Music players are banned from some distance running competitions by USA Track & Field, the official governing body of the sport.
In order to “to ensure safety and to prevent runners from having a competitive edge.”
Music has such a profound effect on performance that some researchers call it "a type of legal performance-enhancing drug."
Now, we all sort of just know that music helps you get a better workout.
Hell, sometimes we all NEED music just to get our asses to the gym.
But I want to talk about the “why.”
What is music’s mechanism of action on the human body that it can have such a dramatic impact on your performance?
I also want to discuss whether or not it’s possible for certain types of music or specific songs to further increase performance benefits.
I’ll also show you a crazy study at the end where music actually decreased energy expenditure in athletes by 7%.
What We All Know About Music and Exercise
Let’s start with what we know from our own experiences.
When you workout with music blasting in your headphones, you can get into that “flow state” much faster and maintain it for much longer.
This increases endurances and allows you to push yourself further and harder.
Music also improves your mood so you feel more determined and excited about what you’re doing.
It also reduces your “perceived effort”, lowering the amount of work you THINK it actually takes to perform your workout.
And all of this is backed up by research. We’ve seen proof that people run and bike greater distances and swim faster with music than without.
Great. But HOW does it work?
Music Distracts Us From Pain
One explanation is distraction.
Our bodies are constantly monitoring themselves. When you feel the lactic acid building up in your muscles, sweat pouring down, a pounding heart, and pain in your muscles, your brain starts screaming at you to stop.
Music distracts us from that internal monologue. Sure, you can train yourself to ignore the voice and push through.
But research shows that listening to music makes this process a whole lot easier.
In one clinical study, people that listened to music experienced increased endurance as opposed to people that did not.
This allowed them to continue through waves of exhaustion better and easier than people who did not listen to music.
The music is likely distracting you from that urge to stop what you’re doing, fighting for your attention.
But what’s interesting is that music has a limit on how much distraction it provides.
In the studies, music can distract you during low- to medium-intensity workouts. But during high-intensity workouts, music loses its power and does not overcome the urge to rest.
Music Increases Emotional Response and Suspension of Disbelief
Another way that music increases endurance, power, and reduces perceived fatigue is by generating a wash of emotions.
When we listen to music it makes us feel things, remember certain memories, and it also draws us into the “world” of the singer through the lyrics.
This “forgetting” that we’re running on a treadmill or lifting is called “suspension of disbelief.” If you’ve ever gotten “sucked into” a movie, you know what this is like.
All of these effects can inspire us to work harder, dig deeper, and keep going.
We identify with the singer or we remember certain things that encourage us to keep going.
We’ll talk about more lyrics in a moment because they are a big part of how music can push us to keep working hard.
The Mechanism: How Does Music Affect Movement?
It turns out that music is actually wired into some of the human brain’s oldest machinery.
Recognizing, enjoying, and reacting to music is not located in our “newer” brain parts, like the cortex.
Instead, music is intertwined with the parts of our brain responsible for movement itself.
In fact, when listening to music while sitting perfectly still, scientists noticed that people’s brains started to light up in areas that control movement.
This could be one reason why people instinctively know to tap their feet or move to the rhythm of music.
This is the same brain “circuitry” that causes you to physically jump when you hear a loud noise. So this is something that is very, very deep in our brain and evolved a very long time ago.
The Best Music to Workout To
Okay, so we know HOW music interacts with our brain and movement.
We learned that listening to music distracts us from pain. We also know that music generates emotions that keep us going during workouts.
But is there a “best” type of music that you can listen to to get the most out of your workout?
It turns out, there is.
But it’s not what you think. This isn’t about which genre is best like hip-hop or rock.
Instead, it has more to do with two things: the tempo and the lyrics.
How Tempo and Lyrics Impact Performance
For tempo, research has shown that human movement like walking naturally settles into 120 beats-per-minute. This works out to two beats per second.
This tempo appears to produce the type of increase in endurance and effort that we’ve been talking about.
However, there is an upper limit. At 145 beats per minute, the benefits of the motivation and endurance stop increasing.
Now, this whole idea of tempo is somewhat relative if the lyrics are inspirational and flow with the tempo.
In some cases, people will exercise with lower-tempo rap or hip-hop where the lyrics flow with the music and experience an increase in endurance.
Use Less Oxygen by Synchronizing Your Music and Workout
One final, crucial note about working out with music.
In this 2012 study, researchers found that cyclists who cycled in sync with music required 7% less oxygen than cyclists who did the same amount of work.
Researchers speculated that syncing up with the music might reduce wasted energy from missteps.
Music and movement have such a crazy and intertwined relationship in the human brain.
I’m using the information I’ve learned from this to optimize my gym playlist and see if I can use music to get more results from all my work.
Let me know what you think!
Like like a lion.
- Mike Rashid King