Music on the move

Credit:  Gavin Whitner

Can music aid performance, asks Jack Hart?

Music and exercise have long moved together, hand-in-hand; just imagine a silent spin class or running along a beach without the soundtrack to Chariots of Fire playing in your head. Even race organisers have been quick to get in on the act, realising there’s nothing like an upbeat tune to get you going. The Virgin Money London Marathon in April was a cacophony of noise, from steel drum bands to charity stations blaring out Dua Lipa. Music builds an incredible and energetic atmosphere at big events, inspiring runners to push themselves and – mostly – keep smiling. Even a Lakeland Trail race, where runners are there to battle nature and its hills, will feature a group of drummers on the start line intent on getting you in the mood for the task ahead.

Of course the overriding question in all of this is: does music make a blind bit of difference to your performance? The simple answer is yes, even to the extent that back in 2007 US athletics governing body tried to ban marathon runners from listening to music while racing, arguing that the feel-good factor it provides would create an unfair advantage for the elite. As you can imagine, that didn’t go down too well with the masses and generally people just ignored that ruling.

Method behind the music

The scientific consensus is clear, too. A 2012 review by Brunel University, London, into 62 studies that examined the relationship between exercise and music confirmed listening to tunes while running has ergogenic and psychological effects. It found that not only does music delay fatigue, but it also lessens your perception of tiredness, too. It improves your mood, increases arousal, facilitates relevant imagery and, when running at low- to moderate-level intensity, can improve endurance. 

Brunel University’s Dr Costas Karageorghis developed a theory which looks at the ‘motivational quotient’ of a song, based on intrinsic factors, such as rhythm and the meaning of the lyrics for the listener, and external factors, such as the age of the runner and their personal relationship with the song. 

“A general rule of thumb is that songs with a 4:4 rhythm, a fast tempo and inspiring lyrics will be the most motivational for running,” says John Brewer, professor of sports science at St Mary’s University, London. “Songs such as One Nil to the Arsenal did not do so well! This, however, does vary from one person to another, with evidence to suggest that as we age, songs from our youth are more motivating. It’s also important to use music in the right way, for example to have a calming effect at the start of a long run, rather than a motivating effect which causes a runner to set off too quickly,” he says.

It seems to be at these lower intensities that music has its greatest effect on performance, which makes sense. If you’re setting off down a 20-mile trail, you need to settle into a rhythm that will keep you going for the next few hours; if you’re tackling some hill sprints, music will have little effect on your speed. A 2013 study published in Biology of Sport concluded that listening to beats has no effect on anaerobic performance (ie racing), and certainly can’t change the body’s physiological response to extreme exercise. It doesn’t matter how motivational the lyrics are if you can’t hear them for blood pumping in your ears! Put simply, a good tune can’t turn you from a 40min 10km runner to a 38min superstar.

The secret lies in the body’s emotional response to music. In 2015, researchers writing in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise reported that listening to music can enhance your enjoyment of training, which can alter your perceived level of fatigue. By doing so, it allows you to push your body beyond what your brain would normally consider its physiological limitations, and as such improves performance to new, previously unachievable heights. 

Next time a big athletics event is on TV take a look at the way athletes warm up. Almost all listen to music as part of their routine. Britain’s Georgina Adam, one of the best young 200m runners around, says: “Before each competition, I try to keep to the same routine, including listening to the playlists I have created, which in turn motivates me during my warm-up sessions.” Likewise, England Commonwealth Games team member Molly Kingsbury says she, “listens to a certain playlist before I compete to get in the ‘zone’ for the event”.

Deaf to distractions

It seems clear, then, that listening to music while running can have a powerful affect on performance, particularly when that run is performed at a slow to medium pace. This is perhaps even more prevalent in a gym – running on a treadmill is tedious at the best of times, so pounding away on one without the distraction of music can be downright torturous. But when you’re running outside, and particularly on trails, is wearing headphones a good idea?

In 2012, a US study found that the number of people injured or killed while wearing headphones had tripled in the past six years, with over half of them being struck by trains. Granted these were not all runners, but by deafening yourself to the outside world, you increase the risk of injury, particularly when dealing with narrow country roads and train tracks.

With this in mind, England Athletics has partnered with AfterShokz, which makes bone-conducting headphones, the only earphones fully approved for use in all road races under the UK Athletics rules of competition. “We recognise that many of our participants across track and field enjoy listening to music while warming up or competing, so partnering with the number one bone-conducting headphone brand means that we can better ensure their safety,” says Chris Jones, CEO of England Athletics. 

“The UK Athletics’ rules of competition are clear that ‘in-ear’ headphones cannot be used in events where roads are open to traffic. Using bone-conduction technology AfterShokz is able to deliver stereophonic sound through your cheekbones to your inner ear. By potentially preventing accidents caused by traditional headphones and earbuds, runners can enjoy their music and still hear everything around them.”

Of course, many trail runners eschew music and headphones for an entirely different reason. When you lace up your shoes to explore the countryside do you really need – or want – music blaring into your ears? The natural soundtrack of the trail is as much a draw for runners as its sights, and it’s one with which no Spotify playlist can compare. As US sports sociologist Professor Jim Denison once said: “Breathing and footstrike are essential cues. They give you feedback on your effort. Running while listening to music also removes you from the environment you’re in.”

Time for an encore

Music’s relationship with exercise is undeniable: it aids it, and can motivate runners to greater performances. It’s why Spotify create playlists targeted to specific bpm ranges, and why Chris Helsen, Content Programming Manager for Amazon Music UK, recently said: “Rhythmic, energetic music will improve your coordination and help you to keep pace, also motivating you and boosting your energy.” If you’re training for a race or running in the gym and need some extra power, then crank up the volume. But if you’re heading out onto the trails for a leisurely jaunt, we’d leave the headphones at home.