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Just Add Headphones: The Effects of Music on Athletic Performance

By: Caroline Daniel

With so many music streaming platforms readily available in this day and age, everyone you know probably has some sort of “pump up playlist” that he/she uses to power through her workouts. In fact, if you’re reading this, you probably have a workout playlist of your own. I would hypothesize that you use this playlist before and during your hardest workouts because it gives you that extra boost of energy you need. Perhaps the beats of your favorite songs line up perfectly with your running or cycling cadence. Or perhaps that playlist helps you focus just a little less on the pain your body is feeling. 

Whatever the reason, I’m sure you created your workout playlist because it, for some reason, just makes you feel “better” during the hardest parts of your workout. But is this just an illusion?

Recent research would overwhelmingly say no. In fact, lots of evidence is slowly quantifying the performance-enhancing capabilities of music. All in all, each scientific study seems to point to the same conclusion–music does have beneficial effects on athletic performance. But what exactly are those effects?

Music stimulates the brain. 

When a person is listening to music, his brain according to PBS, “lights up like a Christmas tree.” In other words, music stimulates parts of the brain that are not easily reached or stimulated. These include the motor cortex, the visual processing lobe, the lobe that regulates tone and structure, and the lobe that regulates emotion. Each of these brain regions is very important in regards to athletic performance. For example, the temporal lobe, which regulates the release of cortisol, is stimulated by music, which reduces the release of cortisol and thereby reduces feelings of stress associated with exercise. Additionally, music’s stimulation of the motor cortex improves the body’s precision and efficiency of multiple athletic endeavors, from weightlifting form to running economy. 

Music serves as a distraction.

Anyone would tell you that they have experienced emotional reactions to music. Because of its high level of brain stimulation, listening to music can elicit emotions that are more intense than most activities. During exercise, these emotional reactions can serve as a distraction from the fatigue our bodies are experiencing. 

When exercising at a high level of intensity, our brains have a limited processing capacity because our energy is being re-routed to other parts of the body–specifically, the muscles. For this reason, much of our mental capacity goes straight to noticing pain and fatigue. When we listen to music, however, this limited processing ability is dedicated to listening to the music–we instantly become less aware of the pain we are in and thus can sustain higher intensities for longer.

A study I recently read analyzed seasoned runners running to the point of exhaustion with and without music. Those listening to music lasted 2.5 minutes longer at maximum intensity than those surrounded by silence. That 2.5 minutes could undoubtedly make or break a race for competitive athletes, proving that music can be a very valuable performance tool.

Music fulfills our need for rhythm.

When we begin to tire at the end of a workout, one of the first things to go is our form–whether it’s running form, squat form, or cycling form. Studies have shown that listening to “synchronous music,” or music with a BPM that matches or nearly matches our cadence, can improve the efficiency of our motion. In the example of running, this means improving our running economy. Improving this mechanism means that our bodies are able to run at the same intensity but use less energy, meaning we can perform at that high intensity for longer. 

Press PLAY.

If all of that scientific evidence is not enough, consider this: in 2007, USA Track and Field banned headphones from officially sponsored marathon races because it did not want certain athletes to have an unfair “competitive edge.” If music can impact our perceived exertion and efficiency that significantly, then clearly it can be used as a training tool. 

But what should you listen to to most maximize your performance? That’s up to you. Look for songs that evoke the most intense emotional responses in you. That could be uptempo metal. That could be synth-heavy R&B. Whatever makes you feel strong. 

And in case you’re still lost, here are a few suggestions for you (because I love nothing more than making new playlists almost daily for my workouts). 

  • “Give Yourself a Try” by The 1975
  • “oh no!!!” by grandson
  • “half alive” by blackbear 
  • “Heat Waves” by Glass Animals
  • “British Bombs” by Declan McKenna
  • “WHAT’S GOOD” by Tyler, The Creator
  • “Thunderstruck” by ACDC
  • “Body” by Loud Luxury
  • “Daphne Blue” by The Band CAMINO
  • “Confident” by Justin Bieber & Chance the Rapper

These songs on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/4cxH9eYBpILDKCMg98JImX?si=fbDmrB7ASXm9I7W1ESG2SA

Caroline Daniel is a Student-Athlete running Cross Country and Track at Belmont University while Majoring in Exercise Physiology. She is currently completing her internship at Personal Best Fitness.