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You’re midway through a hard interval run when your favorite song comes on. All of a sudden, you feel strong and powerful, and somehow the effort seems a bit easier. Whether it’s the lyrics, the beat, or just the way it makes you feel, there’s something about the music that gives you an extra boost of energy.
Numerous studies have shown that listening to music during a workout can boost mood, provide motivation, lower rate of perceived exertion (RPE), help with pacing, improve heart rate recovery time, and, most interestingly, improve physical performance.
A new study in the Journal of Human Kinetics showed that listening to music during a running time trial led to a 10% increase in total distance covered, as well as a 14% increase in speed. There was also evidence of 8% lower blood lactate concentration in those who listened to music while running. Why? Researchers suggested it might be due to the relaxing effect of music, which could decrease muscle tension, increase blood flow, and improve lactate clearance.
The most intriguing part of the study: runners who listened to music only during their warm-up also saw an 8% improvement in distance covered and an increase in speed of 8%.
The effect of music
Listening to a melodic tune triggers the release of “feel good” chemicals in the brain. Neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine can boost mood, dull pain, and even fight fatigue. Studies have also shown the beneficial effect of music on the cardiovascular system and respiratory function.
Music can also alter our emotional and physiological states by acting as a stimulant or sedative. That’s why many athletes use a favorite playlist to pump themselves up, or calm nerves, prior to competition. Listening to music during a workout can lower RPE by diverting attention away from sensations of fatigue, which can then improve physical performance.
Investigations into the benefits of music on sport performance date back to 1911, when a researcher observed that competitors in a cycling race traveled 8.5% faster when a military band was playing. A more modern study found that cyclists rode 1-1.25 km/h faster during a 10km time trial while listening to music. A study of elite triathletes discovered that time to exhaustion was delayed by 18.1% when running to motivational music. They also found the athletes’ blood lactate concentration was lower, oxygen consumption was lower, and they had better running economy.
Keep time to the beat
While powerful lyrics can provide a psychological boost, it’s the tempo of a song that’s most important to the body. Tempo is measured in beats per minute (BPM) and describes how fast or slow a song is played. Much like swimmers use a metronome to improve the timing of their stroke, running or cycling to a specific tempo can improve foot strike and cadence. One study showed that athletes running to music with a tempo 10% higher than their preferred cadence led to significant changes in stride frequency over a 6-week period.
Why does this happen? The neurons in your brain synchronize with the tempo of music. You might have experienced this effect when running or cycling, as your foot strike or pedal stroke naturally changes to mimic the beat of a song. Research indicates this effect of music on the neuromuscular system could contribute to “improved physical performance, particularly in long-duration activities that are rhythmical and repetitive in nature (e.g., running, cycling, and swimming.)”
Listening to fast-tempo music provides a stronger performance benefit than slow- to medium-tempo music. However, the benefit seems to be greater with low-to-moderate intensity exercise and tapers off as you reach high intensity. The reason for this could be due to the high load that more intense exercise places on the body, which might interfere with the processing of music in the brain.
One study showed the preferred musical tempo for cycling was 125-140 BPM, while the best tempo for running was 123-131 BPM. Keep in mind that these ranges will be a little different for everyone and might change depending on workout intensity and stride length. The research also showed that tempo-selected music could improve efficiency by 7%, lower RPE by 12%, and improve endurance by 15%. The lead researcher, Dr. Costas Karageorghis, even served as a consultant for Run to the Beat, a now-defunct half marathon in London where scientifically-selected music was played along the route.
Music as a recovery tool
Until now, most post-exercise recovery strategies have focused on treating the muscular system with massage, stretching, or ice baths. However, little thought is given to the role of the central nervous system in the recovery process. Given the ability of music to exert either a calming or stimulating influence on the body, additional research needs to be done to examine the effects of relaxing music on the speed and quality of recovery.
So far, several studies have shown a significant decrease in blood lactate concentration when athletes listened to music during a run. In one study, blood lactate was reduced by as much as 9%. Another study showed that runners who listened to calming music (95-110 BPM) following a 5K time trial, saw an increase in vagal tone, an internal system that helps heart rate return to normal more quickly.
Tips for training with music
While music is an excellent training tool, it can also be a distraction. When training outdoors, you should always be aware of your environment. If you’re cycling indoors on the trainer, crank up the tunes, but when riding outside, leave your ear buds at home. When running, never use noise-cancelling headphones that might drown out traffic noise. Leave one ear bud out so you can hear ambient noise, such as people trying to pass you on a trail or multi-use path.
There are plenty of cool gadgets that can help you listen to music while training. Headphones that use bone conduction technology to transfer music through the structures of your inner ear, while keeping the outer ear open to the environment. A premium option is the Shokz OpenRun Pro, while the Padmate S30 is a good budget choice. You can also look at audio sunglasses, like the Bose Frames Tempo. For swim workouts, a waterproof system is ideal, like AfterShokz Xtrainerz or Zygo Solo.
RELATED: Reviewed: Zygo Solo Swim Headphones
Creating the perfect playlist
Streaming services like iTunes and Spotify allow you to search for playlists based on songs with a specific BPM. Also, websites like GetSongBPM or Jog.fm can help you find the BPM of your favorite songs.
We’ve curated two playlists with the perfect cadence range to help you nail your next workout.
Cycling Playlist (125-140 BPM)
Eye of the Tiger/Survivor- 109
Another One Bites The Dust/Queen- 110
Sweet Child O’ Mine/Guns N’ Roses- 125
Confident/Demi Lovato- 130
Beat It/Michael Jackson- 138
Feel Good Inc./Gorillaz- 139
Can’t Hold Us/Macklemore- 146
You Can’t Stop Me/Andy Mineo- 146
Mr. Brightside/The Killers- 148
We’re Not Gonna Take It/Twisted Sister- 149
Running Playlist (123-131 BPM)
Livin’ On A Prayer/Bon Jovi- 123
Seven Nation Army/The White Stripes- 123
Welcome to the Jungle/Guns N’ Roses- 123
You’re Gonna Go Far, Kid/The Offspring- 126
Waiting For Love/Avicii- 128
Level Up/Ciara- 153
Whip It/DEVO- 158
Ocean Avenue/Yellowcard- 174