June 23, 2024


Aanyone who has ever lifted a dumbbell or put on a pair of running shoes understands that music, on some level, makes the process more enjoyable. That’s why tunes and training are a hit combination: there are playlists, classes and even whole young genres that promise to help you push for the fire.

Broadly speaking, there are two ways music can help your mid-workout. Firstly, by helping you distance yourself from any discomfort you experience and secondly by improving the quality of the training itself. The former seems to work especially well for long, slow efforts.

“Let’s say you go for a run,” says Dr. Matthew Storka research scientist who studies the effects of music on training, “and there’s a lot of what we call ‘interoceptive‘ cues what’s happening – your muscles are sore, your heart rate is rising, you’re sweating, and so on. Music shifts your focus of attention away from those things, reducing your perceived effort.”

But you might not even need anything tuneful on your headphones for these effects to kick in. “The introduction of other common audio formats has really shaken up our understanding of how we think about music and exercise,” says Dr Christopher Ballman, associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Alabama. “There are now individuals who will perform better by listening to podcasts or even audiobooks – it helps people distance themselves from discomfort.”

As you increase the intensity, the unpleasantness becomes harder to ignore – but here music may help you push through. “What we found in supermaximal tests – where volunteers basically push themselves as hard as they can – is that power output increases with music,” says Stork. “In those endeavors, it appears to be more beneficial as a motivational tool. Consider a piece like Darude’s Sandstorm – we’ve seen that just the anticipation of the beat drop can affect how ready you are for exercise.”

As for how music actually can improve your workout, improvements in technology have made it easier to quantify. “We now know that music affects not only our heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate, but also electrical activity in the brain,” says A good analogy could be that if you are running and every time you come to an intersection, you ‘ encountering a green light, it will be the same as practicing in sync with music – if you listen to music out of time, or have no music at all, it is like constantly stopping at red lights. You’re shaking along, out of step.”

For cardio style workouts, an optimal workout pace is 120-140BPM (beats per minute) for most people, where it probably matches the heart rate they are experiencing. at the same time, at least one study suggest that we spontaneously change our cadence to match the tempo of the music we listen to, suggesting that different tempo tunes may help runners or rowers change their pace.

Rhythm is also important. “A predictable, not too complex musical rhythm seems to work best,” says Karageorghis. “Classical music and rock, for example, are often characterized by rallentandos and accelerandos – basically, slow down and speed up – which isn’t very good when you’re trying to sync your performance to the beat.”

Rhythmic workouts, rock and classical music also share what researchers call “iconic cues.” “It’s basically a way of conjuring images through the nature of the music,” says Karageorghis. “So if you take something like That of Beethoven Eroica Symphonywhich might evoke images of transcendence and overcoming adversity – while a piece like Eye of the tiger has a guitar riff that comes at you like a boxer’s jab and encourages you to match that intensity.”

You’d also expect Survivor’s masterful wordplay to play a role – but the role of lyrics is one of the least understood elements of music’s effects. “In a study we recently completed, but not yet published, we asked volunteers to choose their favorite music for a weight-lifting effort, and then asked them to listen to either a plain or an instrumental version,” said Ballman. “We didn’t really see any differences in actual performance, but people enjoyed the session more and were more motivated when they listened to the lyrical version.”

“During our formative years, we tend to form rather secure bonds with certain music and lyrics that we personally find meaningful,” says Karageorghis. “And so a specific song can be very individual, but there can also be pieces of music that through peer group influence or sheer cultural impact can have a powerful influence on our psychology. It’s really about matching the person to the situation, the intensity and the way of exercise.”

All of which brings us to the crucial point that playlists, personal trainers, and spin instructors often miss: workout music works much better if you actually like it. “To get the most out of your training, you have to actually like what you’re listening to,” says Ballman. “We’ve now published about 15 papers showing that if you don’t like the music being played, you perform worse – in some cases worse than you would without any music.”

In fact, perhaps the most important thing music can do is to make the whole experience of more enjoyable training – independent of any personal bests you set or sore legs you experience. This is crucial because enjoying workouts can be the best way to make them a permanent part of your life.

“Until fairly recently, scientists tried to apply a form of science known as cognitivism to getting people to engage in physical activity—and asking them to think about the benefits,” explains Karageorghis. “But there is a scientific movement towards promoting hedonism as a more modern approach to getting people to engage in regular physical activity – the essence of which is to fundamentally make sure they enjoy what they’re doing and music can play a big part in that.”

With this in mind, perhaps the best thing any trainer can do is to live up to their clients: not just blow them up, but keep them coming back. It’s an approach that’s paying off for a new breed of music-centric fitness classes that adapt their tunes to the work rate required. “You have to know when to go slow and when to go high,” says Sophie Ritchie, creator of ballet-inspired workout Disco Barre. “We play a mix of underground disco, house, boogie, funk, pop, Balearic, Italo and acid – if you can do it right, people forget how hard they work.”

Other trainers take recommendations directly from their trainees. “My clients are all of a certain age and my playlists tend to be based around music from when they were younger,” says Feel Good Fitness trainer Susannah Simmons. “It helps motivate them and also gets the conversation going – whereas newer music tends to have the opposite effect. It’s important to remember it’s about them, not you.”

So you just need to find a class that you can listen to Metallica’s one and you are sorted? Maybe not: some research suggests that over-familiarity can dampen the buzz any song gives you. “I look at familiarity with music as a sort of inverted-U principle,” says Stork. “You’re probably not going to get into an optimal state of working out by hearing a piece of music once or twice, but once you’ve heard something on the radio a thousand times, it’s not going to elicit the same emotional response. more. So there might be some kind of sweet spot.”

There’s one final wrinkle here, which is the question of whether it’s sometimes better to turn off the music – or leave the headphones at home altogether. “If your goal is to keep an easy pace or complete a recovery run, music can get in the way,” says Brady Holmera researcher at investigate.com and sub-three-hour marathon runner. “Headphones can remove the feedback from your steps and your breathing rate, so you may not perceive effort correctly. Listening to songs that motivate you or with a tempo that is too fast can also push you to run faster than you should you want. I save my music playlists for hard or fast workouts and listen to podcasts or audiobooks—if anything—for my easy runs.”

So for most workouts, keep things pretty simple: choose music you like, keep the rhythms simple and the tempo moderately high. Save a few favorite songs for more strenuous efforts – in theory, you’ll come to associate them with the fun and endorphin rush of a good workout. Above all, remember that perhaps the most powerful thing music can do is not make you do a little better in one individual workout, but keep you coming back again and again.



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