?
Karageorghis says studies have shown that podcasts and audiobooks will always immerse the listener and reduce perceived effort. But it now allows the benefits of synchronization and all lyrical affirmations. It also depends on the intensity of the workout.
“If you think about the processing of information that goes into, for example, following a podcast and the key messages in it, it can really interfere with very high intensity exercise or training. It’s probably best done in silence, or with simple, rhythmic music,” suggests Karageorghis.