Want better workout results? Unleash the power of your music
by Matt Hodges
31 October 2015
Most of us like to listen to music while we work out. Whether it’s a carefully-chosen playlist blasting through your iPod while you run through the local park; or a high-octane dance mix thumping out of the speakers at your gym – the right music can help you to raise your game and get even more out of your performance.
But there’s more to it than just sticking on your favourite track. The right music can have an extraordinary effect on your psychological and physical health, and according to new research, the perfect playlist can be the difference between having an ‘ok’ workout, and exceeding your fitness goals.
Before a workout
According to Dr Costas Karageorghis, the power of music begins before your workout has even started. His research has found that “pre-task music has been shown to act as an effective stimulant that can optimise arousal level and psychological states”, and he has worked with Olympic athletes and world-class football and rugby teams to prove his theory.
During the 2007 Rugby World Cup, the England team chose Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler as their unofficial anthem, as the players identified with the lyrics: “You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away and know when to run.” They listened to the song together before every match, and surprised everyone by making it all the way to the final. Clearly they went with a different song for this year’s edition of the tournament…
Of course, the New Zealand rugby team also makes good use of pre-task music. The famous ‘Haka’ is a tribal dance and chant, which helps to energise the players and solidify their team bond, while also having the handy side effect of psyching out their opponents.
During a workout
While pre-task music is all about getting your head in the game, the music that you listen to during a workout has a much more scientific purpose.
Dr Costas Karageorghis describes workout music as being either “asynchronous” (background music which is set at a slightly faster pace than your own) or “synchronous” (when music is specifically timed to match your own speed and movements). While asynchronous music tends to work best in the gym to complement varied cardio and strength workouts, synchronous music is more frequently used by professional athletes and in endurance sports such as long-distance running.
A synchronous playlist will essentially set the pace for you, so rather than counting your own steps-per-minute or monitoring your heart rate stats, you simply follow the beat of the songs, and lose yourself in the music. As well as helping with pacing issues, synchronous music can also block out fatigue-related symptoms such as burning lungs and sore muscles, reducing your perception of effort significantly.
In a 2009 study, Dr Karageorghis found that “motivational synchronous music used during treadmill walking improved time to voluntary exhaustion by 15%”. That means that a 69-minute run will feel like a 60-minute run, without any change to the pace or track. There’s a reason why some athletes say that music is like a “legal drug with no side effects”.
So what should you listen to?
Pre-workout – channel the psychological power of music by listening to happy, energetic pop music. On your way to the gym, indulge in a few ‘guilty pleasure’ tracks (music that instantly puts you in a good mood), or blast out a few ’80s power ballads, which have a positive message in their lyrics (Chris Eubank was a fan of Tina Turner’s Simply the Best right before a big fight).
Cardio workout – Choose ‘asynchronous’ music which matches your optimum heart rate. Health buffs and followers of the MPH Method should already have a good understanding of their working heart rate, so all you have to do is find a few tracks which are approximately 5% above this, and use them to up your game.
Elite training – If you have an elite fitness goal in mind, you may want to use ‘synchronous’ music to improve your performance. It takes a little more time to get the playlist right, but it’s worth it in the end.
Get a friend to film you while you run, cycle, lift weights, or complete your resistance training. Calculate your work rate per minute, and try to find songs which match it as exactly as possible, so you have a steady background beat to focus your workout.
You may find that your rhythms and work rate vary slightly during different stages of your workout, so you could end up with several different playlists. Time to charge up the iPod…