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Does Music Help During A Run? The Results Are Mixed

  • By Matt Fitzgerald
  • Published Sep. 12, 2013
The results are inconclusive between listening to music and athletic performance. Photo: www.shutterstock.com

Insights on the effects of music on the running experience and performance.

A number of past studies have explored the effects of music on mood during and after exercise and on exercise performance. Their aggregate results support a general finding that music of the right tempo elevates exercisers’ mood state and increases the sustainable intensity and maximum duration of exercise.

Traditional models of exercise performance cannot explain the second finding because they exclude conscious perceptions as a possible influence on exercise performance. However, research in the past few years by the likes of Samuele Marcora has demonstrated that conscious perceptions are in fact a major influence on exercise performance. A variety of agents, including caffeine ingestion, menthol tongue lozenges, and carbohydrate mouth rinses have been shown to boost exercise performance simply by making exercise feel easier.

Might music work in the same way? Perhaps so, but it remains to be proven.

In the meantime, two 2010 studies deepen our understanding of the effects of music on exercise in other ways. Scientists at the Sport University of Cologne in Germany have observed that various physiological systems operate at a frequency of 3 Hz during running. Movements along the longitudinal axis occur at this frequency and at the same time, the heart contracts at this frequency and even cortical electrical activity exhibits a frequency of 3 Hz.

So, then: Do runners prefer to listen to music with a frequency of 3 Hz when running? The German researchers tested the hypothesis that runners would indeed, and found a very close match between the frequency of the music that a group of runners found most pleasurable to run with and the frequency of their vertical oscillation and brain electrical activity during running.

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The authors of the published study concluded, “Results of this study give reason to speculate that a strong relationship exists between intrinsic and extrinsic oscillation patterns during exercise. A frequency of approximately 3 Hz seems to be dominant in different physiological systems and seems to be rated as pleasurable when choosing the appropriate music for exercising. This is in line with previous research showing that an adequate choice of music during exercise enhances performance output and mood.”

That’s pretty trippy. It essentially means that we are able to consciously perceive when our bodies are vibrating in harmony with their environment during running and that, when this happens, we feel better. But does it also make us run better?

The results of a second new study suggest that the effect of the right music on running performance might depend on whether one is an experienced runner or not. Researchers at the University of Rome gathered together 13 trained runners and 13 active runners and asked them to run to exhaustion at a fixed intensity while listening to music and, on a separate occasion, in silence. They found that music significantly increased time to exhaustion for non-runners, but not for runners. They also found that, while running in silence significantly reduced anxiety levels in both groups, the addition of music reduced anxiety even more in the non-runners while having no effect on runners.

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These results make sense to me. Runners are runners largely because they enjoy running. Non-runners are non-runners because they don’t. Also, running experience cultivates a taste for the sensation of running (whether one has a preexisting taste for the activity or not) and a tolerance for the sensation of endurance fatigue. So it’s not too surprising that the trained runners in this study already enjoyed running so much and were so mentally tough that music could provide no further boost to mood or endurance.

The results of this Italian study are consistent with the results of a 1995 study by researchers at the University of North Carolina, which found that up-tempo music enhanced performance in non-runners and lowered performance in trained runners. And yet, although I am a runner of nearly 30 years experience, I get a huge charge out of passing bands on a Rock ‘n’ Roll event course and I feel there’s got to be something to that.

Further study is required.

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About The Author:

Matt Fitzgerald is the author of numerous books, including Racing Weight: How To Get Lean For Peak Performance (VeloPress, 2012). He is also a Training Intelligence Specialist for PEAR Sports. To learn more about Matt visit www.mattfitzgerald.org.

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