There are many tools, or ergogenic aids, athletes use to improve exercise performance. These include nutrients like carbohydrates, drugs like caffeine, steroids and techniques like blood doping.
Some of these performance-enhancing substances are illegal or banned, so ergogenic aids often have a negative image. Furthermore, many only work for highly trained athletes.
But there is one ergogenic aid that has been shown to enhance performance in everyone. In fact, there is a good chance you use it when you exercise. That ergogenic aid is music.
Music is a psychological ergogenic aid is known to affect mood, emotion and cognition. More and more research also shows that music can also enhance exercise performance. In most gyms, there is music playing in the background, and many people listening to music using headphones while they exercise.
A practical reason is that listening to music makes the exercise more enjoyable by providing a mental distraction. It turns out that music has additional psychological and physiological effects that can improve exercise performance.
Not only can listening to music make exercise more enjoyable, it can also help you get a better workout. Research suggests that when exercise is coupled with motivational music, people tend to exercise at a higher intensity. They also tend to fatigue at a slower rate leading to longer exercise sessions. This is also associated with a lower rating of perceived exertion, meaning the exercise might feel easier!
Tempo is an important aspect of music that contributes to performance. People tend to prefer a tempo that matches the exercise intensity. Fast tempo music fits well with higher intensity exercise, like running, and music with a slower tempo is suited for lower intensity exercise, like yoga.
But music tempo can also influence the intensity of exercise. Music with a faster tempo can promote more vigorous exercise, as measured by a higher heart rate, and a longer distance covered when running or cycling.
Listening to music before exercise can also affect performance. Studies have shown that listening to music prior to exercise can improve motivation, arousal and focus. This is probably why you see athletes warming up before games and races wearing headphones. Research also suggests that listening to music during cool down can decrease recovery times, as measured by blood lactate levels.
While listening to music may increase exercise performance, the benefits vary based on the type of music. First of all, music that a person does not like is unlikely to elicit any positive impact on performance, so pick something you enjoy listening to.
Another factor of music that can influence performance is whether it is synchronous or asynchronous. Synchronous is when a person matches their movements with the music they are listening to, which is particularly effective for running, cycling and rhythmic exercises like aerobics. Asynchronous is when the music and the movements of a person do not match, which may still provide ergogenic benefits for certain types of exercise.
Listening to music during exercise can make your workouts more effective and enjoyable. Music you like can distract you from sensations of intensity and fatigue and lead to longer training sessions. Music played at a fast tempo can make you exercise harder and slower tempo music can help you relax. But you probably knew that already – sometimes sports science makes sense!
What if you prefer to exercise without music or other distractions? Like all ergogenic aids, the additional effect of music is small compared to the great benefits of the exercise itself, so keep doing what you are doing.
Brian Parr, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at USC Aiken where he teaches courses in exercise physiology, nutrition and health behavior. You can learn more about this and other health and fitness topics at http://drparrsays.com or on Twitter @drparrsays.