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.
Denise Yeats is an events director, communications consultant, endurance athlete and avid adventurer.