Can music really improve performance?

Effects of music on exercise

Words by Tara Margulies

Does music make or break a workout? I’m sure most of us would answer ‘make’ rather than ‘break’. Remember the outrage when headphones were banned from marathons in 2007 by USA Track and Field? (The rule was practically ignored until it was then revised in 2009.)

The effects of music on exercise performance are yet to be fully understood, mainly as the subject crosses over multiple scientific disciplines such as neurology, biomechanics and physiology. Nonetheless it has been scientifically proven in some cases that listening to music that we enjoy raises our heart rate, distracts the mind and causes us instinctively to walk a bit faster.

In fact it is music’s unique ability to stimulate the muscles and heart rate whilst distracting the mind that makes it so effective on everyday exercise. As a group fitness instructor I'm as passionate about music as I am about fitness, so for me this makes sense. I design my spin classes around the music I choose to play that week and the feedback I always receive is that music has a huge impact on the performance of my participants (a topic I’ve recently covered on my own blog).

Spinning London

A study was conducted in 2009 where 12 students rode a stationary bike for 30 minutes while listening to music of their choice. They were then asked to ride the same bike again and the beat of the music was varied by 10% both higher and lower, without their knowledge. Unsurprisingly, the athletes covered more distance and showed a bigger increase in heart rate when the music tempo was increased, while the opposite was true when the tempo of the music was decreased. [1]

In either a group fitness environment or a solo training session you’d have to be in the minority to say that this doesn’t add up. However, there’s also a case to be made for intense coaching sessions, workouts or competitions, where music may not have the same positive effects. If you have a training partner or coach that is there to push and motivate you, or to help you learn, you want to give them your full attention. That should be all that is necessary to give that training session your maximum. Science has also shown that the impact of music on exercise performance decreases drastically when we exercise at an intense level. Research conducted in 2004 on a group of runners showed that when they were running at 90% of their maximal oxygen uptake, music failed to influence heart rate and exertion levels. [2]

Whilst I’m sure that most of these findings are in line with our personal experiences, training to a soundtrack remains about personal preference. There will be athletes that prefer to train in silence, and if that works then great. My advice is to try both in several different situations and see what works for you.

In the meantime, get inspired with my latest workout playlist from Spotify.