Athletics and Music

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Summer is here, and we’re all looking to get in shape before we head out for vacation. As we get ready to hit the gym, the first thing we grab is, more often than not, our iPod or iPhone to listen to that playlist we spent way too much time putting together. But have we ever thought about why we feel like we have to listen to music while we work out? Do we listen to music just to drown out the pain and agony of working out, or can science tell us more about the relationship between music and working out?

Our burning desire to need music while we exercise might begin with something innate in us. Research has suggested that humans have long had an inner connection to music and its rhythmical elements.

A growing field of research in sports & exercise science suggests that music can act like a performance-enhancing drug to non-elite athletes. This effect is called an ergogenic effect. What researchers theorize that music can help non-elite athletes distract themselves from fatigue, synchronize their movement to the rhythm of the music, and can act as a trigger for learning certain motions, which helps with muscle memory.

A study conducted by Costas Karageorghis, Ph.D. from Brunel University London seems to support this theory. In Karageorghis’ study, he studied the effects of music on non-elite athletes’ performance.  Karageorghis’ results found that music can have some effect on peoples’ athletic performance.

In his testing, Karageorghis found that up-tempo (>120 beats per minute) synchronous music can help improve athletic performance. In his study, runners who listened to up-tempo music ran a 400-meter sprint faster than their non-up-tempo music counterparts, which seem to suggest that music did improve an athlete's performance in this instance.

But does this actually mean music can help us with athletic performance? Frankly, no one is really sure. But, there is a growing body of evidence that supports that non-elite athletes use music to help match pacing on runs, calm nerves before a performance, and assist in us remembering certain movements. And this makes a lot of sense. Many of us have a playlist we listen to while working out and subconsciously match pace and intensity to that playlist. When we don’t have that playlist, it’s really easy for us to recall those songs to match the intensity and pace to our workout.

It even makes anthropological and historical sense on some levels. Almost every culture has created their unique sound through music. Up through the 19th Century many western military forces recruited young boys to play drums during wars, to not only send signals, but I’m willing to bet, create a certain pace to war and battle (more historical research to back my slightly unfounded claim).

While further research is needed to definitively support the effects of music on our athletic performance, there seems to be strong research to suggest you perform better at rhythmic activities while listening to high-tempo music. I know when I workout I used music to help set my running pace or lift more. But what do you guys think? Does music help you with working out? Do you think there’s a legitimate connection or is it all made up in our head?