In my last blog post we looked at the positive effects of music and singing on our mental wellbeing. Excuse the pun, but this seemed to strike a chord with many of you as I received messages from people who had decided to take up singing, and have seen it as the perfect antidote to January. Let's hope it lasts for the rest of their year too!
This post will look at some more of the positive effects of music, specifically around it's impact on exercise. This is an area very close to my heart, as I love exercise and I love music, so can it benefit my performance? Looking at running, not everyone benefits from sound tracking their sessions, many prefer to tune into their own rhythms, and find music distracting. However, lots of research has linked listening to music with improvements in performance. In 2003, a study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine found cyclists finished a 10k time trial significantly faster when listening to music. And in 2010, research at the University of Southern Queensland found music could increase runners' energy efficiency by up to three percent, and lower perception of effort. A further study done in 2014 published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that runners recorded faster 5k times when they listened to music before and during their runs. However, interestingly, and slightly counter intuitively, those who ran to slow music recorded the fastest times of all. This illustrates the fact that when it comes to your exercise playlist, finding what works for you is more important than any set formula. We'll come back to the whole area of music tempo and style later...
Nowadays of course, many races have imposed headphone bans on safety grounds, and so I personally have adapted from previously being an avid iPod user for training, and I now run (and of course cycle) without one so that I can emulate race conditions. However, as was demonstrated on my recent Andes cycling trip, I found myself with my own internal playlist that helped focus me on those long rides.
So can music benefit us if it is played before we exercise? Well research by Science and Sports suggests that listening to music during just your warm up could indeed boost your performance. In a study, sprinters did 10 minutes' race prep, either with or without musical accompaniment. Their legs then registered a greater mid-race power output after the music session, although perceived exertion stayed the same.
We just have to look at the pre-race rituals of some of the finest world class athletes to see them appearing pool or trackside with their headphones on. But what are they listening to?
Well, apparently Sir Chris Hoy's chosen track is 'Escape Velocity' by the Chemical Brothers, whilst Michael Phelps prefers 'I'm Me' by Lil' Wayne. Our own sporting hero, Jessica Ennis-Hill listens to Massive Attacks 'Unfinished Sympathy' to fuel her medal performances, and the woman who inspires me most, Ironwoman Chrissie Wellington listens to 'Tonight, Tonight' by the Smashing Pumpkins. I have to give a special mention, however, to someone who you might not have on your Olympic radar, but Steven Lopez, a Nicaraguan Taekwondo Olympic medalist is a big fan of one of my favourite motivational songs, 'Titanium'. And so in true style, here is that track for your listening pleasure, accompanied by Shaun White, Olympic snowboarder's choice of 'Paradise City' by Guns 'N' Roses. Another classic...
So we come onto the technical question around what is the best type of music to increase performance? Research above would indicate that it is purely personal, given that slow tempo music can help some people as much as the upbeat. Again of course there has been extensive research done into this. The University of Cumbria are in fact currently undertaking a major survey of what type of music people prefer to listen to when they exercise, which you can find out more about, and participate in here. Studies have shown though, that you should ideally base your playlist around the type of exercise you are doing, as well as the different phases of your training. The first, warm up section should involve bass-heavy tracks, as it is shown to make people feel powerful. This makes it ideal to get you on the right mindset pre-event or competition. For the mid-section of your workout, it is suggested that you should be looking for something around 130bpm - this is particularly useful for running as it will motivate you to keep time with the beat. It is also a good tempo for strength training. It is also suggested that you look for music that is in a major key, known as 'the happy key'. There are some types of music to be avoided too. Don't choose music that changes time signatures halfway through, an example being 'We Can Work it Out' by the Beatles. Also, syncopated music, such as salsa or jazz can make bipedal activities quite challenging as the emphasis is on the off-beat. I can testify to this, as much as I like flamenco music, anything other than a rhumba style is very distracting. A good resource to use to find what tempo your favourite tracks are is Songbpm or get some inspiration and sort by genre etc with RunHundred. I gave this site a go and made up a little playlist for my cycle/turbo training session (don't judge me, I didn't think I'd be a turbo person either!). It included The Killers, 'Human' , The Jesus and Mary Chain, 'Head On' and Pink 'U + Ur Hand'.
Give them a try and see how you get on, I definitely got my heart rate up, and hit a new 'power output PB'!
Also,music with lyrics is apparently a better performance aid than instrumental only tunes, according to research by the Psychology of Sports and Exercise. At the end of the day of course it is down to personal preference, but a poll done by Runner's World produced a top 50 list of workout songs as voted by their readers. Interestingly, there are only a handful of more contemporary songs in this list, including Franz Ferdinand's 'Take Me Out'; 'Stronger' by Kanye West and 'Happy' by Pharrell Williams (am I the only person who gets irritated rather than happy listening to this song?) The rest of the list is dominated by hits from the 70's, 80's and 90's including 'Back in Black' by AC/DC, 'Teenage Kicks' by the Undertones and 'Killer' by Adamski ft. Seal. But what was the number one track I hear you ask? 'Eye of the Tiger' perhaps? No, but it is in the top 20. It's actually 'Don't Stop Me Now' by Queen - just showing that some things never go out of fashion. Here is a little taster of some of the other favourites that made the all time classic cut of tracks....
So it seems that you don't have to be a slave to headphones whilst you exercise to get the benefits of music - try getting yourself into the zone before you train or race by listening to a selected playlist and see if it makes a difference. Runner's World actually publish a monthly blog with a 90 minute playlist each month which you can find here. We have probably all had that 'earworm' moment when the last song we hear before we leave the house is the one in our heads for the rest of the day? For me there was a lesson learned when I did a 118km sportive recently and had 'Gangsta's Paradise' on an internal loop in my head for over five hours as it was on the radio as I left the flat. I mean I like the song, but not THAT much!
So here are a few of my personal favourites to plant in my brain for a positive training session.
Enjoy, and I'll see you for the next blog post, which will be around goal setting.
As we are officially in the throes of ‘Blue Monday’, I thought that it was timely to do a blog post about something uplifting – music. How poignant then that as well as being a ‘National Day’ based around the post-Christmas depressive state of the nation, ‘Blue Monday’ is also of course an iconic song by the mega-band New Order. I digress slightly, but I am reminded of meeting the late Tony Wilson, about 16 years ago and being struck by how down to earth this legend behind Factory Records was. The truth is I didn’t actually know who he was at the time, and he was very humble when I asked him what he did…(oops).
And so now to look at the positive effects of music. Recent research shows that listening to music improves our mental well-being and boosts our physical health in surprising and astonishing ways. There are so many facets to this amazing medium that I am going to be writing a two-part blog - covering the benefits of music and exercise, and the mood enhancing qualities of music and singing. For anyone who followed my blogs from my Andes trip, they will have noticed how large a part music played in the trip. From the singing at night after a days cycling, to the ‘song of the day’ that was planted in my head and kept me going. Music has of course been shown to increase performance in exercise too, and that is an area I will cover in the second part of this blog.
For today though, I am going to look at the mood enhancing benefits of music, and in particular singing. Research proves that when you listen to music you like, your brain releases dopamine, a “feel-good” neurotransmitter. Listening to music you enjoy also decreases levels of the stress hormone cortisol in your body, which counteracts the effects of chronic stress. This is an important finding since stress causes 60% of all illnesses and disease. Further studies show that playing various percussion instruments and singing, boost our immune systems even more than if we passively listen. Adults who learn to play instruments or sing, can see improvements in their hand-eye co-ordination, memory for sounds, and fine hearing skills, such as the ability to track different voices in a noisy room. Anyone who plays music regularly has a quicker and sharper brain response to sound and music. This is a transferable skill that goes beyond musical tone. In some cases it can allow musicians to respond quicker to subtle changes in emotions when they are expressed through any sound. This may mean that some musicians are sharper at detecting emotional upset in their friends or family, although this idea has yet to be proven beyond doubt.
I also come to this from a personal perspective. Just over two years ago I spent a year researching activities for the new part of my events business, nnoodl. As the business idea was that people give themselves over to surprise experiences, I decided I needed to embrace the concept myself. This involved pulling together a series of activities, which I catalogued in a box with a number and colour and then left it in the hands of friends to call the activity I would do that week. From my blog posts, you will see that I undertook things ranging from a seafood foraging/cookery class; paddle boarding, and graffiti spray painting to name a few. But one of the experiences which I most feared was when I pulled out the ‘singing lesson’ card. I think many people found this surprising, as I have played guitar on and off since I was a teenager, so surely that goes hand in hand with singing? Well sadly not classical or flamenco guitar playing. I also have a bit of a dread around public speaking, and try to avoid this when possible. So when I chose my singing teacher, Matt Thompson, I had to act quickly and book a lesson for the next day before I lost my nerve!
I have to say, though, my trepidation was completely unfounded and it is one of the best things I have ever done.
At this stage, as is my want, I felt I should include a musical interlude, and so decided to include the first song I sang at my lessons. No, of course I’m not going to include my version, but the original of ‘More than Words’ by Extreme…
I left that first lesson on a complete high, and have continued to embrace singing, now also being part of Matt Thompson’s choir. This brings me nicely on to the subject of singing in a group and the positivity that singing with a group of people brings. Over to Matt to tell us more about it....
“Many of us already know that singing either individually or as part of a group makes us feel elated and uplifted, but what’s really going on when we sing?
Singing generates vibrations which reverberate through the body transforming both our physical and mental state. When we sing endorphins are released giving us pleasure, joy and a sense of euphoria. As Denise has said, studies suggest it can lessen the feelings of depression and anxiety. The good news is you don’t even have to be a good singer to benefit from these positive effects. Singing also plays a fundamental part in social bonding. Research found that it can unite people more effectively than any other activity.
I run a beginners pop/rock choir and group workshops for beginners to advanced level. I’m always blown away by how much my members/students enjoy these sessions and leave feeling energised and empowered. We start each session with a vocal warm-up then get straight to the fun part, learning songs, generally consisting of two or three part harmonies and perfecting them over several weeks. It’s so rewarding when it all comes together. Singing is a fun way to learn and develop a new skill with other like-minded people. There’s nothing quite like de-stressing after a busy week forgetting everything else that’s going on in our busy lives and concentrating solely on the voice.
For me, it’s a real joy arranging popular songs into 3 part harmonies, and then taking it to the choir to learn. After a little trial and error, members become comfortable with their parts and then the magic happens.
One particular song I really enjoyed working on in one of my vocal workshops was Andra Day’s, Rise Up. This song is about overcoming the moments in life that seem impossible. It was a perfect choice to inspire and motivate my students and the feedback was amazing too.
For those of you who are thinking about joining a choir you shouldn’t think twice. It’s not as scary as you think and it’s so much fun. Experience the benefits of group singing. You’ll wonder why you didn’t try this years ago!”
So if that has left you feeling inspired to embrace some positivity, you can find out more about Matt’s 121 singing lessons, workshops and choir at http://www.singtheeasyway.com, or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/singtheeasyway
And if you’re looking to embrace a surprise challenge in 2018, why not sign up for a nnoodl adventure at www.nnoodl.co.uk Denise’s full blog post about her first singing lesson is here
So let’s leave this ‘Blue Monday’with that uplifting song suggestion from Matt…
Denise Yeats is an events director, communications consultant, endurance athlete and avid adventurer.