In March this year, I participated in the most-excellent Science Media Space. One of the activities was to write a blog post about an interesting science topic. Yes, it has taken a while, but here's my take on the use of music in sport.
|Couldn’t have made it through Run Geelong|
without my favourite playlist!
My birthday has passed for another year, signalling not only that I’ve made it through another year in the lab, but also the shift to cooler weather. Yes, summer is over (BOO!), and I actually wore my scarf for the first time this morning. But with autumn comes my return to a regime that 30C days sees fall by the wayside…
Roller Derby Fitness!
Yes, back to suicide runs, ridiculous looking squats, and the universally hated Spiderman Climbs. As a ref, we skate the full hour game, having to keep up with the fastest jammer, break hard with every tumble, and dodge each other nigh constantly. Sadly, our 2x3hr training sessions a week just don’t cut the mustard for that level of endurance. But before your quadriceps begin aching in sympathy, this increase in physical activity has one serious upside…
New Workout Playlist!
I’ve currently got a few new playlists that I’m trialling, spending a few minutes after each session pruning the slow tracks (The Vines “Ms Jackson” sadly cut), and finding the exact spot to place that motivating power song (Hello, Flogging Molly’s “Seven Deadly Sins”!). But questionable musical taste aside, I was excited to learn there’s an increasing body of science studying how music can affect our exercise performance.
Lets Get Physical
There are plenty of different factors that may influence the effect that music has on us during exercise. These can be loosely divided into the internal (rhythm response, and your own innate ‘musicality’), and the external (Cultural influences, and associations to particular music). We’re going to focus more on the former here today, but as you can see in Figure 1, there is a complex interplay between all these factors that impact on how we react to music during physical exertion.
|Music can affect us in many different ways, with many potential benefits (RPE= Rating of Perceived Exertion; Karageorghis & Priest 2011 Creative Commons)|
Little is actually known about the mechanisms of how this occurs, because the equipment you would normally use to measure neurophysiological responses is notoriously immobile. Imagine trying to MRI someone in the middle of a footy field! That said, scientists are developing a good picture of the end result of listening to music while you work out.
Music exerts what is known as an ergogenic effect on our bodies, that is it improves physical exercise performance by delaying the onset of fatigue or increasing our capacity for work, which manifest as “higher-than-expected levels of endurance, power, productivity or strength”. It also has a psychological effect, influencing mood, emotion, thought processes and behaviour, and psychophysiological effects, such as the perception of effort and fatigue.
The nervous system is complex, but sensory stimuli, like music, can actually block the feedback signals created in response to exercise. Literally a sensory overload, you’re distracting the body from responding to fatigue. This varies at different exercise levels, i.e. the harder your body is working, the stronger the physical feedback signals, so the inhibiting effect of music gets drowned out. Even so, your choice of music may actually make you feel better about being fatigued, so don’t write it off if you’re pushing your boundaries!
Totally Addicted to Bass
We all do it. You’re favourite song comes on, and you start using your fingers, feet, and the nearest surface to start tapping out the percussion. Humans are hard-wired to synchronise our movements to music. Its been suggested that we have a pattern generator, much like a pacemaker in our brain, that coordinates afferent (incoming/sensory) & efferent (outgoing/motor) nerve signals, resulting in the syncing we see when our stride starts matching the beat.
The part of our brain that processes pre-movement signals shows increased activity with a ‘preferred’ tempo, making it easier to key-in to a beat that appeals to us. Our body relaxes more into exercise when it can follow a repetitive rhythm, like that throbbing baseline, increasing efficiency by taking away the need for minute kinetic adjustment, letting you maintain that steady state longer than in the absence of music.
It’s not just that bass drum either: When scientists just played the extracted drumbeat to participants, while still better than no music, endurance decreased. This pushes the case that it is a collective impact, the beat, lyrics and harmonies, that make the difference.
Pump Up the Jam
Changing the tempo of your music can lead to a change in your work rate. There have been a couple of studies that have shown that when we switch to a higher tempo, the faster pace seems more stimulating, and we up our output. Its great for when your enthusiasm starts to plateau, especially when you’re hitting the later stages of your workout. Long live the power song!
Faster music is generally preferred at higher exercise intensities, i.e. when your heart is really pumping. However, this relationship is not linear, and actually tapers off at higher levels of exertion. So while that 180 bpm espoused as the golden rule by running music webpages everywhere may be perfect for elite athletes, your mileage may vary depending on your fitness level, how hard you’re pushing, and what your goals are.
Louder fast paced music can also be beneficial, leading to high output, though changing volumes at slow tempos does little. Just keep in mind that loud music can damage your ears, or drown out things like traffic. Your danger response reflex will be dampened, so you may not notice a hazard until its too late.
Push It Real Good
Self-paced exercise, like what we do when we go for a run, ride or skate, is where the effect of music really shines. It has been demonstrated that motivational music (generally 140+ bpm) can enhance exertion without increasing perceived exertion. This means that they are increasing their speed, power, distance, what-have-you, without actually realising they are working harder!
So how do we put this all together? Get an idea of where you are now, and where you want to be. Then, put together a play list of tracks that you love, aiming for a BPM range that matches your style, varying the tempo for your chosen workout, For example, my intervals playlist starts with a 140 warm-up, a 130 stretch song, then jumps around between 140-170, with a 180 ‘sprint’ song thrown in every now and then to pump up the motivation. Last season, I had a great ‘pyramid’ list, which started at 130, and got incrementally faster with each song, peaking with 3 minutes of 180 bpm before incrementally decreasing again. Then, like every good scientist, test, refine, repeat!
So load up your mp3 player, lace-up your boots, and get that heart rate pumping. Step aside dodgy AFL ‘peptides’: Music is the drug, a 100% legal performance-enhancing drug.